No More Gurus

Avianca flight 052, from Medellin to New York, was circling JFK for landing in bad weather.

It was dangerously low on fuel. The captain told his co-pilot to tell air traffic control they needed to land immediately.

The co-pilot radioed JFK:

Climb and maintain three thousand and, ah, we’re running out of fuel, sir.

Air traffic control responded:

Avianca zero-five-two heavy, ah, I’m gonna bring you about fifteen miles northeast and then turn you back onto the approach. Is that okay with you and your fuel?

The co-pilot came back:

I guess so. Thank you very much.

The plane keeps circling JFK.

A flight attendant enters the cockpit to see what’s going on. The flight engineer points to an empty fuel gage, looks at the flight attendant, and draws his finger across his neck.

Then they crashed. On January 25th 1990, flight 052 ran out of fuel, killing 65 of its 149 passengers.

Malcolm Gladwell tells this story in his book Outliers as an example of the dangers of blind deference to hierarchical authority.

If you are piloting a plane that’s about to run out of gas and air traffic control asks if it’s OK for you to keep flying, the correct response is, “No, we’re landing now.”

But if you’re accustomed to a culture that strictly adheres to the commands of superiors, you respond, “I guess so. Thank you very much,” and turn to your coworkers and admit you’re all about to die.

This also happened when a pilot approaching Guam engaged in a series of reckless maneuvers in front of a flight crew who sat silently until the plane crashed into a mountain. The official report states: “The Flight Engineer picked up something was wrong but said nothing. First Officer was also not happy but said nothing.”

Maybe this is all only obvious in hindsight. But I think it’s instructive of something similar we see – with lower consequences – in technology, investing, and politics:

There is a difference between an expert, whose talent should always be celebrated, and a guru, whose bad ideas should never be questioned.

With few exceptions we should praise experts but be terrified of gurus.

This problem afflicts tech, where several one-time god-like leaders have been revealed to be something between showmen and fraudsters. Or even the innocent version: normal people susceptible to incentives and the desire to maintain a narrative.

Same in investing, where one right call can sustain a subsequent career of unquestioned dart throwing.

And in politics, where a politician who does a few things people support can get those people to nod their heads at lot of things they otherwise wouldn’t.

Success has a way of making those around you question whether they should point out your flaws or question your crazy ideas. This is partly a desire to not damage your career or be rejected from the tribe, and part a flawed assumption that if someone’s crazy ideas in the past turned out to be right, their crazy ideas today must be the same. It can also be driven by the assumption that skill in one field translates to wisdom in all fields.

But guru-ism is dangerous for everyone, for a few reasons.

Destruction becomes self-fulfilling. Scott Galloway put it: “I speak from some experience as a CEO in the ‘90s internet days: If you tell a 30-year-old male he’s Jesus Christ, he’s inclined to believe you.” Smart people who know their limits are happy to abandon those limits if enough people tell them to. Then, unshackled, they run off a cliff. Losing competitive paranoia – the idea that you’re nothing special and someone else can take your spot tomorrow – is probably worse than losing intelligence or vision, because the end result is so certain.

Gurus can’t change their minds. At least not very easily. When your persona is based on the idea that you’re a flawless expert, admitting that past positions may have been wrong and need to be changed becomes a bug, not a feature.

It reduces the ambition of non-gurus. The more we describe successful people as having guru-like powers, the more everyone else looks at them and says, “I could never do that.” Which sucks, because some people could. There are a lot of smart people in the world. There are a lot of people willing to take risks. And with big, bold visions. Only a small portion will end up on the fortunate side of risk, because that’s how the world works. When we attribute their success to divine insight vs. the cold truth of probability, fewer people try to swing for the fences than should.

It leads to poor governance. “You don’t bring bad news to the cult leader,” one piece on WeWork put it. Once assumptions go from “this person is smart” to “this person can do no wrong,” all attempts to incorporate diverse views are thrown out. Then confidence mixed with no guardrails takes everyone down.

We’ll never get rid of gurus, because assuming someone knows everything is easier than trying to figure out how they knew one thing. They let us pretend the future is knowable, and the path forward is obvious.

Celebrate skill. But we could all do a little better in this industry by admitting that everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time.