Updated: Aug 19, 2019
One of the questions that I am often asked by students of criminology and psychology is how do you know when a cult leader is “evil” or “bad”? These of course are vague descriptors to some extent but I get the question, “When is a cult leader pathological or, better said, a danger to others?” This is a valid question in view of the historical record of suffering and hurt caused by various cult leaders around the world.
I am sure others have addressed this issue before and I realize that it comes with its own minefield as many religions started out as cults - I am simply not going to enter that fray. But the question is valid from the point of view that there are people out there who are cult leaders and who do great harm to others emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, physically, or financially.
From my studies of cults and cult leaders during my time in the FBI, I learned early on that there are some things to look for that, at a minimum, say caution, this individual is dangerous, and in all likelihood will cause harm to others.
Having studied at length the life, teachings, and behaviors of Jim Jones (Jonestown Guyana), David Koresh (Branch Davidians), Stewart Traill (The Church of Bible Understanding), Charles Manson, Shoko Asahara (Aum Shinrikyo), Joseph Di Mambro (The Order of the Solar Temple aka Ordre du Temple Solaire), Marshall Heff Applewhit (Heaven’s Gate), Bhagwan Rajneesh (Rajneesh Movement), and Warren Jeffs (polygamist leader), what stands out about these individuals is that they were or are all pathologically narcissistic. They all have or had an over-abundant belief that they were special, that they and they alone had the answers to problems, and that they had to be revered. They demanded perfect loyalty from followers, they overvalued themselves and devalued those around them, they were intolerant of criticism, and above all they did not like being questioned or challenged. And yet, in spite of these less than charming traits, they had no trouble attracting those who were willing to overlook these features.
These personality traits stand out as the first warning to those who would associate with them, but there are many others. Here is a collection of traits that I have collected over the years about cult leaders that give us hints as to their psychopathology. This list is not all-inclusive nor is it the final word on the subject; it is merely my personal collection based on my studies and interviews that I conducted in my previous career.
If you know of a cult leader who has many of these traits there is a high probability that they are hurting those around them emotionally, psychologically, physically, spiritually, or financially. And of course this does not take into account the hurt that their loved ones will also experience.
Here are the typical traits of the pathological cult leader (from Dangerous Personalities) you should watch for and which shout caution, get away, run, or avoid if possible:
He has a grandiose idea of who he is and what he can achieve is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, or brilliance.
Demands blind unquestioned obedience.
Requires excessive admiration from followers and outsiders.
Has a sense of entitlement - expecting to be treated special at all times.
Is exploitative of others by asking for their money or that of relatives putting others at financial risk.
Is arrogant and haughty in his behavior or attitude.
Has an exaggerated sense of power (entitlement) that allows him to bend rules and break laws.
Takes sexual advantage of members of his sect or cult.
Sex is a requirement with adults and sub adults as part of a ritual or rite.
Is hypersensitive to how he is seen or perceived by others.
Publicly devalues others as being inferior, incapable, or not worthy.
Makes members confess their sins or faults publicly subjecting them to ridicule or humiliation while revealing exploitable weaknesses of the penitent.
Has ignored the needs of others, including: biological, physical, emotional, and financial needs.
Is frequently boastful of accomplishments.
Needs to be the center of attention and does things to distract others to insure that he or she is being noticed by arriving late, using exotic clothing, overdramatic speech, or by making theatrical entrances.
Has insisted in always having the best of anything (house, car, jewelry, clothes) even when others are relegated to lesser facilities, amenities, or clothing.
Doesn’t seem to listen well to needs of others, communication is usually one-way in the form of dictates.
Haughtiness, grandiosity, and the need to be controlling is part of his personality.
Behaves as though people are objects to be used, manipulated or exploited for personal gain.
When criticized he tends to lash out not just with anger but with rage.
Anyone who criticizes or questions him is called an “enemy.”
Refers to non-members or non-believers in him as “the enemy.”
Acts imperious at times, not wishing to know what others think or desire.
Believes himself to be omnipotent.
Has “magical” answers or solutions to problems.
Is superficially charming.
Habitually puts down others as inferior and only he is superior.
Has a certain coldness or aloofness about him that makes others worry about who this person really is and or whether they really know him.
Is deeply offended when there are perceived signs of boredom, being ignored or of being slighted.
Treats others with contempt and arrogance.
Is constantly assessing for those who are a threat or those who revere him.
The word “I” dominates his conversations.
He is oblivious to how often he references himself.
Hates to be embarrassed or fail publicly - when he does he acts out with rage.
Doesn’t seem to feel guilty for anything he has done wrong nor does he apologize for his actions.
Believes he possesses the answers and solutions to world problems.
Believes himself to be a deity or a chosen representative of a deity.
Rigid, unbending, or insensitive describes how this person thinks.
Tries to control others in what they do, read, view, or think.
Has isolated members of his sect from contact with family or outside world.
Monitors and or restricts contact with family or outsiders.
Works the least but demands the most.
Has stated that he is “destined for greatness” or that he will be “martyred.”
Seems to be highly dependent of tribute and adoration and will often fish for compliments.
Uses enforcers or sycophants to insure compliance from members or believers.
Sees self as “unstoppable” perhaps has even said so.
Conceals background or family which would disclose how plain or ordinary he is.
Doesn’t think there is anything wrong with himself – in fact sees himself as perfection or “blessed.”
Has taken away the freedom to leave, to travel, to pursue life, and liberty of followers.
Has isolated the group physically (moved to a remote area) so as to not be observed.
When the question is asked, “When do we know when a cult leader is bad, or evil, or toxic?” this is the list that I use to survey the cult leader for dangerous traits. Of course the only way to know anything for sure is to observe and validate, but these characteristics can go a long way to help with that. And as I have said, there are other things to look for and there may be other lists, but this is the one that I found most useful from studying these groups and talking to former members of cults.
When a cult or organizational leader has a preponderance of these traits then we can anticipate that at some point those who associate with him will likely suffer physically, emotionally, psychologically, or financially. If these traits sound familiar to leaders, groups, sects, or organizations known to you then expect those who associate with them to live in despair and to suffer even if they don’t know it, yet.