Are all cult leaders narcissists?

A cult leader who is definitely a narcissist, sitting in a chair glowering

We’ve been obsessed in our household with documentaries about the Nxivm cult — and next with Scientology. The heads of both of those organizations are quite clearly pathological and often malignant narcissists, with grandiose and delusional ideas and an addiction to other people’s attention. Separately, I’ve studied narcissism quite a bit and feel, at least anecdotally, that all the cult leaders I’ve read about or known of have been led by these types of people, who are notoriously lacking in empathy, self-centered, entitled, and have an insatiable lust for power and control. It started me to wonder: are all cult leaders narcissists?

While certainly not all — or even any — cult leaders are clinically diagnosed narcissists, many pretty obviously exhibit narcissistic traits. Narcissism, particularly in its more extreme forms (including narcissistic personality disorder or NPD), is characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a need for excessive admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. These traits can be paradoxically and counterintuitively conducive to the development of a cult-like following.

Cult leaders often exhibit the following narcissistic characteristics:

  1. Grandiosity: They may have an inflated sense of their own importance, believing themselves to be special or uniquely gifted, which can attract followers seeking answers, guidance, or a sense of certainty.
  2. Need for Admiration: Cult leaders often seek excessive admiration and validation from their followers, which reinforces their self-perceived superiority and authority and reifies their over-idealized self-image.
  3. Manipulation and Exploitation: They may manipulate or exploit followers, viewing them as tools to achieve their own goals, rather than as individuals with their own rights and needs. Employing love bombing and other psychological influence techniques, they can abuse, steamroll over and/or capture decades or entire lifetimes of people under their sway.
  4. Lack of Empathy: Cult leaders may show a lack of empathy, being indifferent to the needs and feelings of their followers, or callously exploiting their vulnerabilities. They are primarily concerned with gratifying their own needs and desires, and rarely recognize the needs of others as valid or worthy of attention.
  5. Charisma: Like the exceedingly self-confident narcissist, many cult leaders are charismatic, which aids in attracting and maintaining a devoted following. They turn on the charm when they feel it might get them something they want, but just as easily withhold it when they wish to devalue you for some other strategic purpose.

It seems like you would pretty much have to have a lack of empathy in order to persist in one’s machinations of abuse and exploitation over ever larger numbers of people over longer periods of time. It’s hard to imagine being able to chronically abuse people without objectifying and dehumanizing them — quintessential behaviors of narcissists, who routinely treat people cruelly with scorn and contempt. From gaslighting to emotional blackmail, from projection to scapegoating and beyond, the narcissist will not think twice about manipulating countless others in order to meet their every whim.

Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Psychopaths — oh my!

In fact, it is common for cult leaders to have pathological personality disorders even more extreme than mere narcissism — from sociopathy and antisocial personality disorder to full-blazing psychopathy. They often exhibit many, most, or all of the dark triad traits including narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. These types of leaders are the real sadistic folks who will physically assault, murder, or commit mass murder — like the notorious Jonestown Massacre in 1978.

Jim Jones holding a cup of Kool-Aid at the Jonestown Massacre, by Midjourney

Obviously, not all people with narcissistic traits will become cult leaders. The development of a cult is a complex phenomenon that involves a combination of the leader’s personality, the vulnerabilities of the followers, and the social and environmental context — but to a large extent, that leader’s personality is quite liable to be a narcissistic one.

Are all cult leaders narcissists? Probably not, but the percentage of cult leaders who aren’t narcissistic is probably ultimately pretty small. If you’re wondering if a certain group or organization is a cult or cultlike, take a look at its leader — does he or she exhibit any of the telltale signs of the narcissist? If so: run the other way, and fast. Nobody intentionally joins a cult — but many get entrapped by cults due to the cunning and charm of their narcissistic leaders.

Learn more:

Narcissism Books β†—

Narcissists think of themselves as special; chosen; beyond the fray β€” rules do not generally apply to them, but oh do they ever to you.

Tactics of Emotional Predators β†—

One way to protect yourself from emotional predators is to understand how they behave, and become familiar with how to detect manipulative and deceptive behavior as early on as possible.

Influence Techniques β†—

Influence techniques are a set of psychological and social strategies employed to sway people’s opinions, beliefs, and behaviors.

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