Confessions of a Guru—What Makes a Real Leader?

 Okay, so I do still have a hard time referring to myself with the words, “expert” or “guru” without giggling. But, some really sweet people have labeled me as such, so we’re going to run with that today. Fridays are free-for-all, the day you will see me as a person. That counts as my disclaimer, by the way.

I love my book We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media, but I have to confess it was the toughest thing I ever wrote. Why? Because I really didn’t “feel” like an expert. In fact, most of the book represents an accumulation of my failures…ideas that seemed like a good idea, but in practice went BOOM! In fact, I have a deep and profound respect for Wile E. Coyote and if he ever wrote a leadership book, it might look a lot like mine.

But you know what? I used to think that my failures were a weakness. Now? I am not so sure. I don’t know if I trust the leaders who’ve had “charmed” lives. Do I really want to read a wilderness survival manual penned by the dude who did everything right? Or would I prefer to read one by the guy who tells me, “Yeah, those berries might seem like a nice snack, but let me tell you what those little suckers can do!” Do I want to read a book on conquering alcohol addiction written by the Harvard PhD who made straight As or by the guy who crawled out of the gutter, homeless and alone, and has since been sober for 20 years? Does a CEO count as a great leader? Maybe. But if you read the Drunkard’s Walk—How Randomness Rules Our Lives it can change the way you perceive great leaders. Was that CEO or military general that skilled, or did they just happen to be in the right place at the right time for the right confluence of events? Maybe. Maybe not. Makes you think, and put resume’s in perspective.

Failure is a great teacher. I used to think I was a great leader, but then I had a year that I was put to the test…I mean really put to the test. I was elected president of three different organizations and elected to the board of directors for a fourth organization. Yikes! Yeah, you guessed it. I went down in flames. But you know what? I am so grateful for that experience. It has given me some tremendous insights to pass on to others.

I have one of those extroversive, energetic personalities—kind of like Tigger if he drank a case of Red Bull. It doesn’t take long for someone to volunteer me for leadership roles. Why? I am charismatic.

Ahhhh, but herein lies the problem. Charisma and leadership ability are not the same thing (as I would find out during that year of hell). The truth is, had I been as great of a leader as I was in my own mind, I would have managed just fine. But I wasn’t, and I soon got into deep, deep trouble. Great leaders delegate. I learned that. I now delegate. Great leaders keep people accountable. Much better at that too. Great leaders make people feel valued by allowing them to contribute their talents. Much, much better at that. Great leaders are good listeners. Getting there. Great leaders know how to say “no.” Still working on that :D.

The interesting point of this is that, the year I was elected to all of those positions, I had a pretty outstanding resume. Heck, I even impressed myself. Yet, when the test of fire came, I crumbled. And don’t get me wrong, my critique group survived and Rotary is still there…but I was forever changed.

My brother is now president of my Rotary club and doing an amazing job. But the weird thing is that I give much better advice as a failure than I ever could have when I was a “success.” One of my favorite books of all time is called Failing Forward by John Maxwell. Our society places so much value on success, but what about failure? How many neuroses, addictions and devastated relationships are created by us buying into the lie that we must be perfect? We walk around with armor afraid to be human and, to me that is sad.

Perfection is the measure of gods and angels, but humans I believe are better measured by their failures. How did they take them? What did they do with them? How did they use that failure to change their lives and better the lives of others?

My favorite poem when I was a kid, was How did You Die? By Edmund Vance Cook

Did you tackle that trouble that came your way

With a resolute heart and cheerful?

Or hide your face from the light of day

With a craven soul and fearful?


Oh, a trouble’s a ton, or a trouble’s an ounce,

Or a trouble is what you make it.

And it isn’t the fact that you’re hurt that counts,

But only how did you take it?


You are beaten to earth? Well, well, what’s that?

Come up with a smiling face.

It’s nothing against you to fall down flat,

But to lie there — that’s disgrace.


The harder you’re thrown, why the higher you bounce;

Be proud of your blackened eye!

It isn’t the fact that you’re licked that counts;

It’s how did you fight and why?


And though you be done to death, what then?

If you battled the best you could;

If you played your part in the world of men,

Why, the Critic will call it good.


Death comes with a crawl, or comes with a pounce,

And whether he’s slow or spry,

It isn’t the fact that you’re dead that counts,

But only, how did you die?

So, at the end of the day, I smile when great people like Tawna Fenske call me a guru. It feels wonderful to get letters and e-mails from people my book has helped. And I have to be careful when awesome people like talented Jody Hedlund or brilliant Candace Havens call me an expert because I could get a terrible cramp patting myself on the back. Yet, unlike ol’ Wile E. Coyote, I think I am more wary of packages marked ACME, or in my case EGO.

I like to believe that I am good at what I do, and I sure appreciate all of you who stop by to read these blogs. But I know that the best of what I have to offer all of you, whether it is about writing or social media or leadership or life in general very often came from failure. I like to believe that I am quicker to learn from error than Wile E., but we are kindred spirits in that we don’t look back at what blew up in our face—we dust off and try again and again and again undaunted.

It takes no great effort or test of character for us to criticize others. But to take an honest look inside, acknowledge our shortcomings and then be humble enough to learn and change? Why THAT is progress :D. Thus, if this “guru” has anything to offer it is that failure hurts. No one likes to brag about where she fell short. Nobody likes to list on the resume all their misjudgments, missteps, or mishaps. Yet, these “failures” are our greatest teachers and some of our most precious possessions. At the end of the day, failure is what we make it. Is it a headstone or a stepping stone? The choice is ours.

Happy writing!

Until next time…


One more mark of a great leader? Be an edifier! Acknowledge those who have contributed. So here is the mash-up!

Everett Marroon wrote a great blog about why writers need community. Darn skippy! We are already weird to start with. Too much alone time is bad juju.

Author Jennifer Holbrook has an interesting perspective on the topic of critique groups. What’s the best kind?

I follow Writer’s Digest Editor Jane Friedman, namely because she makes a mash-up simple by offering great material. She has an interesting blog that offers tips for writing about your life.

Publisher’s Weekly had an interesting blog about e-books. 35 million downloaded so far. Wow!

This blog I found when searching for a guru pic. It was so funny I had to include it in the mash-up. 5 Internet Marketing Buzz Words That Are Annoying as Hell. Yes, “guru” was among them. Shocking!

Have a great weekend. See y’all on Monday.

1 comment

  1. Hi Kristen. Love the post. Like Rebecca Kelley, I, too, find the word “guru” annoying because I think it’s overused. That’s why I refer to you as a social media marketing “maven” instead. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your self and your knowledge. All the best.

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