Managers are a
cynical lot. After all, the biggest-selling business
book of all time is not a weighty tome on strategy or
marketing, but that sceptical peon to office life,
Dilbert. More seriously, the recent wave of corporate
scandals confirms that cynicism is endemic — and can
easily lead to blatant corruption.
Management gurus are perhaps the most successful
living (and legal) incarnations of this cynical breed.
They travel the world peddling the same ideas year after
year. They re-package old ideas, coat them with a
varnish of jargon, pronounce them revolutionary and then
charge managers a fortune.
“Our ideas are much the same, indeed they are the
same, but we use different words. The trick is to have
your own catch phrase,” a strategy guru recently said.
Nice work if you can get it.
To this world of cynical, world-weary salesmanship
and snake-oil, it is something of a relief to welcome L
Vaughan Spencer. Fashionably pony-tailed, Mr Spencer is
the first of a new breed: the honest guru, someone who
unashamedly tells it as it is. His world is that of
personal enlightenment and self-development. We can be
what we want to be. Helpfully, he also promises
A fellow motivational speaker, author and business
tycoon, Chuck Schneider, has described Mr Spencer as
“the Tom Peters for the Britney generation. He is
awesome.” If management really is the new rock’n’roll,
then L Vaughan Spencer is Bill Hailey. One convert
labelled him “the Eminem of personal self-enhancement”.
A more useful comparison may be with the smooth-talking
Mr Spencer’s reputation has developed gradually, a
slow burner in a world of empty comets. He is a prolific
author. His books include The Tao of Shaving,
Chicken Nuggets for the Soul, The Seven
Hobbies of Highly Effective People and The Little
Book of Big Things. The books are celebrations of
human potential as much as dynamic calls to action.
“Business is a dog-eat-dog world and if you don’t
scratch my back then your cat won’t get the cream,”
advises Mr Spencer, with his customary evangelical zeal
and sincerity. As well as the veritable library of
books, L Vaughan Spencer has also acted as personal
coach for Jean-Pierre Dupont, the man behind the
internationally acclaimed Cirque du Merde, which
features circus artists from the greater Montreal area.
Where L Vaughan Spencer really comes alive is on
stage. Most gurus rely on a tried and tested PowerPoint
presentation. They go through the slides with all the
enthusiasm of a hamster running on a familiar exercise
wheel. Mr Spencer stalks the stage like a wild animal
and casts out metaphors with something approaching
abandon. The audiences lap it up.
His “Don’t be needy, be succeedy workshops” have the
irresistible air of revivalist meetings. They are “gigs”
rather than seminars. Middle managers are taken to
places they never before imagined existed. Indeed, I
interviewed Mr Spencer prior to a pre-Edinburgh Festival
appearance in Maidenhead.
To prove that he really is rock’n’roll in a world of
chamber music, one of Mr Spencer’s favoured metaphors is
that of drumming. This is not a metaphor favoured by
some of his more straight-laced competitors in the guru
“I use drumming as an allegory for teamwork and
immersed myself in Eastern philosophy by spending a
fortnight studying with the monks of Phuntursee Island,”
Mr Spencer explained, when I interviewed him while he
was lying on the floor of his cramped dressing room with
a towel over his face. Mr Spencer has even had the good
fortune to play as a guest with the Koko Drummers of
Unagi. Drumming, it seems, is a powerful means of
encouraging careworn managers to lose their inhibitions.
Mr Spencer also advocates the “Succeeder Dance”,
which involves rotating your pelvis and thumbs at the
same time. The intention, should you be so fortunate, is
to propel yourself into what he labels the “Confidence
Zone”, where everything seems possible and
self-expression far easier. The ogrish head of marketing
is less intimidating with both your pelvis and thumbs in
Some may scoff at Spencer’s inspirations and his
excitable delivery. Cynicism reigns. After all, his
academic grounding owes more to Penge Comprehensive than
Harvard Business School. However, in a world of cynics,
he strikes a mysteriously resonant chord. Stephen Covey
L Vaughan Spencer is appearing at the Assembly
Rooms, Edinburgh until August 26. For more information