Understanding Unhealthy Leadership

My book Escaping Utopia (Routledge, 2017) tells the stories of 65 people from 39 different cults in more than a dozen countries.

Cover of Escaping Utopia bookMy co-author, sociologist Janja Lalich, PhD, is an internationally renowned expert on cults, indoctrination, extremist groups, and terrorist groups, and she is a cult survivor (as I am). Because we both have first-hand knowledge of living inside cults, our book doesn’t focus on just one cult. Instead, it focuses on cults as a specific kind of group that can be identified clearly. We wrote Escaping Utopia to help people become aware of cults and unhealthy groups wherever they may be.

Janja’s work on cults is groundbreaking because she shows that a cult is simply a social group using everyday social behaviors that get out of hand. Cults can be any size, and they can be focused on all kinds of beliefs or ideas, such as saving the world.

Cults can be religious or atheistic. Cults can be political or business-based. They can involve spiritual beliefs or beliefs about health or money. They can focus on meditation, politics, exercise, sex, or multi-level marketing. Cults can be as large as countries like North Korea or Soviet Russia, or as small as an abusive relationship between 2 people.

Knowing more about cults will help you understand more about how humans build relationships and groups of every kind.

The four dimensions that all cults share

Janja developed a brilliant way to explain cults with her bounded choice model. In this model, she shows that cult members aren’t strange people with wild eyes, but that they’re usually idealists who want to change the world. Cults and cult leaders take advantage of that idealistic dedication and turn all of it toward the cult’s own needs.

Every successful social group finds ways to engage people and energize them, but cults use four specific dimensions to bring people in and trap them.

Over a series of posts, I’ll focus on each of these dimensions and help you identify whether they’re active in your relationships, or in any group you belong to. I’ll also help you understand whether these dimensions are being used in healthy or unhealthy ways.

  1. A charismatic authority figure
  2. A transcendent belief system
  3. Systems of control
  4. Systems of influence

We’ll look at charismatic authority first.

What is charismatic authority?

We can all identify charismatic people in our lives, from actors, musicians, and politicians to the best players on our favorite sports teams. Charismatic people are appealing and magnetic, and they draw us in with their skills, appearance, talents, or perhaps a special quality that we can’t quite put our finger on. Charismatic people may initiate hero worship or feelings of being wildly in love (as many of us may have experienced in our adolescent and early adult infatuations).

In healthy relationships, these wild and worshipful moments tend to fade, and we become able to view those people in more balanced and calm ways. But in unhealthy relationships and groups, charismatic people find ways to continually activate that intense infatuation and devotion. Successful charismatic authority figures keep followers captivated and entrapped through exhilarating utopian visions, constant displays of power, demands for commitment, demonization of outsiders, and incessant emotional manipulation.

Charismatic authority is the powerful emotional bond between a leader and their followers. It makes the leader seem deeply legitimate and visionary, and it grants authority to their actions. Anything they do is portrayed as vital to the vision and survival of the group. The ends always justify the means because the charismatic authority figure isn’t merely right; they are anointed, chosen, or blessed.

When followers believe that their leader is utterly perfect, they may convince themselves that anything they do in service to the leader is righteous and justified. Eventually, the leader’s needs justify the behaviors and actions of everyone in the group. The deep relationship followers have with their leader’s charismatic authority is the hook that keeps them engaged, susceptible, and willing to do whatever it takes to satisfy their leader’s every whim and desire.

Charisma lives in the eye of the beholder

The concept of charismatic authority was introduced by one of the founders of sociology, Max Weber, in his classic work on ancient religions, bureaucracy, and institution building.[i] Weber is regarded as the leading scholar on charismatic authority, and he identified a follower’s response to charisma as an ecstatic or intoxicated state.[ii]

Weber noticed that it is recognition by others that determines the extent of a person’s charisma. In other words: no followers, no charisma. Charismatic authority exists primarily in the eye of the beholder. This is why some people can see through a seemingly charismatic leader and ask, “How can anyone follow that charlatan?” while others may be completely smitten. Not everyone responds in the same way to charismatic authority figures.[vii]

Once followers have identified a person as a charismatic authority, it then becomes their duty to believe in him or her.  And to expand therr domination, a clever charismatic leader offers something uniquely special that followers can only get from him or her – the hope of new beginnings, peace on earth, an enchanted afterlife, perfect health, a cancer cure, political revolution, social justice, or something as mundane as weight loss or financial gain.[x]

Transcendent beliefs and dogmas seem to be the focus of cults; yet in reality, the purpose of many cults is simply to serve the emotional, financial, psychological, and sexual needs of the leader with unquestioning obedience. The authoritarian personality of the cult leader helps ensure that their needs and desires are always the top priority.[xi]

However, this situation backfires reliably, because even if the leader started out with good intentions, it’s rare that a person can handle the kind of adulation and blind obedience that is demanded from and granted by cult followers – even if the worship and obedience are obtained through force. It is commonplace for charismatic authority figures to become unbalanced, egocentric, and toxic.

