Cult Leaders Tell Us About Leadership


People-Smart Leadership Principles

The Psychology Today published a fascinating article about the recruiting tactics of groups, one of which was ISIS. I had often wondered how intelligent individuals could be drawn into such an existence. I was surprised to learn cults use dynamics similar to those taught in my Dealer Institute classes.

First, they search social media looking for individuals who are writing about their frustration with their current government. Second, an ISIS initiator establishes rapport to build a relationship with their prospect. Third, once established the selling process begins. The objective of these conversations is to fan the fire of frustration to the breaking point where the individual may say, “Remaining in this situation is no longer an option.”

Fourth, the initiator provides a “better option” for an alternate life situation and style. And now the flood of promises associated with the alternate lifestyle begins. It matters not if these promises are fact or fiction. The frustration associated with the prospect’s existing lifestyle is so high, anything sounds better. Additionally, the intensity of emotions is now overriding logic so the cult leader can easily position himself or herself as the “savior” to the prospect.

Yes, they are working a mind-control technique with the intent to raise the magnetic level of the alternative way of life to the point whereby the prospect reaches the conclusion: “The alternate lifestyle is much better than the one I’m living and I just have to leave my present situation and move to… wherever.”

What are cults doing?

Cults are finding qualified prospects and selling them on the notion to leave home to join a better way of life. Those of you who have been part of a discussion of the 7-Step Change Process will recognize these three components as Step 2 (recognizing a need to change), Step 3 (having a target to hit), and Step 4 (wanting to change as fueled by the advantages/benefits).

What is a dealership’s lesson here? Sell change instead of ordering it. Ordering change creates resistance automatically. You want people to “buy-in” and that happens when change is sold instead of directed. Perhaps the benefits associated with resisting change will be discussed in a future article.

The teaching continues

Let’s examine the dynamics that resulted in more than 900 people willingly consume a poisoned drink to commit suicide at the request of a guy named Jones. The story has it that the cult frequently practiced that act for the day that it might be needed. The leadership point is the benefit of practice. The suicide act was just another practice session.

Cult leaders engage another practice to hold a magnetic quality over the lives of intelligent people. The leader continues to repeat statements until such statements are “normalized” and they seem real. Here’s the dangerous element of this formula – it matters not that such statements are true or false – they become real.

Psychological research has supported the notion that our memories sometimes do not know what is fact or fiction. In other words, if we think about a fictitious statement frequently and long enough, it becomes real to us. This dynamic can easily distort our memories and perceptions.

Now let’s apply this formula to your dealership. Most dealerships have a vision or mission statement that most people don’t know. Let’s contrast this real-life scenario to one I experienced while working on a construction project for Intel.

During the project, I had the opportunity to have a discussion with one of the Intel executives. During our 20-minute conversation, I heard multiple times: Intel is not a world-class company. Intel sets the standard for world class.”

I’ve often wondered how many times he repeats this mantra during the course of the workday.

Psychologically, most people want to be associated with an organization that is larger and greater than they are. We’re hardwired to join groups for physical and psychological security. Your dealership can provide the same security as cult members feel when following their savior.

Article Written By Larry Cole

LARRY COLE, Ph.D., is a lead trainer for and consultant to the Western Equipment Dealers Association’s Dealer Institute. He provides onsite training and public courses to improve business leadership effectiveness and internal and external customer service. Please send questions and/or comments to Larry at


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