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6 Ways to Spot False Gurus

2010 March 7
tags: ,
by Greg Satell

Let me give you some advice…

In the fast moving, hypercompetitive inflection point that is business today, only the strong will survive.  You need to get with the program or get eaten alive.

There are a lot of metaphor mixing, self proclaimed gurus out there to guide your way.  You can do yourself a world of good by listening to what they have to say and then doing the opposite.

Here are six ways to spot them:

I’m So Beautiful!

As my good friend Cheryl Andonian points out, most false gurus are self appointed.  They describe themselves as with terms such as “visionary,” “expert” and “thought leader” on their LinkedIn profiles.

I had one guy come to my site, make a grossly misinformed comment and then direct me to his “award winning site.”  I went there and found that he has a preference for fluorescent pink fonts and no comments or retweets. He also writes books that he describes as “best selling” and “award winning.”  (They’re not.)

In his description of himself, he said that he “gets up some people’s nose.”  No kidding!

Everything Has Changed!

At the dawn of the internet age, the popular TV show 60 Minutes had a new media guru on who said something to the effect of “I’m in the business of putting you out of business.”

I don’t know what ever happened to the guy nor do I remember his name, but 60 minutes is still a top 20 show and the owner, CBS, made over $200 million in net income and $13 billion in revenues last year, at the height of the crises.

False gurus also have the annoying habit of asserting that everybody is coming around to their way of thinking, except for the ones who haven’t “gotten it yet.”  They say things like, “it’s all about the conversation” as if nobody has anything better to do than interact with every brand they are considering.

As Neicole Crepeau points out in a very well documented article, the vast majority of consumers do not want to have a conversation with a business (I guess they have friends).

Checking Facts is a Waste of Time

Once an ego gets big enough, facts seem to become irrelevant. Why do the hard work of research if you already know everything?

Chris Brogan and Julien Smith, in their book Trust Agents, tell us to “stop doing your own books and research.”  That’s for little people, I guess.  Being a guru is about getting the message out there.  Presumably, it doesn’t matter what the message is as long as you find your “tribe.”

When I first started blogging, I noticed a post by Erik Qualman taking Boeing to task for an ad campaign that didn’t make sense to him.  He didn’t know what the brief was, nor was he privy to the results, but nevertheless just assumed that Boeing was in error.

Qualman, who has never managed a brand himself, would tell them how to do it right, because, in his words, they “just weren’t cutting it.”

My Experience is Global

Probably the most irksome habit of false gurus is confusing the anecdotal with the universal.  I guess if you don’t check facts, then first hand experience is all you have to go on.

Unfortunately, a world of six billion people tends to be a messy place.  As I wrote in my response to Qualman, once you get out into the world a little bit, you start to realize that local environments differ widely (to be fair,  Qualman was very gracious in his response to me).

People in different places value different things.  In some places life is dear, in others it is cheap.  Some people value their health, others money, still others status.  Everybody wants something, but it’s usually something different.

If you have a story, tell it to your mother.  Don’t assume that your story is my story or that it has some kind of cosmic significance.

I’ve Done Nothing, but Know Everything

Another thing that caught my eye in Trust Agents was that Brogan took great pride in the fact that he could work out of a coffee shop.  I admit, it sounds nice.  Unless, of course, you have a business to run, staff to manage and train or any real responsibility to solve problems of any significance.

Interestingly, Brogan and Smith do give very good blogging tips in their book, a subject in which they clearly do have experience and expertise.  Unfortunately, knowledge in one area doesn’t automatically transfer to others.

I must admit, though, Brogan, Smith and Qualman are small beer when compared to the biggest sham artists of all: Al Ries and Jack Trout, who describe themselves on their web sites respectively as “legendary marketing strategist” and the “world’s foremost marketing strategist.”

They have written a host of best selling books, get astronomical speaking fees and according their web sites, have been profiled in every major media outlet imaginable.  The only thing they haven’t done is actually build or manage a brand.

I guess that actually making a contribution, like checking facts, is a waste of time for self professed marketing geniuses.

It’s all so Simple!

Why does anybody listen to false gurus?  Because they promise a simpler, easier way of doing things.  I guess things are simple if you don’t have to check facts, manage staff, deal with real world problems or fight off vigorous competition trying to thwart you at every step.

