Leadership seems to be one of those qualities that human beings seek, admire and respect. There’s possibly an element of security to it – how many times have you heard a variation on ‘Hard times call from strong leadership’? But what’s the difference between a great idea and a great leader – and how exactly do you become a guru?

For starters, it’s something you acquire rather than proclaim – like being a lady (or, in the old-fashioned sense, a gentleman), being ‘cool’, or being respected. At least one blogging businessperson has had the wisdom and dignity to recognise that and blog interestingly about it too. As Margaret Thatcher said (with possibly a slight hint of hubris –we’ll leave Lord Owen to comment, although humbleness is arguably a leadership virtue):

Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

The BetterNetworker forums have been debating gurudom recently, and the responses to the question What makes a “Guru”, and how do you know when you find one? throw up several interesting points:

When someone calls themselves a guru, it’s usually because they are trying to play the part.”

“You’re a Guru when someone calls you one.”

“I think being a guru is different from being a leader. Being a guru has something to do with expertise, while being a leader has something to do with influence. You can have both traits.”

“Earlier today, I saw a discussion […] titled, “Would you correct a guru if you saw something wrong?” Now granted, they were referring to typos, not the actual content of his teachings, but wouldn’t you want to be lead by a “Guru” that knew the importance of paying attention to the details?”

Gurus also need followers – and therefore the ability to communicate if they’re not going to voices in the wilderness. As one post at George Ambler’s The Practice of Leadership blog points out:

Without effective communication you cannot lead …  you end up taking a walk on your own.

 The introduction to the Economist’s recent Guide to Management Ideas and Gurus, which surveys 102 ideas and 54 gurus, raises more interesting questions. Like any other business or development model, they’re subject to the vagaries of fashion. Possibly you look back on stakeholding, TQM or kaizen with a wistful moment of nostalgia. Bain & Company’s periodic Management Tools & Theory Surveys monitor which ideas and tools are most used. Strategic Planning is one high-scoring constant, while the latest survey has shown customer relationship management and knowledge management continuing their upward climb, and – perhaps unsurprisingly – there has been a dramatic revival in ‘downsizing’. And not just as an idea …

Undoubtedly ideas and tools matter – we wouldn’t use them if they didn’t. And ‘fashionability’ to some extent reflects changing circumstances: every idea has its day (even if – for example, with James Lovelock and EF Schumacher – that’s sometimes a fair while after the idea first emerges). But if you look back at ‘gurus’, The Economist Guide’s author, Tim Hindle, has an interesting observation:

There is occasional overlap between gurus and ideas. Just a few men have come to be associated with a single idea – people like Robert Kaplan and the balanced scorecard, for instance, or Dave Ulrich and human resources transformations. Many more of them, however, have been remarkably broad in their thoughts distinguished particularly for their way of expressing them. […] People like Ted Levitt, Alvin Toffler, William Whyte and even Peter Drucker have shone almost as much for their illuminating writing as for what they wrote about.”

Asking Gurus their opinions of each other doesn’t necessarily help. When Harvard Business Review tried this with 200 leading management thinkers in 2003, Peter Drucker topped the list. Karl Marx – who’s Communist Manifesto is undergoing a sales surge at the present, along with Hitler’s Mein Kampf – got more mentions than Tom Peters. (No offence intended to Mr Peters, but there may be an element of the “if you have to tell people, you aren’t” at play there?).

So maybe it is down to illumination – you achieve guru status not necessarily for where you shine your torch, but for being a torch – literally, a guiding light? Which surely makes one Chinese proverb a warning as well as a telling observation:

When a finger points to the moon …
 … the imbecile looks at the finger.”

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