Having said that, it’s important to clarify that charisma or charismatic authority is not evil and does not necessarily produce a cult leader. We can think of charismatic leaders such as President John F. Kennedy, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi, or Nelson Mandela, to name just a few. These and other charismatic authority figures have been a positive force in society.

However, the influence over others that comes with charismatic authority – and the inherent power imbalance that is created – must always be kept in check.[xii]

Charismatic leaders have a responsibility to learn how to maintain their humanity in the face of constant adoration, and to apply rigorous checks and balances to their behavior so that they can protect their followers from harm. In cults, none of these protections exist.

Evaluating charismatic authorities in your own life

The following checklists can help you identify whether a charismatic leader or group uses its authority appropriately – or if the charisma has decayed into toxic narcissism, self-absorption, and the need to control others. These checklists can also help you identify any toxic or overly-controlling people in your everyday life.

Unhealthy charismatic authorities treat others as means to an end and require unquestioning devotion to their (or their group’s) beliefs, desires, and demands.

If you’re involved with any charismatic leaders or groups, you can use this checklist to gauge the health of the situation. Are any of these statements true?

  • The leader or group has an inflated sense of importance and connection to greatness.
  • The leader’s needs, ideas, and desires are overriding; they erase the needs, ideas, and desires of group members.
  • The leader can do or say almost anything without repercussions; there are no checks or balances on their behavior.
  • The leader belittles all other ideas and belief systems, and any other leaders who are in the leader’s realm (e.g., other New Age leaders if the leader has a New Age philosophy).
  • The leader takes credit for anything good that happens, and blames others for anything bad that happens.
  • The leader treats questions and challenges as threats, and they may see enemies everywhere – inside and outside the group.
  • Members must idealize and revere the leader and the ranking leadership.
  • Members who challenge the authority of the leader or leadership group are punished, publicly humiliated, shunned, or kicked out, and may be portrayed as enemy traitors.
  • The leader claims special powers, knowledge, and lineage – or may claim to be divine.

If one (or more) of these statements is true, you or your group may be under the influence of a toxic charismatic authority figure. However, this doesn’t mean that this person is dangerous, and it doesn’t mean that their group is a cult. Your group would need to have all four dimensions of the bounded choice model active (this includes a transcendent belief system, systems of control, and systems of influence) before it could be considered a cultic group.

However, if this person’s behaviors are troubling (even if the other dimensions of bounded choice aren’t present), you may be able to suggest changes and see if your leader or group can – or is even willing to try to – alter these behaviors.

You can also share the features of healthy charismatic authority below to help the leader or the group understand the specific ways in which they are veering toward trouble.

If they can’t or won’t change, you can use these pointers to find a charismatic leader or group that offers hope without idolizing one person (or one idea) at the expense of everyone and everything else.

Signs of a healthy charismatic leader or group

Healthy charismatic leadership involves being willing to learn from others, instituting checks and balances, maintaining a sense of humor and a sense of humility, being responsive to complaints and corrections, and treating people well and respectfully. These are the signs of a healthy charismatic leader.

  • The leader or group has behavioral checks and balances in place.
  • Members are treated as valuable individuals; they are not disciples, servants, or pawns.
  • The leader has a sense of humor and a humane leadership style.
  • The leader or group values and promotes members’ ideas and beliefs.
  • Members have the right to question, doubt, and challenge the charismatic authority figure.
  • The leader or group deals responsibly with conflicts and challenges; there is no belittling, punishing, or shunning.
  • Members have the freedom to come and go as they please.
  • The leader or group considers and promotes other ideas, other beliefs, and other groups.
  • The leader encourages critical thinking and intellectual pursuits.
  • The group is open to the outside world and to nonbelievers.

When the charisma of a person or group is healthy, people are drawn to it and invigorated by it. Healthy charismatic leaders can do a lot of good in the world.

When leaders are not healthy, their need for total devotion and control can destroy everything: relationships, groups, businesses, and even countries.

Healthy leadership is crucial to a healthy world.

A cult that failed due to a lack of toxic charisma

Our leader in an earlier life, nice hat!

The cult I grew up in was based on New Age healing principles and was built around a man who channeled the spirit of an ancient Chinese sage. A lovely group of outsiders, geniuses, and artists (my mom included) gathered around him, and we were going to change the world and bring wonderful information and healing to everyone.

I watched our leader make the shift from a regular guy to the visionary centerpiece of our group, and I watched, even in my early teens, how the adoration began to damage him. He became less and less available, a leadership group formed around him, and we slowly shifted from a merry band of dedicated people into a cult (though none of us would have ever allowed you to call us that).

Once the cult formed, things began to fall apart. The group instituted many of the other dimensions of bounded choice, but even those weren’t enough to hold us all together. I was kicked out at 17 for communicating with outsiders (I write about it here), which was a terrible shock, but it also spelled the beginning of the end for our group. They imploded and disbanded about a year later.

