When I was at university studying comparative religions, I accidentally joined a cult. This story isn’t going to end the way you might imagine. The cult in question was a nice bunch of idealistic people following utopian ideals. There was the small matter of a few of the group’s devotees being accused of the Sydney Hilton bombing, Australia’s first terrorist act, but they were later released and the case remains open today.
I don’t regret one moment of my time meditating, chanting Sankrit mantras, doing old-school yoga in loose cotton clothing (this was the 90s), or trying to maintain a strict vegetarian sattvic diet (and mostly failing).
But there was an experience which made an indelible impression on me – a cautionary tale which I’ve told countless groups of people and which bears repeating here, though I’m still exploring why it’s impact is so enduring.
Power in positions of authority
At age 19, the monk who taught me was transferred to another country, I was his most enthusiastic student and so, at age 19, I found myself teaching meditation. As the teacher, I was in a position of authority, but I knew I was simply passing on a technique: I gave a short instruction on the meditation technique, then we chanted a mantra before sitting silently with our eyes closed, after which they were on their own. Afterwards, I would lead discussions as we talked about our experiences meditating.
What happened next is the extraordinary part: people started approaching me after meditation for life advice. They would ask questions on things like leaving their spouse, changing careers, problems with friends, and other assorted existential ponderings.
Big questions. Questions that, as a 19-year-old with limited life experience, I knew I was totally ill-equipped to answer.
I fumbled through as best I could. I felt uncomfortable and out of my depth. And I’ve thought about it a lot since.
This ranges from healthy respect and admiration, where the student is inspired to make changes that are good for them, to extremely unhealthy slavish devotion.
Much of this is human – I’ve certainly had little crushes on several of my favourite teachers through school and university. There’s nothing wrong with admiring someone else. It’s also necessary for the learning process to invest trust in the teacher: relentless questioning can be a sign of curiosity, but it can also be the sign of a closed mind that’s already skipping ahead to the next thing. The student who’s extremely skeptical is too busy objecting to open their mind wide enough to learn anything.
It’s the more extreme tendencies that we should all be far more wary of: the tendencies to put others on pedestals, to give away our power, to believe that other people are ‘greater’ or ‘lesser’ than ourselves, to accept things at face value without considering whether they’re personally relevant to us, and even, to not recognise appropriate personal boundaries which creates a litany of problems and the potential for abuse.
The problem with pedestals
When we put others on pedestals, we start to see humans as ‘greater’ or ‘lesser’ than each other. We are different. Some are born with certain innate talents. Each individual has their own particular blends of attributes, talents, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies.
They have simply figured out how to use what they’ve got and that includes finding others who have the expertise or talents they lack.
On the internet, it’s easy to put people on pedestals because we are all putting our highlights reel on show while cordoning off the backroom view. Unless you are someone’s accountant or therapist, you have no way of knowing the reality of the countless ‘successes’ we see online. It’s easy to read a bunch of blog posts, follow someone on social media and form a conclusion. It’s easy to compare yourself and your business and fall show.
This is doubly tricky because all entrepreneurs know the power of positive thinking in business.
Emotional resilience is essential in self-employment (and, I’d argue, in life) with many business leaders keen to inspire positivity in others. This often, unfortunately, can have the opposite effect, making you feel like it’s time to take up smoking and pour another breakfast whiskey whilst scrolling through the umpteenth picture of a superfoods breakfast artfully photographed by a lithe 21 year-old blogger on a sponsored trip to Maui.
By putting people up above you, you are giving yourself a ‘get out of jail free’ card to keep on procrastinating (and scrolling …. scrolling). You’ve convinced yourself that there are ‘leagues’ that you’re simply not in.
Gurus shout to be heard
Gurus are loud. Their opinions are strident. Most importantly, they hate to be contradicted. When contradicted, they attack, belittle and ridicule their objectors, before reaffirming their superior opinion as the only sane possibility.
This is very different from putting forth a well thought-out argument to support your opinion and being open to the discussion provoked. This is often the objective in marketing (and what I teach in Hustle & Heart, my face-to-face courses and one-to-one business coaching) – sharing your provocative point of view through your marketing not only inspires engagement with people but it augments their support and enthusiasm for your business.
The crucial difference is that contradictory points-of-view aren’t seen as a threat. I have many arguments with friends and family (and my partner and I love a good debate). We share opposing points of view. And we still respect and love each other. Being unable to cannot peacefully coexist with someone who shares a differing viewpoint from you is how wars begin. We must learn how to provoke and engage while still respecting difference.
The inherent risk of teaching
A colleague came to me for advice not that long ago – she was starting her first face-to-face courses and wanted to ask some sticky questions. She was worried about someone stealing her content and replicating. It was a valid concern.
There are several inherent risks to teaching that all new teachers learn to navigate: that your students will appropriate your ideas and pass them off as their own; that students will know more than you; that students will contradict you; that students will exceed you; that students will collaborate amongst themselves, leaving you out. Effective teachers negotiate their own egos to stop worrying about these and start celebrating the independence and prosperity of their students. Teachers that get stuck in ego become gurus.
How to know if you’re good enough
There’s one simple way to know if your work is ‘good enough’ – people say kind things about your work, refer business to you, and keep returning for more. Too often in life, we take negative self-criticism as gospel truth and overlook or disbelieve evidence of our strengths and abilities. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather believe solid feedback from real life paying clients than the countless tall stories my mind spins.
Being ‘good enough’ to teach or lead doesn’t mean you never make mistakes, aren’t overcome by your ego from time to time, or know all there is to know on a given subject. It simply means than you know more than your students, you have real life experience in your topic and other defer to you on your area of expertise, and you are good at communicating with a variety of individuals. When you specialise in a topic, you may be termed an ‘expert’ or ‘authority’ or even (god forbid) a ‘guru’ by others.
A cautionary tale
When someone puts you on a pedestal, the best thing to do is turn the attention back to them. Why do they want to put you there? What is it about you, exactly that inspires them and does that hold a clue about what they find compelling that they should be doing?
It is irresponsible to be the guru. Because a guru is infallible and nobody is infallible. Failure is inevitable and defeat can be crushing to both the guru and their followers. When you put other people on pedestals, you hand over your power, responsibility and ability to learn and grow.
Gurus can be excellent at blurring boundaries of appropriate behavior. There are countless horror stories – of rape, assault, verbal and psychological abuse and financial exploitation – and these almost always begin with small violations of one’s boundaries. The frog is boiled to death slowly.
Business success is due, in large part, to hard work and tenacity. But it’s also due to factors that are systemic and oftentimes outside of one’s control. Playing ‘follow the leader’ for a business blueprint not only ignores the fact that people are motivated by different things in business, but it takes for granted that we all have the same abilities, talents and circumstances as the leader which is clearly not the case.
As the world evolves, we should have less gurus, not more. It’s time to take a stand against gurus and take our power back. You can handle your own potential for greatness. You’ve got this.