By Ellen McGirt
Updated: April 9, 2018 2:34 PM ET

Life coach and CEO-whisperer Tony Robbins issued an apology yesterday after a video of him telling a packed auditorium that some women associated with the #MeToo movement were just engaging in victimhood to destroy powerful men went viral on Saturday.

The apology was directed largely toward #MeToo creator Tarana Burke, who was one of many people who critiqued his remarks online. “I apologize for suggesting anything other than my profound admiration for the #MeToo movement,” Robbins said in a Facebook post. “I am committed to helping educate others so that we all stay true to the ideals of the #MeToo movement.”

The controversy started after Now This shared a clip of his remarks and an exchange with an audience member on Twitter.

“If you use the #MeToo movement to try to get significance and certainty by attacking and destroying someone else you haven’t grown an ounce,” he said during a self-help seminar held in San Jose, Calif. on Mar. 15. “All you’ve done is basically use a drug called significance to make yourself feel good.”

One of Robbins’s followers, Nadine McCool, a sexual abuse survivor, politely pushed back. “I think you misunderstand the #MeToo movement,” she began. She said he was failing to account for the “significant number of people who are using it not to relive whatever may have happened to them but to make it safe for young women, so they don’t have to experience it.”

The video hit a nerve. “This moment is so damaging especially with how influential @TonyRobbins is,” Burke responded on Twitter. “We have a hard enough time trying to shift the narrative about what this movement really is and he stands in front of thousands of his followers and completely misrepresents the @MeTooMVMT.”

In the clip, Robbins went on to explain that one very famous and powerful executive who he knew was “very stressed,” and didn’t hire a “very attractive woman” for a role despite being better qualified than two male candidates, because “it was too big a risk.” A dozen influential men have told him the same thing, he said.

It begs the question: What could Robbins have counseled that would have helped those men make more courageous, inclusive, and less legally dubious decisions?

Burke is right to be concerned about the power of Robbins to shape thinking. Fortune’s Brian O’Keefe wrote an extraordinary profile of the guru in 2014 that flagged his growing influence in C-Suites. From his story:

Few if any self-improvement gurus are as familiar to Americans as Robbins, but somewhat more quietly over the years he has assumed a different role—as trusted adviser to corporate chieftains and captains of finance. He counts billionaires such as Virgin’s Richard Branson and gaming magnate Steve Wynn among his friends. His special gift, say admirers, is his ability to help successful people not only take their performance to the next level but also find personal fulfillment in the process. Robbins’ knack for combining pragmatic analysis with empathy has turned him into a modern-day consigliere to the C-suite. “He’s been a source of direction—a rebooter for me when I got off track,” says longtime Hollywood producer Peter Guber, the onetime CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment and an owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers who first discovered Robbins through his tapes and then became a close friend. “I would call on him to look at what I was doing in my life. Was I being authentic?”

If you’ve got the time, you can see the authentic Robbins in the longer clip, in which he cut McCool off almost immediately, and among other worrisome things, delivered a sharply worded reminder about Jesus and how vulnerable we all are to exposure. “You shouldn’t throw that stone if you live in a fucking glass house,” he said. The eleven-minute exchange will be more appalling if you’re unfamiliar with the secular mega-church vibe that characterizes these events, but it’s hard to generate an interpretation that doesn’t cast Robbins as either tone-deaf at best or threatening at worst.

The big winner was McCool, who kept her cool while making the case that Robbins was out of touch. He conceded as much in his apology. “[S]ometimes, the teacher has to become the student and it is clear that I still have much to learn,” he wrote. If he can learn to coach powerful men to stop throwing barriers in front of powerful women and other marginalized groups, it might have been worth the exercise.


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