Why go through mountains of data, perform statistical regressions, design mind numbing logical algorithms or lay awake nights trying worrying about how to make the payroll if you can earn a living telling people to ignore life’s cumbersome realities?  False gurus are, in effect, cargo cult marketers for whom ideas transcend facts.

Being good at anything isn’t easy.  It takes years of hard work, stupid mistakes and all of the trials and tribulations that come with the constant struggle to get better at what you do.  That’s why there are so few really competent people.  It’s not easy, but very, very hard.

With that said, if you still aren’t convinced and would like to know a simple, easy way to get rich in online media, just send $10.00 to

($9.99 for those who are wearing a “I LOVE TONTO” t-shirt – this week only!)

– Greg

132 Responses leave one →
  1. May 21, 2010


    Here’s the companion post: 6 Ways to Spot Real Gurus:

    – Greg

  2. June 2, 2010

    Comeon Greg… Brogan and Jack Trout, false gurus that haven’t built a brand?

    Last time I checked, Chris Brogan WAS the brand.

    No offense bro, I like your stuff, but you’re nowhere near the neon headliner status of those two.

    Also, the last time I checked, brand marketing was giving way to direct marketing… because people have figured out that agencies are full of nonsense, and their Oglvy-esque golden age era of advertising doesn’t work on the web.

  3. June 2, 2010

    Thanks for sharing your perspective Michael.

    – Greg

  4. June 3, 2010

    I found myself nodding vigorously as I read the post, and then the comments. But where do gurus come from – how do they start out?

    Here in Brussels, where everything online happens slower and later, I’ve got a ringside seat as certain people pull themselves up by their bootstraps to become “gurus” in the art of applying social media to the arcane area of EU communications.

    It’s like watching the evolution of a new and quite noxious species of weed.

    These guys have discovered only one thing – to know slightly more than the people they’re talking to. And that’s not hard.

    They don’t have time to learn anything else, because while becoming a guru doesn’t require skills and experience, it does require a lot of networking, offline and online – the self-promotion and -marketing Cheryl and Brandt mention is critical. Those of us who are busy actually doing stuff don’t have time for that.

    So becoming a guru seems very much a question of “those who can, do; while those who can’t, teach”.

    Max makes a good point about the fact that these guys to multiply the knowledge of ‘real gurus’, but first let me quote from an old rant of mine on the subject (

    “Whenever technology throws up a new medium, you get your early adopters [who] … become experts, build a career on it and write a book.

    As they go out to hawk their book, agencies glimpse a bandwagon and hire them to impress their clients. They score work, so more agencies do the same. The number of “experts” then explodes as:
    – demand is high
    – real experts are rare
    – agencies and their clients can’t tell the difference

    Then the new media goes mainstream… the “Dummies for” edition hits the shelves … and the original expert has moved on to a new field or had kids, got a mortgage and become a manager.”

    This is the point where the wheat gets separated from the chaff – most people understand the new medium, and so start asking the guru this killer question: “Fine, but what have you actually DONE?”

  5. June 3, 2010


    Thanks for an absolutely fantastic comment! I especially liked:

    “It’s like watching the evolution of a new and quite noxious species of weed.”

    Indeed it is:-)

    – Greg

  6. June 3, 2010


    I like your common sense style and writings.

    I felt compelled to comment. I still feel shame even to write this now years later–as It is all my responsibility.

    First, on this article you are so correct about false Guru’s. I fell prey to a few in the past that cost me a lot. Trust me when I say a lot–I am at this time recovering from these self proclaimed gurus some 6 years later. So I wanted to share a little about my story for your readers. Maybe they can avoid what happened to me.

    One of my first lessons: The “gurus” will smell you from a mile away and masquerade as friends with knowledge, experience, and insight. They will convince you that you cannot do without them–me being in the need for serious professional services at the time believed I had the right person or team. Some of these people you may already know in your regular business circle.

