The enormous interest in leadership within business has led to a proliferation of leadership gurus who promise simple answers to the complex problems facing managers. But do the gurus have the answers? Can they help you to understand leadership and more importantly, show you the way to become a leader?
I argue that we can learn a lot from leadership gurus about an important skill of rhetoric - the art to persuasion. Not, from what they teach, but from the way they market themselves and their wares.
Leadership is a challenging concept. Despite many years of empirical study, there is no agreed definition of leadership or even what the concept should embrace. Yet, many gurus claim that they possess the answer. They claim to know how to help you to become a leader, to teach you (for a fee) the “little known secrets” to unleash the power within you. Some are well educated, thoughtful and offer practical advice but many are simply salespeople who negligently use highly effective influence practices to lead us to accept them as an authority. These gurus are often not enlightened teachers but sellers whose main job is to motivate us to buy more services (books, tapes, seminars, etc.).
If many gurus really do lack substance then how do they generate such a loyal following and earn millions through their seminars, books and tapes? There are no “secrets” to the gurus craft. In fact, the following information is openly available - in abundance - from many scholarly journals, papers and books. To become a guru all that is needed is a basic knowledge of rhetorical techniques, cult practices and a bit about how people think and make decisions.
To see how these techniques work, let’s imagine for a moment that you want to become a guru. Here are seven rhetorical techniques that should result in success.
1. Create an unattainable yet vivid goal
Want to be successful beyond your wildest dreams? Want to have unlimited wealth? With the right amount of effort and belief you can have it all. So goes the rhetoric of the guru. In reality it can’t be attained. The trick, however, is to have your audience believe that it is possible. How do you do this? First, the goal (or idea) has to be simple yet have the widest possible application. Second, make sure the presentation of the goal is vivid and memorable.
Finally, work your audience’s self-esteem. Make your audience feel that if they are not as successful as you say they could be, they will feel inferior; if their company isn’t the most profitable in the market, they should feel deprived and somehow less of a person. In a rush to enhance their self-esteem, they will suspend better judgment and readily accept your offering. Now you have their interest let’s get their commitment.
2. Set a rationalisation trap
To do this we need to know about the commitment/consistency principle. The technique is to get the audience committed in some way.
Committed people want to feel that they act consistently with their attitudes. They tend to be more interested in proving that they are right. It works like this. Start with a small request, (e.g. “come to our free presentation”, “take our free psychological profile”), which is then followed by a larger request, (“why don’t you enrol in our seminar?”).
The first small request sets commitment. The second step springs the trap, (“Why did you take the psychological profile if you weren’t interested and didn’t think there was something in it?”).
Now that you have their commitment, let’s bolster this commitment.
3. Manufacture your guru credibility
What gives you the right to question a guru? Such an authority, such an evolved person can’t be wrong. The problem must be with you. Don’t question the guru until you have developed their insight!
What’s a quick way to develop credibility? Write a book and get on the speaking circuit. The theme of the book and speech should utilise heroic rhetoric, universal story lines and dramatised portrayals – the hero winning against all odds, the transformation of failure into success or the rediscovery of one’s true self. The book establishes legitimacy, the guru is listened to, other offers follow, and their career starts to spiral upwards. Established gurus stress that the book must be easy to read, vivid and memorable, and that appearances are more important than the substance of the ideas themselves.
4. Establish a Following
A guru needs a following. We have seen a couple of tactics to get the audience interested, but how do we keep them? The social psychologist Henri Tajfel demonstrated just how simple it is. In his research he found that strangers would form associations on the basis of completely inconsequential criteria, such as the flip of a coin.
Even more surprising was that individuals within such meaningless associations acted towards other members as if they were close friends and those in the other group as if they were their worst enemies. Once established the in-group defines social reality. If you want to stay a member of that group, you will need to obey the dictates of its members and its leaders. Members of your in-group become your trusted source of information about reality and criticisms are attributed to those “evil-ones” in the out-groups.
Here are some tactics for establishing a following:
Rituals and symbols – Have a brand, a motto, a uniform, a special handshake etc. Give your people something that makes them special. One of the most powerful rituals of the guru is the confession. Get the new group member to stand up on stage to confess their deepest fears or sins to the rest of the group.
Jargon and beliefs – Use language only your group would understand. (e.g. my Primary Representational System is kinaesthetic). Jargon is powerful in the way that it can frame the way people interpret events.
Shared goals and feelings – Shared goals provide identity to the group and motivate action (e.g. “moving beyond fears and limiting beliefs and turning dreams into reality”).
Specialised information – Help your group to feel special because they “are in the know”. Make sure that information is compartmentalised and controlled. (e.g. “When you are at level three, we’ll give you the answers you seek”).
