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6 Ways to Spot Real Gurus

2010 March 14
by Greg Satell

I previously posted an article called 6 Ways to Spot False Gurus, which got an enormous response.  It seems that I really touched a nerve.

While most of the feedback was positive, there was also some criticism.  One woman pointed out (rightfully so) that it was a very negative post.  I do feel that those who profess to advise others should be held to a higher standard.

Thankfully, there are many who meet that standard and are truly worth listening to.  It is probably even more important to spot them as it is to avoid false gurus.

Following the same line of reasoning as the previous article, here are six ways to spot real gurus:

I Am Who I Am

Real gurus tend to have job titles we can understand.  The most obvious are CEOs such as Jack Welch, Andy Grove and Lou Gerstner, all of whom have written highly worthwhile books.  These folks obviously do not need book royalties or speaking fees, but seem to have a real desire to spread the knowledge that they have accumulated through hard experience.

Some, such as Clayton Christensen, Michael Porter and Phillip Kotler are academics who have done breakthrough research.  Still others, such as Chris Anderson and Tom Friedman are journalists, who enjoy access that most of us don’t and are in a great position to observe trends.

I do not mean to suggest that one needs to be a CEO, Professor or a journalist to know anything worthwhile, but it is important to be up front about where you’re coming from.  Descriptors like “guru” and “strategic visionary” don’t tell us much except that somebody thinks they’re smarter than we are.

Real gurus tend to have day jobs.

They Accurately Explain Change in Terms of Cause and Effect

In contrast to the “everything has changed” crowd, real gurus are very clear about what is changing and why.

Clayton Christensen researched highly successful, well managed companies that failed.  This led him to his conclusion that in some circumstances (and he clearly laid out what they were) conventional management techniques had disastrous consequences.

Rather than just assuming that managers of failed companies are always stupid, he re-examined management doctrine.  After years of serious research, he developed his highly influential (and much misunderstood) theory of disruptive innovation.

In a similar fashion, Chris Anderson, in both The Long Tail and Free, points specifically to the drastic decrease in marginal costs in his explanation of the emergence of new business practices.  His work is not nearly as rigorous as Christensen’s, but serious thought is there.

Rigorous Domain Knowledge

Charles Darwin returned from his voyage on the HMS Beagle in 1836, but did write On the Origin of Species until 1858, twenty two years later.  Einstein took ten years to formulate his special theory of relativity and ten years more to develop the general theory.

They both took several wrong turns along the way.  Even geniuses can be mistaken (as Einstein often was in his later career).  True insight doesn’t come easy.

I don’t consider Malcolm Gladwell a real guru, but he does do us the valuable service of pointing out those that are.  Anders Ericsson, whose work featured prominently in Outliers, has studied expertise for decades and has found that it takes ten years and 10,000 hours to get really good at something.  You can download the original paper here (pdf).

Real gurus have done real work.

Real Assessment of Contrary Evidence

Jim Collins can rightfully be called a guru. He writes books that are helpful and insightful.  He doesn’t always get it right, but is eminently worthwhile to read.

One of the things that sets his books apart is that he examines not only successful companies, but also comparisons.  Moreover, not every example fits every conclusion, but he’s careful to point out those instances as well.  He is also extremely transparent about his methodology and data.

Collins knows that the world is messy and insights don’t come in neat little packages.  He not only recognizes that he can be wrong, he provides us with everything we need to refute him.

After writing his first bestseller, Built to Last, Collins was having dinner with a friend who remarked, “I liked your book, but it was completely useless.”  His friend pointed out that Collins merely described companies that were great from the start, not how to convert ordinary companies into winners.

Collins responded to the criticism by undertaking years of research and publishing Good to Great, which profiled businesses which had fifteen years of average performance followed by fifteen years of superior performance.  It became an instant classic.

A Serious Record of Accomplishment

Duncan Watts and Albert-László Barabási are serious social network gurus and not because they can tell us how to use Facebook or Twitter.  Rather, they discovered the basic principles of network theory and published the seminal papers in the field.

