Today a brief but, I hope, a helpful perspective on safe and unsafe leaders. I call it performance appraisal guidelines for evaluating leaders in religious, professional, and political life. The basic ideas are from the Cult Education Institute in Trenton, New Jersey.

Ten warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader.

1. Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.

2. No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.

3. No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.

4. Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.

5. There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.

6. Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.

7. There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.

8. Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.

9. The group/leader is always right.

10. The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

Ten warning signs regarding followers of an unsafe group/leader.

1. Extreme obsessiveness regarding the group/leader resulting in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration.

2. Individual identity, the group, the leader and/or God as distinct and separate categories of existence become increasingly blurred. Instead, in the follower’s mind these identities become substantially and increasingly fused–as that person’s involvement with the group/leader continues and deepens.

3. Whenever the group/leader is criticized or questioned it is characterized as “persecution”.

4. Uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, cloning of the group/leader in personal behavior.

5. Dependency upon the group/leader for problem solving, solutions, and definitions without meaningful reflective thought. A seeming inability to think independently or analyze situations without group/leader involvement.

6. Hyperactivity centered on the group/leader agenda, which seems to supersede any personal goals or individual interests.

7. A dramatic loss of spontaneity and sense of humor.

8. Increasing isolation from family and old friends unless they demonstrate an interest in the group/leader.

9. Anything the group/leader does can be justified no matter how harsh or harmful.

10. Former followers are at best-considered negative or worse evil and under bad influences. They can not be trusted and personal contact is avoided.

Ten signs of a safe group/leader.

1. A safe group/leader will answer your questions without becoming judgmental and punitive.

2. A safe group/leader will disclose information such as finances and often offer an independently audited financial statement regarding budget and expenses. Safe groups and leaders will tell you more than you want to know.

3. A safe group/leader is often democratic, sharing decision making and encouraging accountability and oversight.

4. A safe group/leader may have disgruntled former followers, but will not vilify, excommunicate and forbid others from associating with them.

5. A safe group/leader will not have a paper trail of overwhelmingly negative records, books, articles and statements about them.

6. A safe group/leader will encourage family communication, community interaction and existing friendships and not feel threatened.

7. A safe group/leader will recognize reasonable boundaries and limitations when dealing with others.

8. A safe group/leader will encourage critical thinking, individual autonomy and feelings of self-esteem.

9. A safe group/leader will admit failings and mistakes and accept constructive criticism and advice.

10. A safe group/leader will not be the only source of knowledge and learning excluding everyone else, but value dialogue and the free exchange of ideas.

Our contemporary challenge: reflect on these characteristics and then Observe, Judge, and Act.


15 thoughts on “Safe and Unsafe Leaders

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this timely reminder. We should “Observe, Judge, and Act” based on these criteria.

  2. WOW!! I think I have a clear image of both of these types of leaders—and I imagine all of your readers do, too! Was this list compiled before or after the last presidential election?! Needless to say, I am forwarding this to friends. 🙂
    Thanks, Jack!

    1. Your question about when this list was compiled… came to my mind while I was reading this.

      What does it take to go from sycophant to Jonestown-like behavior?

  3. Thanks so much, Jack. This will be very helpful, especially because it’s neutral in tone, diffusing emotion. I will refer to it often and definitely be able to use it in future conversations with relatives and friends about political matters. And thanks for the attribution — good site.

  4. Jack and All: I’m a big fan of Rachel Maddow, a reporter and pundit on MSNBC. Watch her every night or record her when I can’t. Lately, she has been asking questions and having guests to discuss what we civilians and professionals are supposed to do now that it has become very clear that Trump is an autocrat who believes he can act without any restraints. Trump has made it crystal clear that he intends to overhaul our politics and government with himself at the top of the pyramid and everyone else subjugated below him. I have heard that there are some folks who believe that Trump may be unwilling to give up the presidency even if he is defeated in November. This is really a scary prospect. Are we reaping now what we have sown in the past? What is the appropriate Christian response to such dire circumstances which do not appear responsive to usual Christian actions? Prayer alone ain’t gonna cut it!

  5. Trump does not seem to be the real brains behind the new “movement,” the rise and acclamation of autocrat-like rule. His tweets are totally different from a well thought-out strategy which is sustained over time. Who are the real strategists and force behind the front man?

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