I realized when I wrote Escaping Utopia with Janja that our cult failed because our leader could not move from everyday egotism into the bloated, toxic authoritarianism that cult leaders must develop. He was simply too decent a person to become a toxic charismatic authority figure.

I’m sure that he and others from the group feel that he failed, and while it’s true that he failed to maintain a cult, he succeeded at maintaining his humanity.

Thank you, Marshall, for being a decent failed cult leader. Watching the damage adoration did to you helped me to never idealize or idolize anyone, because it’s a form of dehumanization and violence that can make some people lose touch with their ethics, their grounding, and even their sanity.

I now view toxic charismatic leaders with empathy and sorrow instead of hatred. I know that they are deeply troubled and in deep trouble, but I also know that they are surrounded by people who are doing them harm and supporting their worst impulses. It’s a trap for everyone.

May we all retrieve our projections, our hatred, and our adoration and treat everyone with dignity and humanity.

May we all be free.

Next: Understanding unhealthy belief systems

[i] Max Weber, “The Sociology of Charismatic Authority,” in H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 196-252; The Sociology of Religion, trans. E. Bischoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1947/1968); “The Nature of Charismatic Authority and Its Routinization,” in S.N. Eisenstadt, ed., Max Weber: On Charisma and Institution Building (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 48-65.

[ii] Weber, The Sociology of Religion, 3.

[iii] Weber, “The Nature of Charismatic Authority,” 48-49.

[iv] Ibid., 51.

[v] Weber, The Sociology of Religion, 29.

[vi] Weber, “The Nature of Charismatic Authority,” 48.

[vii] In sociology, we would understand this as an example of the fundamental attribution error, where individual behavior and personality are treated as more important while the social situation is mistakenly treated as less important. See, for example, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert B. Cialdini, “Illusions of Influence,” R. M. Kramer and M. A. Neale, eds., Power and Influence in Organizations (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998), 1-20.

[viii] Weber, “The Nature of Charismatic Authority,” 49.

[ix] Weber, The Sociology of Religion, 29.

[x] See also Len Oakes, Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997).

[xi] See, for example, Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York: Harper & Row, 1974); and Herbert C. Kelman and V. Lee Hamilton Crimes of Obedience: Toward a Social Psychology of Authority and Responsibility by (New Haven: CT: Yale University Press, 1989).

[xii] See, for example, Dennis Tourish, The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective (East Sussex, UK: Routledge, 2013).

4 Responses

  1. Jai
    | Reply

    Great article.
    I often feel like some cults have become totally normalised and I think you touch on this. ie the cult of celebrity where celebrities are idolised no matter what they do within the public eye, the technology cult which applies not so much to a person or persons but also to products and ideas/beliefs behind those products, the cult of money, the cult of TV etc.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Thanks Jai. Yes, treating celebrities as idols is a terrible thing to do, though social media seems to be set up for that to happen. It’s hard to watch that kind of violence being done to people who just want to act or sing or play sports for a living. Everybody, pull back your projections and do your inner work!

      I see what you’re saying about money, TV, technology, etc., and at the same time, a cult is a very specific social group or relationship. In our book, Janja and I advocate for the use of the word cult to describe a specific phenomenon, because many people in academia are trying to get away from the word or inhibit its use. I see their point, but they haven’t come up with a more precise terminology yet.

  2. Sabrina
    | Reply

    Sure, have empathy for cult leaders, but as a cult survivor myself I can tell you for a fact that some of them know full well what they’re doing. I think it’s dangerous to have too much empathy for them and to pass off the responsibility for their behaviors as being caused by their followers. Obviously the need for such ego stroking is caused by deep psychological issues, but not all of us come from cults that failed due to the person being “too decent of a person”. That’s a bit Stockholmy if you ask me and a even a dangerous line of thought. It’s perpetuating the exact line of thought that has people stuck in these groups in the first place!

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hi Sabrina. I see what you’re saying and at the same time, these are relationships. A cult leader can’t exist if they have no followers. People have to sign up and support what’s happening.

      I was very fortunate to be in a cult led by a person with ethics; however, I saw what might have happened, and what actually did happen in the upper echelon of our cult. They did throw a 17-year old girl out onto the streets for talking to outsiders.

      For me, identifying the vulnerabilities that led me to that cult helped me avoid cults that I was exposed to later. Janja’s point, which is that a cult leader is very specific; their particular ways of being, and the particular forms of damage they inflict can only work of a specific kind of person, is freeing to me. It helps me know how I got into the cult, why I stayed, and what I needed to do to get out. That’s the purpose of this book, and of Janja’s work.

      Of course I hold cult leaders responsible for their behavior; that’s not in question. And at the same time, we know that a cult leader cannot exist until they find people who will support them.

      But of course, children are not a part of this support. Children don’t have choices about whether to follow a toxic person, they are unwitting victims.

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