Moreover, both have written highly readable, insightful and entertaining books for the general market.  If you are really and truly interested in social networks, go no further until you have read 6 Degrees and Linked, which offer surprisingly practical guides to how our world is connected.

Want to know about the Web?  Why not look to Tim Berners-Lee, who actually invented it?  You can see his TED speech or, even better, take the time to read his book, which is not only incredibly informative, but also a great read.

One of the nice things about real gurus is that they are often (but not always) highly motivated to share their insights and are eager to put complicated concepts into simple terms that the rest of us dummies can understand.  Unlike false gurus, they have nothing to gain by confusing us in order to appear sophisticated.

Humility Before Complexity

In a complex world, wrong turns are inevitable. Many real gurus have failed more than they have succeeded.  Others worked for decades in obscurity.   None are perfect, nor do they profess to be.

Richard Feynman, widely considered one of the great minds of the 20th century, compared himself to a confused ape, because he found the questions he was studying so hard to understand.

When you encounter a real guru, you never get the feeling that success is simple; interesting and rewarding, sure, but not easy.  However, they do make it easier for the rest of us.  They share their experiences and give us the benefit of their mistakes.

What makes a guru real is not that they can point us to the simple path; rather they tell us how to navigate the hard road a bit more dexterously.

– Greg

35 Responses leave one →
  1. Jay Sullivan permalink
    March 14, 2010

    Greg- I read your previous post on false gurus. It was a bit sharp, but you spoke with passion. It did not trouble me. This follow up post gives me some books to read and links to view. Thanks for that.

    I think a real guru is someone who touches us in ways that changes our lives. It is about viewing the world differently.

    A false guru would be someone with a story that draws attention for a short time but has no lasting value.

    Thanks for the ideas.

  2. March 14, 2010


    Thanks. I’m glad it was useful.

    – Greg

  3. March 14, 2010


    Like Jay, I enjoyed both this post and your earlier one on false gurus. In reading through the comments on your earlier post, I noticed that one person recommended Phil Rosenzweig’s book, The Halo Effect. I strongly second that recommendation. Rosenzweig contends that many “guru-written” books on business success (including those by Jim Collins) are seriously flawed. It’s hard to deny that he makes some valid points.

    I think gurus arise and become popular because they appeal to some basic human needs:

    1. We long to find simple answers to complex problems.
    2. In business and in life, we want to identify actions that will produce predictable outcomes.
    3. We want to believe that our success is based on things we can control.

    Gurus give us “stories” that help us make sense of the world. That’s not entirely a bad thing, but it almost always involves at least some oversimplification.
    .-= David Dodd´s last blog ..For Effective Content Marketing, "Form Follows Function" =-.

  4. March 14, 2010


    Good points, especially about the illusion of control.


    – Greg

  5. March 14, 2010

    Well, you’ve done it again; “hit the nail on the head” I have always been ambivalent about people who professs to be able to teach how to do things they have never done or never had the educational background or learning. However there are some exceptions, for instance there are some unusual minds, people who have an almost otherworldly ability to grasp and transfer concepts and ideas who do not necessarily impress us with their so called, “day jobs”.

  6. March 14, 2010

    Yes, there truly are:-)

  7. March 15, 2010

    I love your point about simplicity vs. complexity: “Real gurus are eager to put complicated concepts into simple terms that the rest of us dummies can understand. Unlike false gurus, they have nothing to gain by confusing us in order to appear sophisticated.

    If you ask me, that’s what makes them Gurus! It’s not necessarily the information they have in their heads, but the ability to communicate what they know. It’s clarity that makes them so popular. Here’s more on that subject:
    .-= John Furgurson´s last blog ..Branding in a skeptical world — Two Trends For 2k10 =-.

  8. March 15, 2010

    For me, how one handles contrary information or POVs is the inflection point for guru-ness. Rather than pontificate, gurus engage contrary POVs – they work hard at bringing you into the conversation.

    The fakers post links that support their views and come hell or high water, align themselves to the bitter end (it seems fakers are always accompanied by bitterness), never considering alternative explanations.

