Lunch with the FT: Werner Erhard

The self-help guru whose Est seminars in the 1970s attracted followers and controversy has turned his attention to integrity in business

After two and a half hours, two glasses of wine, and after being shouted at and shouting back, I emerge into the street outside Babbo in Mayfair with a strong urge to go home and lie down.

Werner Erhard is exhausting company. Indeed, before I even walk into the swanky Italian restaurant and find America's original self-help guru sitting in the corner with his unlined face and mahogany tan, I am already feeling tired just from reading about him.

Erhard is the man who more or less invented the personal growth movement in California in the early 1970s and who coined the phrase, "Thank you for sharing." He was the founder of Est (short for Erhard Seminars Training), which was popular with hippie intellectuals and celebrities who crowded into hotel ballrooms, were prevented from going to the loo, but emerged converted. Though to what, was never quite clear.

Est metamorphosed into The Forum and then into Landmark Education, and is now run by Erhard's brother, Harry Rosenberg. But Erhard's influence extends far beyond the couple of million people who have done his courses: there is hardly a self-help book or a management training programme that does not borrow some of his principles.

He shakes my hand enthusiastically but seems in no particular hurry to say anything, which makes me talk compulsively about nothing before I get a grip and ask what brings him to London. Erhard's exact whereabouts have been somewhat vague these past 20 years, since he was hounded out of the US after some of the worst publicity a man can have, involving allegations of incest, tax fraud and abuse. Even though these were all dropped, he tells me he left the country on his solicitor's advice and has been based in the Caribbean ever since.

What brings him to London, now, it turns out, is dental work. "I just had this ridiculous amount of oral surgery," he says loudly and slowly, and tells me that I need to speak up too as he's getting hard of hearing.

This is the only sign that he's 76. Otherwise the view of chest through the unbuttoned white shirt worn under a Prince of Wales check suit suggests someone younger, as does the way he studies the menu without glasses. He chooses a couple of starters for himself, and asks if I'd like wine in a tone of voice that suggests he's anxious to have some himself. I say I would, very much, and he studies the wine list with care and picks the priciest Italian white wine available by the glass.

It is two decades since Erhard has given a press interview, and he has already decided that this one is going to go well. "Lucy," he says, "I totally trust you. Maybe I shouldn't, but I do." What he trusts me to do is to write about the new work he has been doing on integrity, in partnership with Harvard economist Michael Jensen. "I want people to know that most suffering in their lives is the product of out-of-integrity behaviour," he says.

I'm longing to ask him about some of his own out-of-integrity behaviour – which involved walking out on his first wife and children and changing his name so they wouldn't find him – but for now we stick with integrity in the abstract. "Aristotle ruined integrity," he goes on. "He said it's something located inside you. But, actually, integrity is about wholeness. It's a positive phenomenon. Something is either whole, unbroken, or it isn't. It's not my judgment – it's a fact."

Perhaps I look as if I wasn't quite attending, as he says sharply: "Did you hear that?" Fortunately, I'm able to repeat what he just said. If I seemed to be wandering it was because I'm fascinated by his eyes, which by turn are warmly humorous and almost terrifyingly intense. The effect is most peculiar.

So, too, is his partnership with Jensen. Erhard is an autodidact who embraced spiritualism after an earlier career as a second-hand car salesman. Jensen is an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School, who as good as invented shareholder value and executive stock options – two radical ideas that with hindsight might have been better left on the shelf. Together they are writing academic articles and touring the world's best universities telling audiences that everything they thought they knew about integrity was wrong.

What got the two started on this was not the usual stuff about corporate scandals. It was reflecting on how their own "out-of-integrity behaviour", had stunted their own performance and damaged themselves and others around them. After seven years of research the upshot is a (somewhat impenetrable) model that links integrity, morality, ethics and legality into a single system that promises great benefits for everyone.

Erhard explains how the two men got to know each other a few years ago after Jensen's daughter attended a Forum seminar and was filled with such evangelical zeal that she dragged her prize-winning dad along to the next one.

He breaks off, distracted by the sight of a woman behind me who is wearing an odd sort of fur bolero, and lets out a delighted guffaw. "I like looking at people. I apologise, but I get a kick out of it. The whole mess of people is great!"

The waitress brings his calamari and he thanks her politely, then shunts a hula hoop of rubbery seafood on to the plate of raw tuna that I've been given.

"Have a bite of that, Lucy. Isn't that well done?"

Just as I'm starting to think there is something rather charming about him, he suddenly declares: "I'm not nice. I don't say nice things. I don't like nice people." And then, before I can admire the honesty, he adds a gnomic piece of psychobabble: "I find being nice is committed to me, not to you."

It turns out Werner Erhard sees himself as something far greater than nice. He solemnly tells me that he is, without question, a hero.

"Here's my definition of a hero. A hero is an ordinary person given being and action by something bigger than themselves. One thing I'm sure about is I'm real ordinary. Yet I've had the chance to touch the lives of a lotta people."

It is true that Erhard has touched many lives – I've come across plenty of his converts – but I've never really grasped what it was that they learnt in those long days in hotel ballrooms.

