No more heroes – or gurus, come to that.

What is it with the inflationary use of the term “Legend” that irritates me?

Wow! Did you see that? He’s a real legend!

I suppose what one is trying to say when one uses the term is that somebody has done something especially well or memorably. But does that make someone a legend? To me, the stuff of legends is… I don’t know, Beowulf, Odyssseus, King Arthur, figures in that kind of league. Anyway, not a term I would consider using someone who had done well in a competition – or something like that. Not knocking it, mind you, just saying that it’s not a term that springs to the front of my mind.

This is not to say that I don’t have people who have influenced me over the years. But then that is very subjective, not something I would necessarily go shouting about or make a big thing of, but rather something quite intimate and private, part of the mosaic of experiences and memories that makes me the person I am today.

Essentially, what we are talking about here is about a quality of interaction between two people.

Let me explain.

Antje Schrupp, a German professor of politics discussed the relationship between power, violence and authority from a feminist point of view in a very thought-provoking paper a couple of years ago. One of the points she focuses on is the question of authority. I found her definition of authority very striking: She says that it is a quality of relationship and always has to be negotiated between two individuals. So, if I were to meet you and we got chatting, I might think: Hey, this person seems really knowledgeable about fungi on trees. And you might think: What Mark is saying about configuring karabiners makes a lot of sense (well, you can always hope!). Based on this interaction, I might decide to grant you authority in all matters fungus on trees and you might in return impart a degree of authority regarding configuring karabiners to me. Authority can only be granted, never demanded. If the crew foreman puffs himself up and demands you to respect his authority, this is not a negotiation, according to Schrupp he is using the power granted to him by his position in the hierarchy to force you to subordinate yourself to him. This is not authority, rather it is power being put to work.

Getting to my point here…

What Antje Schrupp says is that if a negotiation does not take place and a mass of people concedes power to a person, this person is then not an authority, but rather a guru. Take an example… Ueli Steck, a well-known alpinist with some crazy speed ascent records. If I were to place blind faith in all he says and take it as gospel, without having sat down with him and decided for myself, based on 1:1 interaction whether he actually is as knowledgeable as everyone maintains, then in fact he is not an authority to me, but rather I am looking up to him as a guru.

To me this was quite a profound insight.

It makes me realize that when I am out doing workshops and lectures that actually every person in the audience has stories to tell and if we had the time, we could grant each other authority in lots of different matters, which would be really exciting. Sadly, due to time constraints this will not be possible, however, I do urge people to question what I am saying and to add their opinions to the discussion, as I have no ambition whatsoever to be a guru to anyone, as then exchange becomes impossible, as a guru can never admit to ignorance. And then I have to ask the question of why go to all the effort, if you are not learning as you go along?! Seems rather stale and hollow to me.

So. Legends for me belong in the realm of sagas and fairy tales. I prefer to think of such individuals as contributors, bridge builders and role models. After all, according to Antje Schrupp’s definition, authority, once it has been negotiated, brings responsibility with it – and shall not serve to merely boost one’s ego or to make you feel warm and fuzzy.