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by Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

The world of the modern management guru is alluring. The top thinkers are the rock stars of the business world. Feted at every turn, their devoted disciples hang on their every word. MBAs huddle at their feet. Corporations and publishers shower them with dollar bills like confetti at a wedding.

Not surprisingly, then, there are guru-wannabes aplenty. Beneath the stars there exists a nebulous cloud of mini gurus competing for attention. Consultants, business school academics, CEOs and the occasional business journalist wait, poised for their big break. These are the guritos – or baby gurus. Their light is not so bright, but they live in hope.

Some of the guritos will one day make it into the premier league. Many more will never achieve the stardom they seek but will build moderately successful secondary careers as national, rather than global, speakers and pundits. The problem is that the guru business is largely personality driven – rather than purely ideas driven.

Sure, you need a good first idea, but beyond that, a place at the top table requires something more. The true stars have pizzazz, stage presence and a certain cultish appeal. Any one who has actually seen Tom Peters strut his stuff would admit that the man has talent. Peters is a natural stage performer.

Even the academics who have reached the dizzying heights of gurudom – people like Gary Hamel and Peter Senge – share this ability to entertain as well as inform. They enthuse audiences with their ideas. The guru aims for maximun impact. His or her stock in trade are one-liners and drum-roll statistics. Entertainment and enlightenment are fused into something approaching an art form. The good ones make it look almost effortless, but the skills of the guru are manifold.

What does it take to be a guru? Hard to say. Timing is important, being in the right place at the right time with the right idea has got many a guru started. But to stay at the top they need some other characteristics. An original turn of mind helps, but in most cases there is also an indeciperable mix of charisma, academic gravitas and real world credibility.

They are typically very bright people and know it, which can manifest itself as arrogance or, alternatively, as disarming modesty (real or projected). A deep competitive streak is also par for the course and a genuine fascination with the activity of business. To become a fully paid up member of the guru union takes entrepreneurial zeal – and an large appetite for money and influence.

Overall, to be a serious contender for the major league, it helps to have some of the following:

  • The name of a major business school on your resumé (Harvard is good, so is Stanford. In Europe, INSEAD, LBS or IMD are popular).

  • Some serious academic research under you belt.

  • A best selling business book (or two) to your name (mass market).

  • Be associated with a particular concept or area. Best of all is to actually coin the concept by giving it popularizing name. (Actual originality is less important; most new concepts are old ones with a new twist.)

  • A regular place on the guru speaking circuit, flitting effortlessly and with very few changes to your speech, from one major event to another.

  • The nerve to charge a ridiculously large fee (plus excessive expenses) to turn up and give the same talk you’ve given hundreds of times before.

  • Polished performing skills – somewhere between a stand-up comedian and a university lecturer.

  • An animated delivery style - shout a lot and bang your fist on the lectern.

  • The knack of turning complex ideas into punchy one-liners.

From here it’s just a short hop onto the international speaking circuit and the huge fees that accompany it.

All this makes the life of the guru seem vaguely comical. But, gurus wield real power. Their influence extends from the boardroom to the shopfloor and beyond. Their views and insights are sought by the CEOs of the biggest corporations in the world; and many more. Increasingly, they have the ear of the people that matter.

Some, like Michael Porter, act as consultants and advisers to national governments. (Porter has carried out economic studies for India, New Zealand and Canada among others). New economy guru Esther Dyson advises Michael Dell. Anthony Robbins, the motivational guru, boasts a colorful client list which includes members of two royal families, Andre Agassi and the US Army. provides the world’s first complete on-line guru information service. If you want to keep up to date with whose thinking what and whose wielding the real power in the business world simply log on.

Stuart Crainer & Des Dearlove

Founders of Suntop Media and creators of the Thinkers 50.


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