Emphasise the use of in-group published sources and denigrate outsider sources for their obvious bias.
Enemies – Who else can you blame for your problems and failures? Make sure that your followers can easily identify these unenlightened enemies by establishing an out-group identity, (e.g. military industrialists, scientific cynics, losers).
Now you have your following, let’s make sure that they are not only followers but true believers.
5. Use self-generated persuasion
Ever since American psychologist, Kurt Lewin’s ground-breaking studies during World War II it’s been known that the best way to deeply persuade someone is to get them to persuade themselves. And, the best way to do this? Get them to sell your training course to their friends. Have them sell your books at their conference. Get them to write testimonials for you.
Not a bad tactic! Not only are you building your guru status, but they are making money for you, and for free!
6. Use pre-persuasion
Kill arguments against your claims before they even get the chance to be expressed. Pre-persuasion has three basic steps:
1. Frame the issue or create a problem - (e.g. “The big-end of town don’t want you to know these secrets because they want to keep it for themselves”). This is an effective frame because, if it is accepted by the follower then any criticism of the guru is just the big end of town protecting its secrets.
2. Set expectations - Expectations can lead us to interpret ambiguous information in a way that supports an original point of view; (e.g. “I’m an INTJ, I’m just no good at being creative”).
3. Specify the decision criteria - (e.g. “we measure success based on personal experiences not statistics”).
7. Use rules of thumb and commonplaces
Liberally sprinkle your appeal with heuristics and commonplaces. Rules of thumb are simple decision shortcuts. Commonplaces are widely held beliefs. Here are some examples.
The scarcity shortcut- or if it is rare it is valuable. Charge a high fee for your seminar. At $200 minute you must be valuable.
The consensus or bandwagon shortcut - or if everyone agrees it must be true. Feature testimonials of people who have found what they are looking for.
The message length shortcut - or if the message is long it is strong. Guru’s brochures often list hundreds of testimonials and studies in support of their claims. An uninformed observer would be impressed by the weight of the evidence.
The power-within commonplace - or humans have a spiritual side that is neglected by modern materialistic science. Guru’s often play to this commonplace by offering ways to tap the unconscious.
The science commonplaces - Use words like "latest scientific technology"; "on the cutting edge of science” etc. but use them selectively and stress that science doesn’t know everything. In this, a commonplace about science is used: (1) "Science is powerful" and (2) "Science is limited and can't replace the personal." The selective use of these commonplaces allows you to claim the power of science but have a convenient out should science fail to promote your arguments.
8. Attack opponents through innuendo and character assassination
Finally, you would like your movement to be safe from harm and external attack. This tactic works for three reasons:
1. Innuendo changes the nature of the discussion. It’s not about whether your methods work, it’s about the attacker’s competence, or ethics etc.
2. Innuendo raises doubt about the opponent you are attacking, particularly if your followers have little other information to go on.
3. Innuendo can also have the effect of making the opponent wonder whether the fight is worth it under such an assault on their reputation and integrity.
A Guru free approach
The above list of rhetorical techniques demonstrates how easy it can be to become a guru - someone who offers hope but no true answers.
Gurus offer simple answers to our complex problems; a universal solution that works for everyone. The complex problems are still with us, the gurus are getting rich and we are still not getting it right. The fact that many gurus are unlikely to do any follow-up calls on their trainees, except to persuade them to buy more services, suggests that their main interest is not in helping people. The guru makes money from the number of people they recruit and train, not from the number of people they truly help.
Alternatively, leaders who are genuine teachers:
• Focus on validated, verifiable solutions.
• Seek independent confirmation of the “facts”.
• Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
• Approach sceptically arguments from authority. Authorities have made mistakes in the past and they will again. In science there are no authorities; at most there are experts.
• Know that testimonials do not validate a program.
• Do research to test causal claims that establishes a degree of effectiveness to their methods.
• Establish clear criteria for what counts as “successful” training.
• Keep records of successes and failures.
• Design their programs to avoid the role of subjective validation, confirmation bias, wishful thinking and communal reinforcement.
• Avoid the unfalsifiable, the vague and the qualitative.
So, what can we learn from the rhetorical techniques of gurus? By studying their techniques, we may learn to identify the guru from the genuine leader.
A leader is most effective when they act modestly and ethically; when their deepest concern is for the best interests of their followers; when they seek and accept alternative points of view; and when they channel their ambition into their followers and not themselves.
 Gayle Avery, 2004, Understanding leadership, Sage Publications (p4).
 Adapted from How to Sell a Pseudoscience, by Anthony R. Pratkanis in Skeptical Inquirer Volume 19, Number 4 (July/August 1995): Pages 19-25.
 Tajfel, H., 1982, Social identity and intergroup relations, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press