    Nice Greg, nice.

    .-= Steve Levy´s last blog ..Following the Big @ss in Front of You =-.

  9. March 15, 2010


    Thanks. I’m glad you liked it.

    – Greg

  10. March 15, 2010


    Hegel lives!


    – Greg

  11. michael fraser permalink
    March 15, 2010

    Nice to see Feynman’s name cited. Fascinating guy: in addition to physics genius, he love playing the drums, traveling to places on the basis of their bizarre names (like Tuva), and topless bars. Check out his several books. Really gurus, like Feynman, don’t go around proclaiming: I am a guru. See my ponytail?

  12. March 16, 2010


    I’m a big Feynman fan as well:-) See this post on Feynman’s 6 Principles of Trendspotting.

    – Greg

  13. March 16, 2010

    Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion said: “Even if a thousand suns and moons rose, they would be unable to remove the darkness of ignorance within the heart. This can only be removed through the grace of the Guru.”

    At the risk of sounding impolitic, if not irreverent, the overuse of the term “social media guru” (from gu (darknes) and ru (light)) is an oxymoron.

    Rather than seek spiritual or other forms of guidance from self-proclaimed experts; allow me to point out the elephant in the room. Social media is based upon moral relativism, not any standards of moral conduct.

    The mantra “follow me and I’ll get you more followers” or “teeth whitening secrets revealed!” or “you’re what Google says you are” are all iterations of the oft-attributed quote to P.T. Barnum: “there’s a sucker born every minute.” [Actually, it was David Hannum who spoke in reference to Barnum’s part in the Cardiff Giant hoax].

    Followers of gurus should interpret the moral behavior of a teacher. Social media is amoral. We’re better off not praying to false gods but by following Ockham’s razor andusing common sense, which, regrettably, seems to be in very short supply these days.

  14. March 17, 2010


    That’s some elephant! Following William’s advice, I’ll be careful not to multiply it unnecessarily:-)

    – Greg

  15. March 19, 2010

    Great post, Greg! I think you’re on-point on both posts (this one and “…False Gurus”). I still think conversation has its place. The thing is, nobody wants to talk to someone that only talks about themselves, and many brands/businesses fall into that trap. I personally hate the term guru.

  16. March 19, 2010


    Yeah, guru is a pretty crappy term. It makes me think of smelly feet.

    – Greg

  17. March 21, 2010


    Thanks for responding to the call for this insightful look into what makes someone a good guru; someone worth listening to.

    As I read it, my mind wandered to another important measure of a true guru: finding effective new ways to package timeless truths. “There is nothing new under the sun,” it has been said. Just new ways to apply ancient principles.

    Inherent in most worthy guru teachings are threads of universal, time-tested truths that are easily recognized no matter the new wrapper.

    I thought immediately of Dale Carnegie, who repackaged things we already knew into a format that the regular guy could apply to become more effective. He made understanding powerful principles easy, though applying them still required discipline and tenacity.

  18. March 31, 2010

    I came back to reread your post thinking that most folks don’t desire to be a ‘guru.’ Very often we work because we really like what we do. I met a famous journalist turned author and explained what I did for a living. While this person wrote a book based mostly on observations, and an educational background in two fields. He signed my book “To Jim for doing all the hard work…..” I may never write a book – yet if I do anything of significance I would hope to share that with others. Does that make me a guru? Jeez I hope not….. one reason for looking to learn about Social Media is so that we can ‘share’ experiences. The fun is in finding like minded folk.
    Thanks for your post. As always very insightful.
    .-= Jim Sabogal´s last blog ..New Research Model to Accelerate Drug Development =-.

  19. March 31, 2010


    I think you hit the nail on the head! People who truly love what they do have no need to call themselves a guru.

    – Greg

  20. April 13, 2010

    Maybe I missed it, in your post, but wouldn’t the criteria for a real guru, at least in business, be someone whose ideas that are easy enough to understand and that people use them and get tangible results, i.e. make more money?

