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August 15, 2002

Premier Executive

A new guru takes centre stage

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 financial success.

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 Sergeant Bilko.

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 world.

“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 motion.

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 beware.

L Vaughan Spencer is appearing at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh until August 26. For more information visit http://www.thesucceeder.com/.

stuart.crainer@thetimes.co.uk

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