"People understood that nothing is significant. Life is empty and meaningless, and it's empty and meaningless, that it's empty and meaningless."

I nod, a little confused.

"Until what is significant is created by you, you aren't living your life, you are living some inherited life."

The waitress comes to remove the starters. He has hardly touched the calamari.

"I'm talking too much. Take it away. It was great by the way."

And then he says: "Look, I'm going to do something with you we do in the training. I'm going to ask you where you are, and you are going to say, 'Here.' "

So we do this, and then he asks: "And you are always here, right?"

No, I say, I've never been here before. He looks annoyed.

"But you are here. Where you are, Lucy, this object you call Lucy, is here."

I nod.

"And where Werner is, is there."

I agree.

"You do see me, do you not? Where is Lucy-seeing-Werner happening?"

On the back of my retina, I say. He shakes his head.

"What you told me is your theory about seeing. I want to know where you seeing Werner is happening. Point."

I duly point to my brain.

"You have no idea what's in there, woman!" Erhard jabs an angry finger in my direction. "Godammit, Susie, your seeing Werner is happening where Werner is."

If the waitress is surprised by the shouting she doesn't show it, but delivers our second starters, a few meatballs in tomato sauce for him, and a small pile of aubergine for me.

"Smells good," he says, all smiling urbanity again. He orders another glass of wine for himself, and one for me, whether or not I want one. Which I do, as it happens.

I say I can't see what difference it makes where Lucy-sees-Werner is happening. He explains it is fundamental. It is about life-as-lived, not life-as-observed.

I'm not the first person to struggle to grasp his ideas. Erhard tells me that paramilitaries in Northern Ireland had a bit of trouble too, but when they did get it they disarmed as a result. He also worked with members of the first Russian parliament in 1993, who were apparently even slower getting the point than me.

The conversation drifts back to integrity and I want to know if seeing it as a factual rather than moral matter makes people behave worse. Surely, I suggest, most people act better when they are following inherited or religious values.

"I don't buy that for one second. Godammit, Susie, do your research!"

He brings his fist down on to the table and I start to wonder who this Susie is, who makes him so cross.

"Just look at people of religious belief!" he yells. "Do they act better? I was brought up in the Episcopalian church. I was an acolyte, for God's sake. Until I was 30, lying was something you did."

Erhard did more than most. Back then he was Jack Rosenberg, married with four young children, until one day in 1960 he ran off with another woman and renamed himself Werner Erhard. What was that about?

"Oh, an inability to take responsibility." He pauses and corrects himself: "No. That's bullshit. Not an inability. An unwillingness. I've got to own all of that."

After many years he reintroduced himself to his wife and children and, he says, was warmly welcomed.

"My wife was a saint. Not many people are saints. But she is one."

As we are already on one vexed subject, I broach the question of the CBS TV programme in 1991 that contained allegations of incest and abuse, which were subsequently retracted and caused the programme to be withdrawn. He doesn't flinch as I bring up the subject.

"I'm OK with everything, sweetheart. Sorry, did I call you 'sweetheart'? My partner said, 'Don't call her sweetheart.' Time magazine reported that those allegations have been recanted."

Yet the damage to him was huge. "Horrendous!" he agrees. "But nothing is inherently significant. I am a stronger, more useful human being because I have no concern for my reputation."

But then why did he sue CBS for libel, defamation, slander and invasion of privacy, as well as conspiracy? "That was people around me. And I said, 'Cut it out', so it got dropped."

The tax allegations made against him were not only dropped but the IRS paid him $200,000 compensation. According to Erhard it was all a plot. "There was an organisation that decided to create a shitload of trouble for me," he says darkly.

He then tells me that in a few weeks all the kids are getting together in Napa Valley. Seven children, 12 grandchildren, wife number one, his partner. Only wife number two will be absent.

Coffee is brought, and with it a large wafer. I break one in half and hand half to him. He gives another mad laugh and I ask what's so funny.

"I'm just laughing at us! It's fun! I just like doing this!"

He giggles for a bit, which, despite everything, I find quite sweet.

And then he says: "Gad, raising children! Man, you've got to talk about a job! I was never good as a father. I was always attending to making a living."

Making money seems like one of his more minor parental flaws, yet was something he did rather effectively. Indeed, one of the complaints about Est was that it messed with people's minds in order to make a fortune for its founder.

"There were millions of dollars in revenue but there were millions in overheads. I had a rich lifestyle, I spent a year driving a goddamn race car."

And what about now? "There are people who support me financially," he says but does not elaborate.

I rummage around in my bag for my wallet. "How bad was that?" he asks and for a minute I think he is asking about the interview but then I see he's worrying about the bill. I tell him that it's £121, quite a lot for four tiny starters and four glasses of wine. "That's not bad," he says, getting up to escort me to my bike. As he does so he tells me about his partner, who has been with him for several decades.

"She's an extraordinary human being. This is the truth. Our relationship leaves me fearless. She's extraordinary. I'm going to cry."

No tears come. Lucky you, I say.

"No kidding," he says. "No kidding. Lucky me."

Lucy Kellaway is the FT's management columnist

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