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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. March 9, 2010


    Thanks for keeping it clean:-)

    – Greg

  2. Marama Castle-Brown permalink
    March 10, 2010

    Hi Greg

    I do enjoy your articles and the conversations that stem from. You must get the crowd going at dinner parties! In New Zealand, the Maori have a word ‘Mana’ – In one word, it means authority. Used in context of this discussion, it refers to someone who has earned respect & authority from their peers, by the sharing of their knowledge and deeds. You just know when you are reading (or listening to) a person of Mana.

    I do agree with Gavin though. An expert does not have to be someone who has taken a bullet, to be an expert on how to dodge one. Although, the guy who took the bullet and lives to tell the tale…now that’s Mana!

    My 10 cents worth 🙂


  3. David Bonyun permalink
    March 10, 2010

    Thank you for a very accurate article. I’ve been following SEO gurus who almost universally rank at 3 or below on Google. What brings them sales? They tell people what they want to hear and offer an easy solution. The irony is that if they spent the same amount of time working ethically, they would probably be more successful.

  4. March 10, 2010


    You bring up a good point. Some false gurus are unethical. However, I think most are fooling themselves more than anybody else.

    – Greg

  5. March 10, 2010

    If I only fit five of the six criteria, would that make me a false guru or would I get partial credit for being 17% truthful? ;=}
    .-= Irwin R. Kramer´s last blog ..Auto Scams =-.

  6. March 10, 2010


    That’s a very good question that only a guru would know the answer to. Unfortunately, I am not one:-)

    – Greg

  7. March 10, 2010

    Great post, Greg! Valuable and I had real fun reading it. Thanks!

  8. March 10, 2010

    Thanks, Stanek.

    – Greg

  9. March 10, 2010

    Great blog post!

    I read a lot of the mentioned “gurus” but sometimes I find the most valuable information coming from case studies where emarketing managers/directors in the trenches detail “real world” examples of putting theory into practice.

    I find this provides some of the most actionable information vs. the theoretical “guru” advice.

    .-= Stefanie´s last blog ..SRKellyOnline: Great blog post – 6 Ways to Spot False Gurus from @digitaltonto #emarketing =-.

  10. March 10, 2010


    I agree. Going through the hardship of doing something everyday gives you insight that false gurus can’t match.

    – Greg

  11. March 10, 2010

    I really loved this post. This is my first time coming to your blog and I am definitely coming back again!

    I come into this post from a different perspective: I graduated college three years ago, and now I’m trying to break into social media and marketing after a stint in non-profits. Communicating and brand development are my passions. I consider myself a social media “nerd” first and foremost.

    Gurus are important in helping people like me understand those initial basic ideas that are driving the industry, but they also create this sense of “everything is already known, so don’t bother trying to form your own ideas.” I actually read an “expert” blogger who said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “There have been social media experts around for years. Don’t bother writing about the same crap that’s already been written because we already have you beat.”

    It’s incredibly discouraging to read something like that when you’re trying to find your niche in an ever-changing profession. These days, I try to take what I read with a grain of salt and maintain my sense of adventure, passion and love for my career path.

  12. March 11, 2010

    I also like the false-gurus who lecture us: Why don’t we stop procrastinating, quit our cubicle job like they did? Why don’t’ we follow our dreams and earn a living sitting at home, twittering and blogging?

    There’s a bit of smugness there..they’re basically implying that we’re screw-ups, because we’re not “Self-Actualizing” like they are.

    And then you read-between-the-lines. Often these gurus have a spouse/significant other working behind the scenes helping subsidize their lifestyle. (And/or) they scrape by and can barely pay the rent or their groceries.

    In fact, I’ve even seen Gurus BEG on-line for money, because they need some cash to help make ends meet.

    …and the sad thing is…people donate! In fact, the gurus might even get praised for being honest and not afraid to ask for help.

    Just goes to prove…once you’re a guru…you can do no wrong. Everything you do smells like oven-fresh cinnamon buns.

  13. March 11, 2010


    I’ll break one of my rules here and give you some unsolicited advice: Forget about social media and start learning about social networks.

    Social Media is a questionable business for a variety of reasons which I won’t go into. While it is a very important phenomenon, tagging yourself as a “social media person” this early in your career is probably not a good idea.

    The new science of social networks, however, encompasses social media and lots of other very important things form viral marketing to ecology to cancer research (while the research started with social networks it was quickly found that the same rules applied to all networks).

