What does it take to become a cult leader?

·Contributor
·5-min read

Narcissism, certainly. Perhaps a bit of impatient laziness that makes them want to take shortcuts towards adoration and devotion without having to earn it too hard. 

They usually need the kind of personality that lets them exploit people for money and power without feeling too guilty about it, and often it doesn’t hurt to be holding onto a reasonably robust grudge – against schoolmates who didn’t like you, or women who rejected you, anything that will help fuel a thirst for showing them one day, showing them ALL.

cult leaders
What are some personality traits of cult leaders? Photos: Youtube

But cult leaders are normal people. Well, kind of. They all have to start somewhere before they get addicted to people thinking they’re the direct messengers of god and start wearing robes and stuff. 

It’s kind of comforting to think that cult leaders – in some cases the epitome of evil, fear, and abuse – once had day jobs. Like:

Pulp Novel Writer

L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology (a group that some people who can afford lawyers describe as a cult) claimed that the original research for his “religion” was primarily funded by pulp fiction. He started writing cheesy stories for cheap monthly magazines full of adventure yarns, and was a hugely prolific contributor. 

Because of the science-fiction-y elements in Scientology’s origin story – the human race was started by a galactic overlord called Xenu, that kind of thing – Hubbard is best remembered for being a science fiction writer, but he also penned adventures, romances, war stories and horror. Some stories were written under his own name and some under aliases like ‘Winchester Remington Colt’, the manliest name that anyone has ever heard.

Amway Salesman

Keith Raniere ended up as the leader of NXIVM and its smaller, secret group DOS, a cult of women that Keith insisted were branded with his initials because he’s a bit of a bastard. Before that, he was just a guy who badly wanted people to think he was a sexy genius. Unfortunately for thatplan, he was also a multi-level marketing salesman. Making his start by peddling Amway, he moved on to start his own MLM company called Consumers’ Buyline, but got busted for running a pyramid scheme. Despite many skills that he greatly exaggerated – he claimed to be a child prodigy, a concert pianist, an inventor, and able to cure Tourette’s Syndrome - running multi-level scams was really all he was good at, and he modelled his cult on one. Ugh.

Yoga Teacher

Innocent, fulfilling, and beneficial in most cases, I still claim that yoga is potentially a gateway activity where cults are concerned. If you’ve ever felt the kind of trust and devotion a good yoga teacher can inspire, you might understand. You’d do almost anything they asked, except for that thing where you balance your knees on your own forearms. Perhaps because of that feeling, yoga teachers are regular features in cults.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne, leader of Australian cult The Family started as a yoga teacher, gradually inserting more and more of her ideas and suggestions she might be Jesus between her asanas. Once she had earned the admiration and trust of a number of gradually more flexible middle class Melbourne women, she also started convincing them to give her their children, and including LSD into her exclusive group’s initiation ritual. That is NOT what they mean by ‘higher self’, Anne.

Photo: Youtube/The Family
Photo: Youtube/The Family

Before becoming the leader of Aum Shinrikyo, the cult notorious for a 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, mostly-blind Shoko Asahara ran yoga classes. He would recruit followers by initially attracting the young, smart go-getters he wanted to his yoga classes, and later used animated videos of himself in lotus position, flying above the city. Of course he did. 

Parents are much more likely to be comfortable knowing their 20-year-old is heading off to a yoga and meditation class than to a cult compound led by a blind madman intent on destroying the world. There were even promotional photographs of Shoko levitating in lotus position, which – depending on your level of skepticism – could also very much be pictures of Shoko bouncing off his knees in lotus position with a huge amount of effort and strain showing on his face.

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Failed Musician

Now THIS is a crowded field when it comes to cult leaders, which may have something to do with the perception that music stardom and cult leadership are lazy shortcuts to getting heaps of chicks. Rael, head of UFO cult the Raelians, began life as Claude Vorilhon, but spent a short time in the mid-sixties as French pop star Claude Celler. The Raelians is a pretty sexy cult that believes in intimate relations with robots and women walking around topless, so it’s unsurprising that Claude’s music was a bit racy. My favourite of his song titles is ‘Monsieur, Votre Femme Me Trompe’, which loosely translates to ‘Sir, Your Wife is Cheating on Me’. Claude, you scamp.

It’s thought that Charles Manson sent his followers on killing sprees because he was annoyed that music producers in Hollywood hadn’t given him a record deal yet. He hung out with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys in LA and even wrote one of their songs, which they renamed ‘Never Learn Not To Love’. But he just wasn’t good enough to make it on his own, and opted instead to send a bunch of drug-addled hippies out on murder missions. Typical front man, wants all the glory without doing any of the work.

David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, famous for having his cult compound burn to the ground near Waco, Texas in 1993, also tried to get a record deal in California, and also failed. At its best, Koresh’s music was badly recorded, stylistically immature folk music. At its worst, it was Christian rock. He even had business cards made for himself with the word ‘Messiah’ emblazoned across them, calling himself a guitarist and vocalist, which still sell at auctions that specialise in curios, memorabilia, and a bit of exaggeration. Alas, Koresh’s followers ended up being his main musical audience. Things may have ended better for them if he’d been a better musician. Damn it.

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