Laughing all the way to the bank
By Stefan Stern
September 25 2006

The management writer Peter Drucker used to say that the term “guru” had become popular because the alternative label of “charlatan” was too long to fit into a headline. That was both a good joke and a neat example of the guru’s art in practice: make them laugh while showing, with all due modesty, that there is nothing up your sleeve.

When that other world-famous guru, Tom Peters, pronounces the word he lingers too long on the second “u”. “We are mysterious, exotic people,” he seems to imply – while also hinting that there might just be something fishy about anyone who earns a living using that title.

Perhaps the rest of us are simply jealous of those, such as Mr Peters, who can earn between $70,000 and $90,000 a day giving their presentations. The appetite for “big ideas” in management seems to be as strong as ever. There is no shortage of delegates for these events – even if you do not get much change out of $2,000 for attending one.

Some managers make the pilgrimage genuinely hoping to be inspired and have their life changed. Some go because the training budget has to be used up and it means a day out of the office. Either way, willing buyers and very willing sellers populate this marketplace.

I have had the privilege of seeing both Mr Peters and Gary Hamel, the strategy and innovation guru, in action. (On both occasions I had the even greater privilege of paying the journalist’s preferred fee for such outings – nothing.)

Professor Hamel is a more restrained performer than his older rival – which is not saying much. Prof Hamel’s presentational style owes something to his former life as an academic. His talks have a coherent narrative thread. Evidence is offered and a lucid argument is developed. There is plenty of humour, too, and the bored delegate is never too many minutes away from the next gag.

Mr Peters is something else. Perhaps “surrealist” gets closer to describing his approach than the now devalued tag of guru. Like a member of the spoof rock band Spinal Tap, his volume control reaches beyond the usual 1-10 scale towards 11, and sometimes even further than that.

He can be splenetic, humorous, sarcastic and enthusiastic, all within a few minutes. He does a great job of appearing sincere, disclosing highly personal details (he discussed his use of Prozac when I saw him), using up every ounce of energy he has for the benefit of his fee-paying audience.

A few days ago in a small venue in London I got to meet a plucky new British contender for the title of management überguru. To the haunting electronic sound of Harold Faltermeyer’s classic 1984 hit “Axel F”, L. Vaughan Spencer (L-Vo to his followers) leapt on to the stage.

In his tangerine suit, gold waistcoat and pony-tail, L-Vo was dressed to impress. “I’m the impresario of your best-case scenario,” he told a delighted crowd. “I’m the Che Guevara of change, the shaman for the lay-man, your tutor for the future.” L-Vo advocates the use of 720-degree feedback. “Like 360-degree feedback – only more,” he explains. But, he warns his audience, being a great leader and motivator is not easy. In fact, L-Vo’s frank advice is this: “I find the best way to motivate people is to shout at them very loudly until they do what I want.”

If you have not worked it out yet, L. Vaughan Spencer is in fact a comic creation, played by Neil Mullarkey, an actor and improvisation expert. There is a certain irony here: Mr Mullarkey also runs genuine improvisation workshops with business clients, but was inspired to unleash L-Vo on the world in response to its appetite for gurus and motivational speakers.

L-Vo may be a satirical invention, but he finds some academic support in Timothy Clark and David Greatbatch’s book, Management Speak – why we listen to what management gurus tell us, published last year.

Prof Clark and Mr Greatbatch painstakingly set out how the gurus deploy a range of rhetorical and theatrical techniques to win over audiences. “Gurus routinely position themselves as educators-who-entertain rather than as entertainers,” they write – even though laughter is deliberately elicited throughout their presentations. The audience is flattered into believing that they can share the lofty insights of the inspired speaker standing on the podium.

But how much useful “knowledge transfer” takes place at one of these events? After a day with Prof Hamel all I really remember is him telling us that businesses should be less rigidly hierarchical and should function more like markets. After a day with Mr Peters I mainly remember him saying: “When I see the list of a company’s board members and there are no women there, I say BULLSHIT!” So that’s $4,000 (and two days of your life) you have saved today just by reading this article.

I cannot help but admire the chutzpah of these gurus who charge so much for their time. But you cannot kid a kidder, or, as the Romans more elegantly put it: haruspex haruspicem cum videt, ridet: when one soothsayer sees another one, he smiles.

All in all, you would probably be better off settling down quietly with a good (management) book, and eschewing the gurus’ presentations. Indeed, as L. Vaughan Spencer points out, “management guru” is in fact a perfect rhyme for “Lieutenant Uhuru”, Captain Kirk’s voluptuous, mini- skirted assistant on Star Trek. You know, L-Vo really has so much to teach us, in so many ways.

L. Vaughan Spencer is appearing at London’s Comedy Store on Monday November 13.