Tony Robbins, Buzzfeed, and Self-Proclaimed "Gurus"

Tony Robbins, Buzzfeed, and Self-Proclaimed "Gurus"

Many of my business colleagues, regardless of whether they're in the nonprofit, social enterprise, or mission-driven business sphere, rely on the philosophy of Tony Robbins for their success. Despite a recent Buzzfeed article outlining allegations of inappropriate behavior, Tony Robbins retains the support of many of his acolytes. (He has also strongly criticized the site in an open letter to Buzzfeed). Regardless of their familiarity with Robbins' work, there is one question many people may have - How can anyone get swept up with "gurus" like Tony Robbins?

It's not easy, and I can speak from experience. Over ten years ago, I attended a "free weekend" run by a local "business coaching" organization. Given some of their tactics at the time, I believe I dodged a bullet.

Let's put this in context: I had just moved back to Chicago from St. Louis and was looking for full-time work. My mother was on the list for a new liver (she had non-alcoholic cirrhosis due to diabetes) and I was helping my aunt help her. At the time, I was working to build contacts and reestablish ties with my past colleagues. When I received an e-mail for a "free weekend dedicated to personal growth" from an organization, it seemed like a good deal. (Especially since the same organization - which shall remain unnamed in this article - is reported to charge a $100 "deposit" for a similar weekend). So I went ahead and registered, had to reschedule for another weekend, but made plans to attend and (at the very least) meet some new people.

Here's how the weekend broke down:

Photo by Gordon Dymowski

Photo by Gordon Dymowski

Friday: We gathered at eight pm at a location in River North starting with a "reception" involving bottled water and sodas. Working my way through the crowd, I encountered an old high school classmate and a fellow Loyola alumnus whom I had met approximately one week before. (I honestly do not remember if she sent me the email that started this process). After our "reception", the husband-and-wife team that ran the organization gave presentations involving promises of "getting more out of life", "getting the best you deserve", and an assortment of terms that betrayed the wife's "background" in psychology. Ironically, it had sounded very much like Tony Robbins' ideas (and I was only familiar with him through online research: I had been tempted to check out Unlimited Power after seeing one of his then-popular commercials but had decided against it. We had finished around 11:30-ish that evening, and I went home.

Saturday: Making it close to the 8:00 am start time, I secretly hoped that it would not all the way to 8:00 pm that evening. Ironically, this session was extremely eventful (although, to their credit, they never attempted any walking over hot coals like Tony Robbins):

  • Attendees were sorted into smaller groups and encouraged to discuss their issue and concerns in their lives. At least one of the facilitators was taking notes on a clipboard, and quickly hid their notes when I attempted to grab a glance. Within another group, I noticed that the notes focused on what members discussed in detail. Although I knew this wasn't "therapy", it felt extremely inappropriate and invasive.
  • The wife made the majority of presentations, focusing on the "small things" we need to let go in order to "fulfill our potential". As much as I could appreciate her words (I had a master's degree in counseling), I knew that she was using "self-help" speak.
  • The husband, however...had a direct, almost arrogant manner. At one point, he engaged in an argument with an audience member who "confronted" the husband about the validity of their program. Despite an obviously staged "awkward" apology between the two men, the evening continued.
  • Although we enjoyed lunch at Yolk Streeterville (accompanied by the group's facilitators at our own expense)...no food was ever provided, nor was there a snack or dinner break. Although I had a deep, almost bronchial cough throughout the session (and was sick the following week), no one ever encouraged me to go home or expressed concern...which bothered me at the time.
  • One of my fellow attendees offered me a ride home, and we had a long talk about the session. He was unwilling to attend the final session - his wife had spent an inordinate amount of money with this particular organization - but I was willing to tough it out. However, since I was concerned with my own physical and mental health, I had a talk with my mother and aunt and set up an escape plan worthy of an episode of Leverage

Sunday: Our initial sharing session - a public one involving the husband and wife, resulted in the arguing attendee revealing that he was a long-time client expressing his frustrations, and the husband claimed that "we all make mistakes in trying to grow. Soon, the husband and wife came on with the hard sell: for only $5,000 in their coaching services, our lives would improve, and many of the facilitators pushed hard - one young woman even asked me if I wanted to be happy? (This was after I explained that I was unemployed, was looking for work, etc). Luckily, I managed to implement my escape plan by calling my aunt, arranging to meet in between, and avoiding the "help" offered by facilitators - after all, I did not want anyone in this organization to know even more about me.
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But luckily, I later found work and started engaging with - and getting to know - professional business coaches. Many of them have similar traits in common: they can cite successes, have the credentials to back up their results, and rarely use coercive persuasion techniques to acquire clients. When it comes to personal trauma, many individuals (like myself) have sought out individual counseling and therapy from qualified professionals. In my own personal development, I realized that change comes over time...and that even during difficult phases, coaches and therapists tend to be firm but empathic.

It's one of the reasons why the Tony Robbins Buzzfeed story is getting some blowback from his supporters - it's no longer about a person who provided support or guidance towards a greater good. Given the article's allegations about his conduct, it's no surprise that Tony Robbins is striking back rather than performing the usual I-need-to-listen apologetics that others have stated when caught in such issues. But by doubling down into defiance and denial, Tony Robbins is showing how easy it is for "gurus" to reveal the very negative traits they claim to have surpassed.

In an ever-complicated business world, professionals are looking for an edge, and hiring coaches can help. But moving towards peak performance requires heeding the counsel of people who utilize their own principles. In this case, Tony Robbins can talk the talk, but cannot walk the walk...even on hot coals.

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And as always, thanks for reading!

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