    The field is only slightly more than a decade old and the pioneers are in their professional prime. Duncan Watts, who wrote the seminal paper, is very much marketing oriented and is now doing research at Yahoo! (although he is still affiliated with Columbia).

    This post gives a basic overview how the theory of social networks came about and this one gives a perspective on viral and big seed marketing.

    You can also put “network theory” into the search bar and find about ten articles (it’s a big interest of mine).

    Good luck!

    – Greg

  14. March 11, 2010


    You touch on an important point: Self-appointed gurus often fool themselves more than anybody else.

    It’s similar to waiting tables and bar tending after college. For a few years, it seems that you are getting ahead of your friends that have regular jobs, but in the end you find that you miss paying your dues and hurt your career in the long run.

    If you’re diligent about blogging and social media, you can build a following in less than a year, but you’re also not building crucial real world skills. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but the former is much easier than the latter.

    – Greg

  15. March 11, 2010

    Really enjoyed the article. “I’ve done nothing, but know everything,” especially struck a chord with me. I see a lot of people these days who have hung out their own shingle and are now career coaches or life coaches. When I check out their backgrounds, I find it astounding that they would even consider themselves qualified to mentor others in this respect, or that individuals would be coming to them and *paying them* for their services.

    There’s something very American though about the mindset that anyone can do anything, regardless of their background. Less than 10 years ago, it was “anyone can make a fortune starting a dot com.”

    I guess you have to give credit to the ones that pull it off, whether they are self-appointed social media gurus, life coaches, or financial advisors. With somewhere around 14 million people unemployed here in the US by some estimates, anyone who is able to set himself or herself apart from the pack has done something right.

    … Hmmmm … Maybe I should start charging for all the free advice I give, and write a best seller. How hard can it be. 🙂

  16. March 11, 2010


    You touch on an interesting point. The “guru” thing does seem to be a somewhat American phenomenon, that doesn’t have the same resonance overseas (at least that’s been my impression).

    On the one hand, it’s that kind of enthusiasm that makes the country so dynamic, on the other rigor is somewhat diminished.

    Years ago, Paul Krugman wrote a great essay about this. You can find it here.

    – Greg

  17. March 12, 2010

    US Folks, I respectfully disagree about “gurus” being an American phenomena. I’ve lived and worked in New Zealand, Australia, Germany, England, the USA and (now) Ireland. They all have the guru problem. How people market themselves as gurus may vary a little, but the principle is the same. You can’t tell people you’re great in England, you’re expected to be modest, but you can tell people how great others think you are in a kind of embarrassed way, or that you’re working with some aristocrat, and it has the same effect. In Germany you tell people an institute or other form of official organisation thinks you’re great. In Ireland, Australia or New Zealand you do it by stating people in the USA or UK think you’re great (these countries assume everything is better there). I’m willing to bet every culture has this phenomena.

  18. March 12, 2010


    I guess it’s somewhat in the eye of the beholder and ego certainly knows no boundaries. However, it does seem to me that the phenomenon is more robust in the US than in other countries I’ve lived in.

    – Greg

  19. March 13, 2010

    rplol … that’s guru-speak for “your reply made me laugh out loud”! 😉
    .-= Irwin R. Kramer´s last blog ..The Repo Man =-.

  20. pete permalink
    March 30, 2010

    Hi, I agree with much of that – the very idea that writing for the web takes a skill only available to people who have never had a job as a writer is another one that makes me laugh ( what language is it that makes it so different? what secret skills do people have to write “digital copy”? are there special words only now to folk writing blogs and websites?).
    However, using a phrase like :”hypercompetitive inflection point”
    worries me just as much.
    Buying a can of dog food or a new house is and always will be an act of faith, not a “predelineated,dollar oriented event loop” or anything else that makes little sense.
    Otherwise, not bad.

  21. Stevejdeangelis permalink
    March 31, 2010

    Absolutely brilliant.

  22. March 31, 2010


  23. March 31, 2010

    The other dark side of the guru world is the one who says that you can only do what they have done after spending anywhere from $47-$4999 with them on an ebook or a coaching program.

    That’s why I always admire the hard working business owners who are able to balance their brand with the “on the business” work that is often more difficult to get to. When you can learn to have vision beyond the daily problems to try and build up something more, it’s incredible.

    You’re right – it’s one thing to grow a brand and live to tell about it than to be an observer and let your comments flow.

