Understanding A Cult Leader
Not long ago, I sat in a courtroom as a cult leader's victims took the stand.
The stories they shared were harrowing. The young women in particular shared how, as minors, they had been groomed and sexually assaulted. It was hard to listen to.
Despite these gripping and stomach-turning stories, a large number of cult members remained devoted to this man. They flooded the courthouse in hopes that their presence could show the jury that their cult leader (who has admitted to the horrific acts mentioned above) was worthy of mercy in the eyes of the law.
It drove home what I already new of cult leaders: they are masters of manipulation and deceit.
The courage of those women inspired me to write this, because I know that for every cult leader that's brought to justice, a dozen more may be walking free.
My hope is that by sharing information on cult leaders, PLC can help at least one person steer clear of these dangerous individuals.
Common Traits of a Cult Leader
Cult leaders have captured popular imagination for centuries, and it's easy to understand why.
From the outside looking in, these charismatic leaders and their unpredictable nature seek to occupy a space reserved for some of the individuals that have changed the course of mankind.
What most cult leaders do is try to fit alongside (or even above) the hallowed religious figures of mainstream religions and history at large. From this position, they attempt to wield an enormous amount of power over their group.
When you take a closer look, a cult leader often exhibits a classic set of traits and behaviors. Although there is variety in how these traits present, these themes tend to ring true.
Charismatic: Cult leaders are often highly charismatic and persuasive, with a magnetic personality that can attract and influence followers.
Authoritarian: Cult leaders often have a strong need for control and may exhibit authoritarian behaviors, such as dictating the beliefs and actions of their followers.
Narcissistic: Cult leaders may have a grandiose sense of self-importance, a need for admiration and attention, and a lack of empathy for others.
Manipulative: Cult leaders may use manipulative tactics to control their followers, such as love bombing, gaslighting, or isolation.
Delusional: Cult leaders may hold unconventional or bizarre beliefs that are not grounded in reality, and may promote these beliefs to their followers as absolute truths.
Exploitative: Cult leaders may exploit their followers financially, sexually, or emotionally, using their position of power to gain personal benefits at the expense of their followers.
Unpredictable: A cult leader often benefits from members and outside authorities not knowing their next move. This can add to an air of divine inspiration or help convince devotees of supernatural powers.
It's important to note that not all cult leaders exhibit all of these traits.
For instance, a leader who rules their group with an iron fist doesn't necessarily need to be charismatic.
It should also be said that not all leaders of new religious movements or alternative spiritual groups are necessarily cult leaders. People in these groups should be vigilant for abuse, but that doesn't mean they have a cult leader per se.
It's also worth mentioning that a cult leader isn't necessarily required for a group to qualify as a cult. A cult leader may only be one important piece of the puzzle that creates a totalist environment for thought reform to take place.
You can learn more about that in our What Is a Cult? guide.
How Do Cult Leaders "Get Away" With Things?
Now that you understand some of the common traits seen in a cult leader, the next natural question is: how do people actually believe them?
This is where things quickly get complicated.
Some of the most notorious and famous cult leaders have committed unspeakable acts:
Murder and other violent crimes
Sex trafficking (including underage children)
Sexual abuse and assault of members (regardless of gender)
It takes more than charisma to convince people to go along with - or commit - acts like these. It's difficult to look at that list and acknowledge that someone could witness these acts and still believe in a cult leader.
Because of this, many consider cult members to be stupid, gullible, or even deserving of harsh treatment. There is a very prevalent idea that if you are susceptible enough to be fooled, then you are complicit.
The reality is that, while some members may choose to stay out of devotion to their leader, there are many more who stay out of fear.
What do they have to fear?
To understand that, you need to understand two concepts: coercive control and undue influence.
Coercive control is a pattern of behavior used to dominate, intimidate, and manipulate someone. This can include a range of tactics, such as isolating the victim from friends and family, monitoring their movements, controlling their access to money and resources, and using threats or physical force to maintain control.
Coercive control is often characterized by a gradual escalation of abusive behavior, with the abuser using psychological, emotional, and/or physical tactics to maintain power and control over their partner.
When a cult group or leader applies coercive control to a follower, that person may be left feeling that their only viable path is to remain in the group - even if unspeakable acts are committed.
Undue influence is a legal term that describes a form of coercion that occurs when one person exerts an excessive or improper influence over another person. The strict definition may vary by legal jurisdiction.
This influence can be used to persuade or pressure the other person to do something they might not otherwise do, often against their own best interests.
For instance, a cult leader may convince a follower to sign over properties, businesses, or financial assets to the group to show their commitment. Once those exchanges take place, the follower may feel that they have to remain in the group or risk losing everything.
Undue influence can be difficult to identify, as the person being influenced may not be aware that they are being manipulated or may feel too intimidated to resist. In some cases, undue influence may be illegal and can lead to legal consequences.
Should Cult Members Be Accountable for Their Leaders?
Undue influence and coercive control begin to help explain how cult members can be manipulated by a cult leader. They also shed some light on why people stay in a cult even after criminal allegations come to light.
The internal logic and fundamental assumptions of the group may not make sense in the real world, but they can keep people engaged in a group their entire lives.
If someone genuinely fears that their eternal salvation is contingent on following a certain person, then they can choose to overlook a significant amount of harmful behavior.
This does not mean that these people committed their leaders crimes however.
If the members themselves did not commit crimes, then they are innocent. If they committed crimes, they can be prosecuted according to the law. You can read more about cults and the law on our blog.
Case Studies: Sally Challen & Patty Hearst
A helpful case study on coercive control can be found in the Sally Challen case. It's said that her case "gripped Britain for years and exposed the challenges of confronting domestic abuse".
Sally was convicted of murdering her husband after experiencing prolonged abuse by him.
After new evidence demonstrated that she was a victim of coercive control, she was released in 2019 after pleading guilty to manslaughter. It was ultimately ruled that she could inherit her husband's estate.
The abduction of Patty Hearst is another important case study. Her story is an extreme example.
She committed crimes and was sentenced to seven years in prison (although pardoned after serving two), even though she experienced brainwashing, torture, and Stockholm syndrome at the hands of a domestic terror group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).
In both of these cases, crimes were committed by people who were themselves victims of coercive control. It does not negate their actions, but both instances display the complexity involved when cults and a country's justice system collide.
It's important to note that the same displays of coercive controlling behavior in cults can also exist in domestic violence relationships. An abusive partner may display the same kind of behaviors that a cult leader may also present.
Some Famous Cult Leaders
Below are just a few of the most notorious cult leaders from the last few centuries.
These individuals amassed devoted followings, espoused unusual beliefs, and defined what a cult leader is for generations to come. What may surprise you is that not all of them had a religious group!
Charles Manson led the Manson Family in the late 1960s and was responsible for a series of murders, including that of actress Sharon Tate.
Jim Jones founded the People's Temple and led his followers to commit mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978.
David Koresh led the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, and died in a standoff with law enforcement in 1993.
Marshall Applewhite founded the Heaven's Gate cult and led his followers to commit mass suicide in 1997.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho)
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh founded the Rajneesh movement and was involved in a bio-terrorism attack in Oregon in the 1980s.
Shoko Asahara founded the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan and was responsible for a deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.