    If you know you have a good profitable project or you are a serious about your start up and or have attracted capitol into your business–then expect the wolves.(no ill intent towards wolves here)

    The story? I was a high end furniture manufacturer who got a huge contract for making boutique hotel furniture and if successful in delivering the first hotel would mean more hotels. During the middle of the project, the hotel Sr. management was not reacting fast enough to our RFI’s. This set our schedule back months as we were headed for disaster. Thankfully for us the hotel kept to the contract and paid all late fees, changes, and storage. The self proclaimed gurus in my arena were some of my sub contractors who just fell apart and became adversarial. Some completely refused to send invoices for the extra fees involved and saw this as an opportunity to take advantage of the situation. So, during a monthly visit from the lear-jet landing party–the hotel saw that the sample room furniture was not complete as promised by me. I shouldn’t have listened to my subs–i knew something was wrong and I believed in what the guru’s were telling me–at one point I was accused of micro-managing, what?

    I was in deep shock the day I figured out what was happening….how was I going to handle my mistake at choosing these idiots-explain it to the management team at the hotel? How was I going to present a unified front to my clients so we could keep the project alive?

    Needless to say, I was in too deep with the project and ended up building all the components in house which we were not completely prepared for. My gurus almost took me under because I believed them. Even during some of our in house meetings about their failures, they demanded payments for components never even started! I barely satisfactorily completed the project without being sued and these gurus still owe me lots of money I will never see. During the process I fell behind on other projects and ended up closing the doors–we could have made it big time –real clients, real goods, and real old school business.
    You might like to know that during one of our proposal meetings one of these gurus became so indignant that he proclaimed that, “we didn’t need this project–there are lots of opportunities out there!” I asked myself, I should have walked when I had the chance.

    My advice, Listen to your common sense, follow up on your insights with fact discovery, and read Greg’s posts. Greg may have more ways to avoid this kind of crap and I am wiling to listen.


  7. June 4, 2010


    Thanks for sharing your story. It offers some important lessons.

    Good luck to you in the future.

    – Greg

  8. June 4, 2010

    Hi to Greg and all,

    “Listen. Ooh wah ooh. Do you want to know a secret. Ooh wah ooh. Do you promise not to tell. I’m in love with me! I’ve known a secret for a week or two. Nobody knows it, just we two.”

    In trying to make the point that this could be the theme song for many of the self appointed gurus floating in the ether, my thanks, admiration and apologies for messing with a great old song by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

    Ooh wah ooh, I got an email from above this morning. He says in his sermon, “I’m an internationally-recognized and industry-leading expert…who specializes in reviewing …work at home systems and business in a box products”, he says he says. He then blesses us with a magic link to ‘the only programs that work’. Ooh wah ooh.

    With 25+ years as a business intermediary, on this planet, while I do enjoy the entertainments of the moment, I am stuck for the most part in reality, as unglamorous and unguru as that may be.

    I do have one brilliant thought to share, just in time for summer. Broccoli would be so much better if it were made of meat and slathered in sauce, and chocolate. Ooh wah ooh.

    Best regards,

    Dan McDevitt

  9. June 4, 2010


    Thanks for brightening up my Friday (although I actually like broccoli just the way it is:-)

    Have a great weekend.

    – Greg

  10. June 6, 2010


    Instead of warning people about false Gurus, what do you think they ‘d think of you, did you think about that, hwat does that make you? A guru? maybe a false one

  11. June 7, 2010

    I’m nit sure Joe. What do you think?

    – Greg

  12. June 7, 2010

    Hi Greg,
    You responded to a different post on LinkedIn and, with interest, I clicked on your website & found this great post. First of all, thanks for introducing me to some folks I had not heard of – I will check them out. I think they have some good things to say.

    Secondly, I am a recovering “guru-admirer.” I used to put people on a pedestal mostly because I rarely thought most people were smarter (use whatever adjective fits) than me.

    After reading a great book by Dr. Angeles Arrien (“The Four-Fold Way”), I finally understood what I was doing: 1) When I over-idealize people I am more likely to be victimized by them because people are only human & they _will_ disappoint us sooner or later. 2) When I put someone one a pedestal, I am not stepping into my own leadership. I’m hiding and giving away my power.

    Where I’ve landed with gurus is that _everyone_ is a guru in their own way. I have something to learn from everyone, and it’s up to me to trust myself to know what is right for me.

    It takes guts to be the leader of yourself. So, be your own guru, hero, warrior, beacon, author …

    BTW in your response to Joe: Of course you’re a guru because you’ve decided to put yourself out there and say/write something you believe to be true. And … we get to choose whether or not we believe you. I think you’re doing great! Keep it coming…

  13. June 7, 2010

    Oops … I meant to say I thought most people were smarter than me … not I rarely thought most people were smarter than me. LOL!