    As you said above though, this is becoming an ironic post. Wouldn’t you say that just as much self promotion is done by positioning one’s self as an “anti-guru”? Then you end up branding yourself as the good guy even though you’re just another guru in disguise?
    .-= Jeff Machado´s last blog ..Why Commenting On Blogs Will Always Dominate Being Active on Twitter =-.

  24. March 31, 2010


    I like the article (and absolutely *love* the snark!) especially “confusing the anecdotal with the universal” which I’ve heard called “survivor bias” in other contexts.

    Still, I have to question the shots at Brogan and Smith.

    I’ve got ten pages left to read in my copy of Trust Agents, and I have found most of the information, like on building a listening post and proactively making “friends” on other people’s blogs, well worth the paltry twenty-five dollars that it set me back at Amazon.

    Life-changing? No. But, insightful for how you can improve the quality of your online presence? Absolutely.

    Before working in mortgage lead generation, I used to own investment real estate for a living. That was another field that was rife with would-be “gurus,” and listening to the wrong ones could lead folks to lose a frightening amount of money in a very short time.

    In my opinion, the difference here is that I have yet to find a way to lose money by following the advice in Trust Agents, and the tips that stood out to me have absolutely helped me to *make* more and work more effectively.

    Just my $.02.


  25. March 31, 2010


    It’s a very fair point. As I wrote in the article, “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 think if they would focus on their true area of expertise, they’d be fine. Unfortunately, Brogan especially often goes off on stuff that he clearly doesn’t understand. Moreover, the book was more than a little tone deaf. (i.e. the whole “one of us” bit, constant video game references, etc).

    However, you are right that I am singling them out because they are successful, not because they are particularly egregious. The real jerks I don’t mention by name as it would probably do them more good then harm.

    – Greg

  26. March 31, 2010

    What businesses really need now are smart analysts and not consultants and gurus like you pointed out. It’s one thing to to say you get how things should be with fluffy sound bites and personal anecdotes (like consultants and gurus do), and another to look at the data, see what really is going on and then give the business actionable insights on how to improve (which is what analysts do).
    .-= ZachO´s last blog ..Simple PPC Bid Strategy Using Impression Share Report =-.

  27. March 31, 2010


    I couldn’t agree more. Thanks.

    – Greg

  28. Matias Lanzi permalink
    April 1, 2010

    There would be no need for gurus if we didn’t needed to cling to something.
    There would be no need for religion, no need for leaders.
    They all fall in the same category.
    A product of demand.

    A result of a world populated by primitive lazy minds that rather adhere to some one else’s ideas than to think and believe our own no matter the source as long as these ideas justify our reality.

    Trust the seeker of truth, not the one who found it.

  29. Andrea Eskin permalink
    April 1, 2010

    Greg, I’m so glad you wrote this. I think we’re now starting to see a 180-degree response to books like Ken Blanchard’s “One Minute Manager, which so many business people in the ’80s clung to as their “gospel.” Personally, I think those books created more drones than entrepreneurs, and just might (might!) have contributed to the collapse of our economy. How can drones think creatively or build anything?

  30. April 1, 2010


    Thanks. I’m glad you liked it.

    It is sad that the appearance of achievement is sometimes valued above actual achievementl.

    – Greg

  31. April 2, 2010

    Awesome post Greg…

    We hear it all. We see it all. I would add two points to your fantastic article:

    1) If they use the words “expert” or “guru” to describe themselves – RUN. Don’t look back. Run.

    2) What kind of original content do they have on their site? Forget what it looks like – is there value there?

    Excellent topic…

  32. April 2, 2010


    Thanks. have a nice holiday.

    – Greg

  33. April 3, 2010

    True story.

    Coaching client to me: My shaman is asking me to do things I’m uncomfortable with. And I’m concerned because he’s taking antidepressants. Should a shaman be on antidepressants?

    Me to client: So how do you know this guy is a shaman anyhow?

    Client: Because it says so on his business card!

    5 years since this conversation happened and I still laugh every time I think about it. Sheesh.

    Gwen McCauley

  34. April 3, 2010


    Great story.


    – Greg

  35. April 5, 2010

    Well Said…. great article…
    .-= Samir Lalani – Entrepreneurship´s last blog ..SNS for Recruitment =-.

  36. chris Barton permalink
    April 5, 2010


    You hit the nail on the head!! “Those that can do – Those that can’t teach”

  37. April 5, 2010

    Thanks Samir.

  38. April 5, 2010

    Thanks, Chris. I appreciate the support.

