I was in Phoenix recently at a Martha Beck Coaching summit, and had the delightful experience of seeing Koelle Simpson do a ‘horse whispering’ demo. (That’s her and her new horse friend Titus in the photo at left.) Koelle’s horse work is a healing methodology that helps people to connect with themselves and to recognize the energy and attitude they are bringing into relationships. Horses provide completely transparent feedback about how we conduct ourselves in the world. You cannot fool a horse!
Koelle said many inspirational things during her demo, and there was one particular thing she mentioned that stayed with me, ringing in my brain for days, that I wanted to share here with my cult survivor friends. It was this: “The lead mare in a herd of wild horses is not the most dominant or aggressive one. She is the calmest.”
In popular culture we have this image of the Alpha mare; she is tough and strong and dominating and possibly aggressive. Koelle says that in reality, in the wild, this is not the case. The lead mare is the calmest.
Leadership vs. Control
So that got me thinking about the true nature of leadership and how my experience in a cult was the opposite of following a calm leader. Our cult leader sucked at calm, inspired leadership. And yet we followed her anyway. What is up with that?
Cult leaders are many things; charismatic, controlling, manipulative, abusive, self-absorbed….I could go on with many more pejorative adjectives. What cult leaders are NOT is calm, grounded, centered and inspired. So why do we follow them?
I can speak from my own experience and say that when I joined the cult I was used to a ‘command and control’ style of leadership, having grown up in a military family. I was used to taking orders and to ignoring my own feelings and needs for the sake of obedience. I was, therefore, perfect fodder for a cult leader who used a hierarchical model to control and coerce her followers.
Things fall apart
But here’s the kicker; eventually I was able to see that our cult leader wasn’t providing the kind of leadership I needed and wanted. To this day I still don’t know why that part of myself woke up (although I’m very grateful it did) but I found myself questioning our leader’s behaviour. She wasn’t calm and grounded and centered. She was rejecting and judgmental of those who followed her, yet she ‘preached’ about love and light and acceptance. The level of control she had over those who lived with her went beyond the definition of micro-managing: she controlled what they ate, what they said, how they dressed, how they cut their hair, who they were in relationship with, etc. She seemed angry and disturbed most of the time.
Eventually I was able to see that this was a leader I was not willing to follow.
And then she cut me out of the herd
In my book I actually use an analogy involving wild herds of horses to describe one aspect of how cults work. Cult leaders will often cut a person ‘out of the herd’ (e.g., shunning or disconnection) to punish behaviour that is a threat to the group. To a horse, being cut out of the herd is life-threatening – a horse who is alone is much more vulnerable to predators. To a cult member, being cut out of the herd feels life-threatening to one’s spirit and salvation. The cult member, like the disobedient horse, then works extra hard (i.e., supressing her authentic self) to get back into the good graces of the leader and be allowed back into the group.
Thankfully for me, the last time I was cut out of my cult leader’s ‘herd’ I began to consider why I would want back into the group. And in the end decided I didn’t. (Hooray! Freedom!) Her leadership style wasn’t working for me any longer. She had become a lead mare I wasn’t willing to follow.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on leadership and specifically cult leadership. Please leave a comment below.
What was your experience of cult leadership?
Can you reflect on other, perhaps calmer, leaders that you’ve known and see how they differ from your cult leader?
Were you ever ‘cut out of the herd’?