What makes a “guru” a guru?

The other day someone asked me this question:

What makes a “guru” a guru?

During a job interview, they had been asked to rate their change management skills on a one-to-ten scale with novice at one end and guru at the other. This caused him to think what made a guru, and did it really belong at the end of this scale?

It’s a great question.

The word “guru” is massively overused. It has come to mean anyone with some expertise and a Twitter account. The self-awarded “guru” status gets applied to any number of things that have no business with gurus.

Illustrative example #1: I once saw someone claiming to be a guru of Yahoo! Answers.

So, first rule of guru-ness: “guru” can only apply to fields that require a significant depth of expert knowledge and skills. (This necessarily excludes Yahoo! Answers and social media).

Crimes against language are nothing new, and the word “guru” is another sorry victim of the sad decline of pedantic precision in language usage.

Guru is the victim of word inflation.

This is the process whereby adjectives lose their punch because they’re overused and applied willy-nilly. The most run-of-the-mill middle-of-the-road experience is labelled as “awesome” thus leaving the speaker bereft of options when encountering something that really is awesome.

Illustrative example #2: A senior colleague at work once described me as “top man” because I sorted him out with a biro when his own ran dry of ink.

You can’t go in with the big “top man” compliment for a minor favour, you’ve got to save it for the major stuff. Had I later discovered him dangling precariously over a cliff edge and reached to save his life and he’d repeated “top man” in appreciation, I’d have felt short-changed. I could have got the same response had I passed him a biro.

So let’s look at guru (Source):

Guru (noun): Hinduism. A preceptor giving personal religious instruction.

No mention of Yahoo! Answers … it has a meaning similar to teacher of religion (preceptor means teacher  – see here). – my old Sunday School teacher would surely be thrilled to learn she was technically a guru.

But the word has a broader, non-religious, meaning too:

an intellectual or spiritual guide or leader.

OK, so now we’ve watered down the religious instruction to a more general intellectual or spiritual role, but … we have yet another meaning:

any person who counsels or advises; mentor: The elder senator was her political guru.

So now the spiritual part has disappeared entirely, and the guru is simply a wise mentor. Note that this is a personal relationship (not so far from the teacher of the first definition), it isn’t a leader in a particular field.

a leader in a particular field: the city’s cultural gurus.

So, as I said, a guru is also a leader in a particular field. Note that this is a non-personal relationship, it’s a thought-leader, someone whose books you read but not someone who offers you personal guidance.

So there are two broad types of guru:

  • A personal guru: a wise mentor or expert teacher
  • A non-personal guru: a though-leader in a particular field

So back to the original question.

If we have a 1 to 10 scale representing capability within a field (change management in this example), is the most-capable change manager a guru?

I think not.

An Expert Practitioner is not the same as a Guru. The former would likely get bored leading research in a University, the latter might get bored with the skillful repetition of practised steps in the workplace.

Maybe I should ask this question on Yahoo! Answers?


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