What Cult Leaders Tell Leaders About Leadership


People-Smart Leadership Principles

How did Jim Jones get 900 followers to drink the poison during a mass suicide? As a psychologist, it piqued my interest. Then ISIS and similar groups appeared in the public and I continued to wonder why people join such groups. Fortunately, Psychology Today published an article that provided insight into a cult’s excellent recruitment practices.

First, they search social media looking for qualified prospects, i.e., individuals who are commenting about their frustrations with their current state of affairs. Second, the communication begins to eventually add fuel to the fire of frustration. Over time, the initiator builds a relationship with a prospect through social media and once established the selling process begins in earnest. The objective of these conversations is to fan the fire of their frustrations to the breaking point where the individual concludes that “remaining in this situation is no longer an option.” Bingo, the need to change is solidified.

Next the initiators provide a “better option” for an alternate lifestyle. Solution offered.    Now come the flood of promises associated with the alternate lifestyle. 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. The intensity of emotions begins to override logic so the cult salesperson can easily position the offered solution as the “savior.”

Yes, they are working a mind control technique with the intent to raise the magnetic level of the offered solution to the point whereby the prospect reaches the conclusion “the alternate life style is much better than the one I’m living – I just have to have it.” So, the purchase is complete.

The Teaching Continues

Now for the interesting element in the formula – leader continues to repeat statements to the recruit until such statements are “normalized” and they seem real. Here’s the dangerous component 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 differentiate between 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, perceptions and reality.

Let’s look at a real-life situation. While working on an Intel construction site, I had the opportunity for a discussion with one of their executives. During our 20-minute conversation I heard multiple times that “Intel is not a world-class company.” Imagine my surprise upon hearing that for the first time and then he finished the statement saying “Intel sets the standard for world class.” It would be interesting to shadow this exec to count the number of times this mantra is repeated throughout the day.

How did Jones get 900 people to drink the juice? The story has it that he frequently practiced that act for the day that it might be needed. So, when the time came, the juice was replaced by poison, meaning the final act was nothing more than another practice session.

Cult leaders also take advantage of the fact that, psychologically speaking, people are hard-wired to belong to groups that are larger and greater than they are because of the physical and psychological security afforded to individual members. Your dealership is bigger than any one employee. You want your employees to feel as an integral, valued member of their store and company. Their decisions will be determined by how they are treated.

In Summary

Let’s summarize the teaching points offered by cult leaders:

  1. Use the two whys, i.e., remaining the same is no longer an option and just have to have it, to sell the dealership to employees and upon introducing change initiatives.
  2. Use the dealership’s vision and mission as organizational mantras to normalize their usefulness to the dealership.
  3. Practice critical skills so they appear normal, i.e., natural.
  4. Develop the culture so that employees are valued to develop the loyalty of being part of group that is larger than them. Doing so improves both physical and psychological security.

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 on-site training and public courses to improve business leadership effectiveness and internal and external customer service. Please send questions and/or comments to Larry at teammax100@gmail.com.


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