  14. June 7, 2010


    Thank you for such a nice comment. Although, please don’t call me a guru. Ever since I read the Grand Inquisitor, the concept really scares me!

    – Greg

  15. June 7, 2010

    Don’t worry. Freud was a cocaine addict:-))

  16. June 21, 2010

    I have a group. It goes something like this:
    “Hello, my name is Michael. I believe IMANUT.”

    Want to join?

    IMANUT stands for Internet Marketers Are Not Usually Trustworthy,

    Oddly, I spend a large chunk of time writing and interacting on the Internet. “Not Usually” means there are still plenty of people who listen to. Just as in the streets we walk, caution and care is needed when connecting virtually or in a book. Trust but Verify does not go away in life because it is on a screen and conversation with a keyboard. What you speak of is nothing new. There are simply more soap boxes to stand on.

    To your point.
    Everyone is a Guru to someone. (oddly, even me)
    Learn one new thing from every person I meet or teach someone one new thing.

    So if we can simply start with “Hello, I believe IMANUT”.
    Then be sure to remember ‘Trust but Verify”
    Top of mind is: “Just cause you say it to be so don’t make is so.”

    Even the true gurus are not valuable.
    An engineer with 20 years of experience said he could help me build a car that flies for under $30k”
    OK. What will I do with a flying car? How far? Where?
    He is a guru and could help me do it. I could learn from the best. Not helpful to my vision though.

    So maybe the next topic could be: “Choosing any Guru”? You think / write well land would love to see your brain spew onto paper / screen. 🙂

    The next guru could be the boy on the street corner who happens to know where the best burgers in town are and how to get there.

    It could be the person only 5 steps ahead of me in a process for developing products.

    They both could be wrong. Have to consider the source.

    I like Chris Brogan. He has a good message. On the other hand? I have been in the restaurant ownership game and applied “social marketing” to its fullest extent for decades. Having new tools to bring more awareness simply proves the point I have made for many years. Chris validates many of the principles I have used for years. I will remain a fan. (Even if he works in a coffee shop)

    I think it might boil down to “Intent”.
    If everyone could wear a shirt, button, pin, or lamp shade on their head.
    If it would change colors based on the intent of the wearer.
    There are givers. There are takers.
    Just like the rings and stones that tell you how lovable you are.

    Personally I walk the fine line. Social Services Giver Heart daily combating the Capitalistic Make More Money Head. I am Homer Simpson. I am a Guru.

    I am a self proclaimed Professor of Magic Marketing which leaves me a little guilty of what you speak of. That is ok. My shirt glows: Give. So it’s all good. Right?

    At your service… and I like your style.
    Michael Hartzell
    Self Appointed Professor of Magic Marketing

    Google “self proclaimed professor of magic marketing” Should be fun. 🙂

  17. June 21, 2010

    Thanks for sharing, Michael.

    – Greg

  18. June 25, 2010

    Greg (whom I now affectionately refer to as Yoda),

    Beers on me if I ever make it to Turkey. I actually laughed out loud…it was like hearing myself give advice to, well, the low information shopper. Bless ’em, but they are starting to catch on. But we had to start putting ourselves out there as individuals (versus the company) and as experts, to get through the muddied waters…and it seems to be spread across technical industries. Remind me to tell you about the Mobile Barbour/Expert Web Design company someday. Just think of the SEO possibilities…

    Thanks for another great post. And hope you don’t mind me pointing folks at it…that’s kind of he point right?

  19. June 25, 2010


    Thanks (and the link is much appreciated).

    Best of luck with

    – Greg

  20. Marie still permalink
    June 26, 2010

    Thanks for such a great post! I always tell my team to beware the expert and never think of yourself as one. If you get it in your head that you are an expert then you run the risk of cutting yourself off from learning, and no matter where you are in your career, you can always learn more.

  21. June 26, 2010


    Thanks! And great post on the anatomy of a brand.

    – Greg

  22. Linda Poole permalink
    August 19, 2010

    Where do I get the t- shirt?

  23. August 19, 2010

    Actually, like many “gurus,” it’s a false t-shirt:-)

    – Greg

  24. August 20, 2010

    Happily, I discovered your great blog at the end of 2009. You always display a great deal of “common sense” and I love the thought that goes into your subjects.

