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Controversial Coaching 101: The Guru Effect

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Business Guru: A person who makes money selling the idea rather than executing it

The Guru Effect

Cognitive scientist Dan Sperber first used the term to refer to a phenomenon wherein people “judge profound what they have failed to grasp.” Sperber noted that we view ‘guru’ types with trust and belief, beginning to view them as authorities on a subject and in time believing that they must be saying profound but true things even when they’re not making sense. Obviously in the lens of life coaching, we don’t want to be viewed as a know-all authority (that's the client's role)! We’re not there to give wisdom and answers to clients- we’re there to give the client space to find their own answers.

What are some other areas where we might see differences in “guru” types and coaches? In this controversial coaching video, CLCI Live’s Jen Long (ACC), Jerome LeDuff (MCPC), Lisa Finck (MCC) Anthony Lopez (MCPC), and Brooke Adair Walters (ACC) address these different guru effects and what role, if any, they should play in coaching.

The Guru Space

There’s no one definition of a guru for this conversation as the term may have different meanings for us in different contexts. Take a moment and think about what a guru is to you.

They can be someone coming to the masses with an enlightened and educated approach that most don’t have experience in. Or an expert holding wisdom that only they have. Maybe a guru so devoted to their craft, whether it be economic, spiritual, or another field, that they dedicate their entire life to that specific subject. Or even a teacher that form interpersonal relationships with their close students to pass their knowledge onto.

Or, unfortunately, a good chunk are charlatans who put on an air of superiority and expertise, all to convince their audience to open their wallets for really no benefit.

Gurus could be all of the above. There’s no right or wrong answer here and it is particular from guru to guru. In our world, we see a variety of gurus. There are the religious and spiritual gurus, like Deepak Chopra or the Dalai Lama. There are the economic and tech gurus, from C.K. Prahalad to Steve Jobs. Then there are the self help gurus, such as Eckhart Tolle or Tony Robbins.

Ariane Signer pointed out in 2019 that “The personal development and self-improvement industry is a highly profitable one, pulling in over $12 billion in proceeds per year, in the United States alone.” Why? Because “Where spirituality and marketing meet, these self-help gurus have cashed in on self-improvement in a big way.” Of some of those gurus listed above, consider these examples: Eckhart Tolle’s net worth is around $70 million, Deepak Chopra has a net worth around $150 million, Tony Robbins net worth is around $620 million.

Being a guru doesn’t seem too shabby in payoff! But does that mean you should replicate what they do, and should you pay for one?

Let’s think more on what gurus do. A guru has to be confident in themselves. There is a (debatable) level of expertise expected of them. We may even lean towards calling them profound. The fundamental idea is that they have a sort of secret knowledge and are willing to bestow it upon their acolytes for money. But an effect of staying in that space is to start thinking this guru has the only answer. Theirs is the only advice you need to listen to. Their option is the only option. This begins to sound rather black and white in thinking.

There’s one other note to make about these spaces: they typically aren’t collaborative. Does anything above sound like it involves the clientele, the unlearned, unenlightened ‘students’ input?

While it might be tempting to fall into a guru space, it also is no longer life coaching. And there’s why life coaches should want to avoid creating a guru effect around themselves.

The Coaching Space

Gurus often present themselves as learned teachers with secret and/or valuable expertise, yet life coaches have nothing to do with teaching. There’s no secret knowledge to bestow. There's no power dynamic between the enlightened and ignorant. The coach-client relationship is a partnership and a collaborative process. 

If we aren’t teachers, then why do some coaches talk about ‘teachable moments’? There’s a difference between using one of these moments to nudge the client towards thinking outside their perspective and considering other possibilities. What that doesn't mean is teaching the coach's perspective.

Life coaches don’t have the answer to everything. Maybe that’s a humbling thought. But it’s also easier. We don’t have to have all the answers! We don’t have to be expected to.

With that said, here’s a similarity that coaches should have with gurus: humility doesn’t mean you can’t be confident. Know what you have to offer and know that it is valuable to the people you work with.


Thank you,

Jen Long (ACC), Jerome LeDuff (MCPC), Lisa Finck (MCC) Anthony Lopez (MCPC), and Brooke Adair Walters (ACC)!

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1 Comment

It's fascinating to reflect on the various roles of gurus and coaches in society, as articulated by CLCI Live. While gurus may command authority and instill a sense of reverence, coaches engage in humble collaboration, recognizing the value of each individual's unique journey and insights.

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