Leadership scholars can’t resist a good study in cult sociology. Academics construct volumes devoted to charismatic cult leaders ranging from Jim Jones to Charles Manson in an effort to dissect these figure’s infectious management strategies. Each of these books work to perpetuate the notion that the charismatic leader is a deified white knight who intoxicates individuals with his or her transformational agenda. Followers are swiftly brought under the spell of charisma and become devoted disciples of a movement.
At first blush, it appears sociologist Eileen Barker has added to this saturated canon of charisma copy with her research on rise of the Unification Church, or “Moonies” in the 1970s and 80s. In The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice?, Barker examines the initiation process into Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s infamous religious sect through an immersive participatory observation study.
The book was a response to the widespread public outcry in the United States and Britain provoked by the Church’s accelerated rise and forceful recruitment process. While readers may want or expect a tale of an academic’s transformation into religious zealot, Barker instead delivers a cogent study in pragmatic, tactical leadership. Rather than mythologizing Reverend Moon as a charismatic guru, she focuses on a micro analysis of the leadership strategies executed at the interpersonal level. The result both demystifies the charismatic mystique surrounding cults while reinforcing the centrality of nuts and bolts leadership skills in organizational behavior.
While we’ll leave you to read the book rather than present an exhaustive list of the Moonie leadership strategies Barker describes, here are a few pearls of Moonie leadership wisdom. And one final qualifier—we do not suggest that this is a patented formula for starting a successful cult. There is no doubt Reverend Moon’s charismatic leadership helped buoy Moonie membership. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, the Unification Church operated like any other organization, executing a recruitment agenda built upon the micro-skills of leadership.
4 Monnie Leadership Lessons From Eileen Barker
1. “The Unification Church was concerned not merely with the numbers of people who were to learn of its existence but also with attracting the attention of people with important or influential positions in society” (61)
Increase legitimacy and ability to mobilize agenda by soliciting influential support.
2. “The active involvement of the guests becomes considerably greater [during recruitment workshops] in a number of ways…the participants will contribute more to the day-to-day running of the community” (116)
Mobilize your constituents with participatory leadership that empowers followers.
3. “There can be little doubt that the Moonies are successful in controlling the environment of their workshop…the near-constant presence of enthusiastic Moonies means also that conversations are kept from becoming too critical or from wandering too far off the point” (174)
Keep active supporters close to encourage reluctant/passive support.
4. “[One Moonie] always insisted that those in her charge should reveal…the kinds of things they believed in…because one could waste a great deal of time with people who were not really interested. It was, she said, better to sort out the sheep from the goats as quickly as possible” (178)
Know who you’re talking to and focus on motivating passionate coalition partners first.