“The Formula”: The Unspoken Truth About The Packaging, Peddling, And Commoditization Of Leadership And Knowledge

Some people are not going to like what I've written here, so first a few fair warnings and disclaimers: 1) These are my personal observations and opinions, nothing more; 2) I am going to make generalizations; there are always obvious exceptions when it comes to generalizations. 3) I'm not in the "business" of leadership so I'm not trying to sway "buyers" towards my line of thinking or "products."

The business of leadership, i.e. leadership development, has been around for quite a while now, and I think for the most part it's been legitimate. Whether it was through peer advisory organizations, group practices, or individual consultants, leadership development was delivered to its beneficiaries in an equitable way, with buyers predominantly paying for services rendered. Services might also be accompanied by corollary products: tomes and textbooks, workbooks and worksheets, assessment tools, and the like. These products could also be purchased a la carte, but were still often used in conjunction with the services rendered.

These days, however, there seems to be a growing preponderance of products, particularly products associated with an individual selling their "system." The people selling these systems have turned themselves into the product – the brand – and their credentials seem somewhat sketchy. These systems seem supported by what I've come to call, "The Formula," and the people selling The Formula become peddlers. The Formula looks something like this:

  • So-called expert Peddler writes a book, which these days Peddler can even self-publish. Book price point is quite reasonable, but really doesn't make Peddler much ROI...but that isn't the point
  • Peddler markets book, particularly if they become expert at social media
  • Peddler goes "on tour," pushing their book and their expertise. An aggressive Peddler gets lots of appearances, further reinforcing their personal brand and so-called expertise. Peddlers with deeper pockets actually hire people to promote them, giving the greater impression of omnipresence
  • Appearances + book = paid gigs
  • With a growing personal brand and paid gigs, new productization occurs: The Method. The Method is the packaging and how-to's of The Formula thus far, which is clearly no secret per the above but which many others want in on. ("I want to be as successful as Peddler!")
  • Peddler teases The Method: "Attend my one-day only workshop/exclusive webinar and learn all my secrets." Said event is 100x the cost of the book
  • Peddler's event doesn't really disclose much and is really just a tee-up for the real pitch. Perhaps the pitch is for "an exclusive mastermind group" priced at 10 – 20x the cost of the event...monthly! Or, perhaps the pitch is to entrap – oops, I mean encourage – others to become Peddlers of the Peddlers products...for a princely buy-in fee
  • Peddler repeats the last two steps until Peddler can actually claim to be a "6-figure/7-figure income producer!"

Does The Formula sound familiar? Sure it does. It's called Amway for leadership development or the selling of knowledge. At its most benign, it's multi-level marketing; at its worst, it's a Ponzi scheme.

Are people entitled to make money from the knowledge they have? Certainly! Can legitimate experts follow The Formula to make this money? Of course.

My concern with this, however, is that I'm seeing it as a trend, and not a good one. The Formula is churning out a lot of Peddlers, and so many Peddlers have led to confusion and commoditizing in the market. How is an ordinary (and perhaps naïve) person or business entity looking to gain real wisdom to discern the difference between experts with real, acquired knowledge and those who've basically just parlayed their reputation and marketing savvy into a product?

This commoditization can't be good for the business of leadership and knowledge development...unless someone's aim really is only to learn how to make lots of money claiming to have deep expertise of a subject they only really have surface expertise on. And sadly, I think there are plenty of folks seeking this out there, too. I have seen commoditization of this sort before -- in the digital marketing industry, for instance – and whereas the so-called experts are supposed to be in service to their clientele, they're really only in service to themselves. I do not think of this as service leadership. I think of this as borderline fraud.

So where is this all going? Will there be so many Peddlers working The Formula and selling their Methods that the market will not be able to bear so many and it will ultimately correct itself? Or, will it continue to propagate because people would rather think they're buying into the quick route to success than to put in the hard work that it takes to be a real leader?

I'm really not sure. Only time will tell.