Manfred F.R Kets de Vries defines Cult leadership as the presence of leaders who exhibit cult-like behaviors and exert a high degree of control over their employees' thinking and behavior. Damon Baker further describes that just as religious cults revolve around the aspirational mission of their leaders, corporate cults centre on the organization's rules, regulations, and culture.
A study by Manfred employs that corporate cult is the degree of control management exercises over their employees. This begins during recruitment, where employees are screened for their "fit." Once in, they see that onboarding processes and incentive systems reinforce the need for alignment. This drives the way people communicate, make decisions, and evaluate each other, as well as hiring, promotion and termination decisions.
Characteristics of Cult Leaders
They are Charismatic
Charisma is the ability to draw people to you by your charms and personality. Cult leaders are known to be highly charismatic. Megan Ganon published an article titled "What do cult leaders have in common?" where she implies that a cult leader's charisma helps them set up a power imbalance between them and their followers. According to a post on Reddit, Steve Jobs (Apple) was a cult leader who was under the guise of a businessman or a visionary. The post argues that Jobs had a way of grabbing people and manipulating them to follow whatever he said. He was popularly known for his charismatic leadership style and ability to inspire devotion among his employees. However, his demanding and perfectionist approach led some to view his leadership as cult-like. He could be emotionally manipulative and created a strong sense of loyalty among his employees.
Speaking about Steve Jobs' leadership style, Wozniak thinks that Jobs just had a way of grabbing you and following whatever he said. Since Jobs' death, researchers have unpacked what made him such a charismatic leader, including his ability to adjust his rhetoric depending on the situation and his expert use of persuasion.
They are narcissistic
Cult leaders believe they were born to be better than others. They are tempted to believe that nobody can be better than them. They have fantasies of unlimited success and power. According to research by Roberto A. Fernandez, Elizabeth Holmes is a striking example of a cult leader believed to have been narcissistic. She was and is delusional, mainly in the-utterly-full-of-herself version of magical thinking. That's one of the main features of narcissism.
They are dominant
Keith Raniere led a New York-based personal development training organization called NXIVM. Raniere had hundreds of followers who would hang on to his every word and address him as "Vanguard". The NXIVM cult gained attention for its involvement in various illegal activities, including trafficking, racketeering, and forced labor. Projecting dominance is key to becoming a cult leader, which Raniere used to exploit innocent women and girls in his organization.
They are exploitative
The goal of all that authoritativeness and control is exploitation. Cult leaders ensure their followers are submissive and weak to exploit them easily. Intelligent cult leaders exploit their followers so that the followers don't see it as exploitation. Yellow Deli Boulder Owner, who managed a restaurant in Colorado, is part of the Twelve Tribes Cult. The Twelve Tribes is a religious cult that Gene Spriggs founded in 1972 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.He accused the cult of exploiting its members for free labour. The cult is well known for its authoritarian leader, who advocates an extremist ideology and use of coercion to exploit members. When they join, new members must give the group all their possessions, often signing over personal property to the cult's limited liability companies.
They are Manipulative
Ron Hubbard employed manipulative tactics to gain undue influence over his followers. He used techniques such as thought reform, coercive persuasion, and psychological manipulation to break down individuals and manipulate their thoughts and behaviors. Another cult leader who used manipulation to control followers was Jim Jones. He used manipulation and mind control techniques to keep followers loyal to himself. When he realized that he would be in trouble for assassinating Leo Ryan, who was investigating his cult, he then manipulated his followers into a mass suicide, where he made them drink cyanide. Most of them passively and inexplicably obeyed.
They are sociopaths/psychopaths
Lack of empathy is the hallmark of sociopathy/psychopathy. Sociopathic/Psychopathic tendencies make it easier for cult leaders to harm their people without remorse. Charles Manson was a notorious cult leader known for his involvement in a series of gruesome murders by his followers, known as the Manson Family, in the late 1960s. He presented himself as a messianic figure and manipulated his followers through his teachings.
They are Unpredictable
These cult leaders can never be predictable. An example is Immanuel David, who was a Mormon prophet who was being sought after by police for possible wire fraud and other violations of the law. He committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in a van after murdering his children. He was known for his unpredictable behavior and was excommunicated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As discussed above, cult leadership is the worst form involving hostile environments and, in extreme cases, criminal behavior. Therefore, it is wise for leaders to distance themselves from this leadership style and adopt much healthier leadership styles.