  21. April 14, 2010


    I guess easy is a relative term. Clay Christensen’s ideas on disruptive innovation seem like they’re simple enough, but nevertheless people still get them wrong.

    – Greg

  22. April 14, 2010

    Hi Greg,

    I liked your post first time around and find it amusing that twenty somethings are pronouncing themselves as Gurus in everything from social media to SEO and yet probably don’t even own a passport….to me Guru has to do with Worldliness and mastery of domain.

    I’m with you on Anders Erickson although Geoffrey Colvin got the money, add Everett Rogers to this list, Diffusion of Innovations spawned numerous interpretations and Tony Buzan the guy who originated brain pattern thinking, and author of Getting to Yes, William Ury and his mentor Robert Fisher, to name but a few.

    A couple of people I consider Web 2.0 guru’s are Seth Godin and David Meerman Scott…original thinkers and leaders with consistent, high quality output that are leading massive cultural shifts by changing the way people think.

    Great post and quality comments.
    All the best,

  23. April 14, 2010


    Thanks gor the tips/ I hadn’t heard of Everett Roger, Tony Buzan or William Ury. I’ll be sure to look them up.

    – Greg

  24. Bruce Bixler permalink
    May 15, 2010

    I really liked this post. Real Gurus are found, people seek them out, they are not self made.

  25. May 15, 2010

    Thanks, Bruce.

    Have a nice weekend.

    – Greg

  26. Jim Hart permalink
    May 15, 2010


    Great post.

    After working in my field for 23 years, I was encouraged to go out on my own as a consultant 6 years ago.

    On a couple of occasions I’ve had people introduce me as the guru and it just makes me cringe. I’m no smarter than the folks I’m brought in to work with, I’ve just made most of the mistakes you can make and I’ve had the great pleasure of gaining new perspectives from a lot of clients.

    In my first meeting with the front line folks, I usually start something like this; ” OK, this is your chance to get some stuff done that you’ve been suggesting for years. I don’t have any magic dust and you folks are closer to this than anybody. My job is to help us get there with no false starts or do-overs, avoid the potholes. You folks are the ones who are going to have to own this, because you are the ones who will have to make it work long after I’m gone.”

    I have a couple of competitors who have a fraction of the experience and they tend to get really arrogant when someone questions their position on something. Ironically, they seem to think of themselves as guru’s.

    Reminds me of Margaret Thatchers quote; “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, then you aren’t.”


  27. May 15, 2010


    Thanks. Best of luck to you.

    – Greg

  28. Barry Horowitz permalink
    June 1, 2010

    The proof is in the pudding – always will be. I have not met a guru yet – I only meet and value people who have done, learned from it and stuck with it to the point of supporting it. The key question I ask of gurus – “How many TRUE lifecycles have you actually completed?” I dont care about the number of years of suggesting and recommending – how many have you survived?

  29. June 1, 2010


    As someone who’s been through a few lifecycles (in post-communist Europe no less!), I couldn’t agree more.

    – Greg

  30. August 19, 2010

    Good insight! Please consider Tom Davenport who is both a professor and author. His book regarding the attention economy, although over ten years old, is still excellent.
    Another person who you may want to consider is Saul Wurman, who besides starting TED, wrote information Anxiety quantifying the impact of too much information versus the pen/paper world he experienced.

  31. August 19, 2010

    Thanks for the tips, Ron!

    – Greg

  32. August 19, 2010

    the real gurus dont make these lists.:)

    wurman and jay doblin are good examples….

    as is em forster for the 1909 “Machine Stops”

    since he pegged relevancy and value as fodder for the machine, before most any did.

  33. August 19, 2010

    Interesting perspective. Thanks for sharing.

  34. July 12, 2019

    I enjoyed reading this followup to your previous article, Greg. Unfortunately I do not share your admiration of Feynman.

    Because he was frequently abusive toward women. There were also accusations of rape, which as with many famous men, were/are ignored by legions of devotees. Similarly his abuse and misogyny were excused as the “quirks” of intelligence.

    Please see the following article to get started on this aspect of Feynman. Thanks for keeping an open mind,

    — Mary

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