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Luis Palencia, Professor, IESE, University of Navarra

Movie gurus

Wed, 21 Apr 2010 08:12:34 +0000 Published in ABC (Madrid)

A guru is a connoisseur with followers and, depending on whether he makes an effort to know or to have followers, we will have different types of gurus. There are those who, because of the specialization of their knowledge or because they have no interest in making it known, have hardly any followers: these are the guru-erudites. Don Luis, the gentleman in "Bienvenido Mr. Marshall" (1953), although he had no specific erudition, warned his countrymen about the "Indians" whose visit they longed for. Nobody paid attention to him until the Yankee retinue cruelly passed by; it is not a bad thing to listen to the erudite.

There are also the gurus who, without much knowledge, are on the hunt for followers. As these gurus usually have an easy way with words, they get supporters without criteria and lazy, those who go to the rallies for the sandwich: they are the guru-charlatans. If instead of listening to their speeches we were to read them, they would be incomprehensible and empty; since today people read little, charlatans abound. Burt Lancaster played in "The Fire and the Word" (1960) a charlatan by the book, Elmer Gantry, a smooth-talking, unscrupulous salesman turned preacher, who swindled his parishioners but ended up redeemed by the love of Jean Simons. In the real world these cases do not usually have a happy ending, because there is no Jean Simons for everyone and because lately people are not in the mood for jokes: sooner or later the charlatan pays for it with his prestige or at the ballot box, if he is a politician.

Sometimes instead of a guru with many followers, there is a follower with many gurus or advisors; the follower must be rich or have access to public budgets. The mess arises when, as is often the case, the advisors contradict each other and the person being advised has to decide who to listen to. Possibly he will end up doing whatever he wants and one wonders why so many gurus.

John Kennedy once regretted having listened to the gurus. The film "Thirteen Days" (2000) describes what was called the Cuban Missile Crisis, which for a few days had the world on the brink of nuclear turmoil. One of the causes of the mess was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion launched the previous year by a newly elected president who, in retrospect, would declare: "I should have been shrewd enough to ignore the experts". Interesting reflection: Should we listen to the gurus?

To answer this question, it is convenient to ask oneself (and answer oneself) why one wants the guru. If it is to exercise the thinking machine, perfect. Reading and reflecting on what has been said by good thinkers, on decisions taken in difficult circumstances and on ethical principles and their application will help us to grease the thinking machine and we will think better and better for ourselves.

However, if we go to the guru in search of hasty prescriptions that save us the effort of thinking, it is a bad thing: no one can assure us that the guru will be right and we will not exercise ourselves, moreover, in thinking. After all, everyone is a world guru in knowing his or her own circumstances. Companies do not usually outsource their strategic activities, but only the ancillary ones: let us delegate the revision of the gas boiler or the preparation of the tax return, but not our own thinking.