    As a retired teacher, I started blogging seven years ago about the same time I formed LYLOFILM to produce 2D and 3D CGI films. After thousands of blogs on several sites (many of my blogs just involved abbreviating and relaying information that others had written), I began interjecting my own thoughts several years ago and that led to writing longer articles.

    I was always a teacher but I never considered myself a guru until I noticed that someone had called me a “new media guru of sorts” (whatever that means) after reading one of my first articles. And now, after reading your article, I question if I am a “true” or a “false” guru “of sorts”.

    In 2008, I simply noted the dramatic changes that have taken place and looking for a scapegoat, I blamed everything on George.

    In any event, congratulations on your birthday, God bless and keep up the great work.

  25. August 20, 2010


    Thanks a lot. I just checked out your site and it’s extremely impressive! I’m always amazed with what truly creative people can come up with. Best of luck to you and Simona

    For everybody else, Stanley’s site is a great example of how flash can be used well on a site that doesn’t suck (and isn’t heavy either). You can find it here:

    – Greg

  26. August 20, 2010

    When I was younger, I was brilliant. As I got older, for some reason, Watts are continually being shaved off the old light bulb. I look back at when I was called a “guru” on servers and storage. I have to admit that I had such contempt for those who put me on that pedestal. All I did was tell them what they already knew but were either too scared to trust their instincts, too lazy to do their job or suffered from what I affectionately call “selective ignorance” (choosing not to know on their own).

    I’m with Diane. Smart people usually give others the benefit of the doubt and trust self-proclaimed expertise only to be consistently underwhelmed. Consequently, I developed a little social experiment about 15 years ago that changes everything. Trust people up to a point where beyond that point, the damage they could do couldn’t be undone. Basically, have no expectations that people will follow through with what they have to say–verbal flatulence. If they follow through, they have exceeded your expectations. As a result, the morale boost is huge! I always feel like I won the lottery when someone follows through.

    I guess you could call my demeanor “cynical.” I prefer to call it pragmatic. If you ever want to have some fun with a “guru,” pick a subject that you don’t know anything about. Approach the subject matter as if you were going to start up your own business with it. Ask lots of basic questions. Gradually, increase the complexity but don’t leave a question unanswered to your satisfaction. If they don’t get speed wobbles, they might be for real. It’s a great practice to use if you have to evaluate research: The methodology tells you what it’s really saying.

    Thanks Greg! I enjoyed the reading!

  27. August 20, 2010

    Good advice. Thanks, Chris!

    – Greg

  28. August 20, 2010

    Great post! I have been bumping my gums about so called ‘gurus’ a lot over the last couple of weeks. They are so damaging to the industry. You can read my thoughts over on The Social Penguin Blog –

  29. August 20, 2010

    Thanks, Mike. I agree that social media is probably harmed by its most fervent advocates. There’s a lot of value there, but it’s got to fit in with everything else.

    – Greg

  30. Aaron Belson permalink
    April 19, 2013

    Many good points but beg to differ on one main one re: Ries and Trout – have never run a brand – but many movie critics have never directed a movie – many NFL coaches never actually played – we criticize the president and government but have never held office – so insightful and objective criticisms and suggestions cannot be limited to those who have “done” it – and those who do are not wrong just for that reason – otherwise interesting and pretty accurate assessment of the guru mystique (even though I’ve never written a blog, or been a guru).

  31. April 19, 2013

    Sorry, Aaron. I’m not sure that those analogies hold. Movie critics don’t sell books about how to make a movie (just to consumers about whether they might want to watch it). Not all NFL coaches played in the NFL, but I’m pretty sure they all played the game before and coached at a lower level before they became NFL coaches.

    Ries and Trout aren’t critiquing from the sense that they like or don’t like something, they are actually giving suggestions on how to market.

    – Greg

  32. huzefa permalink
    April 30, 2015

    Great points Greg!

    Many of these “gurus” are simply reporters. You’ll find their books peppered with “best practices” borrowed from successful organisations. When the book becomes a best seller, voilà! the guru becomes an expert in that practice.

    But there is something to be said about successful coaches, not gurus. Dozens of great coaches have been very average players, so there are some very different qualities they bring to the process of coaching that makes them successful. In such cases, asking “what have you DONE?” is less relevant than asking “what are you DOING that adds VALUE?”

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