    – Greg

  39. April 5, 2010

    Brilliant posting, thanks!

    I recently engaged with an individual via twitter who described himself as “Social Media Samurai”.

    He told an event twitter backchannel (an event he was speaking at) to “Stop being so negative, grow up and make a change to the world instead of moaning”

    funnily enough I went with a competitor instead.
    .-= Johan A Kruger´s last blog ..Engaging The Twitter Backchannel =-.

  40. April 5, 2010


    Thanks. Great story.

    btw. I really liked your post on twitter backchannels.

    – Greg

  41. April 7, 2010

    Saw the article on Linked in and felt compelled to read it since I have the keywords there on my profile. While there’s a lot of truth to what you’ve said, I felt justified to claim the titles of visionary and guru after cleaning up after countless ‘gurus’ and working with vendors to help define and drive the construction of bleeding edge capabilities for market leading platforms in the BPM space and driving over 40 successful implementations.

    So now the question – do I want to claim the titles ‘guru’ and ‘visionary’ after cleaning up behind so many of them? Perhaps it would be more apropos to key off the words ‘janitor’ and ‘cartographer’, but I think that maybe ‘guru’ and ‘visionary’ will have to do until I can shift focus more from solutions and gain a better perspective on marketing.

  42. April 7, 2010


    I can relate to the janitor thing.

    Good luck!

    – Greg

  43. May 1, 2010

    Excellent article! You sound like a guru to me. From one to another, check out the article quoting me today in

    Let me know your thoughts! Thanks!

  44. May 7, 2010

    Refreshing! The elephant is in the room…the emperor is running to get his clothes on.

    Terrence Gargiulo

  45. May 7, 2010

    Thank you, Terence.

    Have a nice weekend.

    – Greg

  46. ashley pharr permalink
    May 10, 2010

    I think your post is awesome! I tweeted last week that true thought leaders no longer (or ever) called themselves that – the only people calling themselves that now are thought followers – everyone now please adjust their jargon accordingly! Haha 🙂 great post – thks for sharing

  47. May 10, 2010


    Thanks for your support! (btw. I love your name. We gave it to our daughter 8 months ago:-)

    – Greg

  48. May 16, 2010


    Loved your post and especially the comments that follow it.

    After 25 years running a marketing communications firm, I decided that trading my time for money was no longer a viable model for creating a life of significance and freedom… for me at least. One of my gurus is Bob Dylan… who defines success as getting up in the morning and going to bed at night–but in between you do what you want to do!

    sounds good to me…pretty simple stuff…no rigor there…

    This post hit home for me. I am in the process of a mid life transformation, packaging my knowledge and expertise into a form that frees me from serving clients in the traditional way. I am providing advice (for free) and guidance (teaching) entrepreneurs and solo professionals who desire to gain more knowledge on creating a life of significance and fulfillment powered by the engine of their business.

    In a way, I am positioning myself as a guru. I struggle with this daily. Truth be told I finally had to get comfortable with the idea that I am “self-appointed”… no one else will “bestow the right” on me to share my knowledge with others. I made a simple decision to “put it out there”. Do I have the “qualifications” to do so, and thus membership to the special “thought leader” guru club? I’m one of those people that wouldn’t join a club that would have me as a member.

    Guru status is not what I seek in positioning my expertise and knowledge as useful to people. I simply want to help people get their ass over the fence to the the next level of their vision and desire. It’s up to them to decide if my stuff provides them any value (or is total rubbish).

    The same rules apply to my brand as any corporate brand. Customers decide if the brand lives or dies. My credibility is in the eye of the beholder.

    I don’t make any claims. I don’t have formulas, easy to follow instructions. I simply share what I have experienced in my professional life…what worked in my experience, what didn’t. If some one discovers my information (as I have in your useful blog) and it helps them, does it lessen the value because I have not run a large multinational corporation, have appropriate academic credentials, been invited to speak at TED or written a game-changing tome?

    I have invested in the 10,000 hours…and then some. That doesn’t matter either.

    Here’s all I know:

    one must do what matters to them
    what one does must matter to others

    You all can check out my little guru science project at:

    I enjoy the learning I am receiving from your thought leadership here on digital tonto… looking forward to more!

    Thomson Dawson

  49. May 17, 2010


    Thanks for such a thoughtful and inspirational comment.

    Best of luck to you.

    – Greg

  50. May 21, 2010

    …and so what would make a true guru?

    Change the word guru to some synonym if it is the underlying self-appointed sense that is the true issue.

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