Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Beware of Cult-like Leadership Development Programs

I've been writing about wacky leadership development programs for a while now. These are silly, ineffective, but well intended programs designed to teach leadership using all kinds of "creative" training techniques. These programs, although a waste of a company's money, are basically harmless and can even be fun.

What I'm about to describe isn't harmless or fun. In fact, these programs can be dangerous. They can cause serious emotional and psychological damage, lower employee morale and productivity, and expose a company to costly lawsuits.

Do I have your attention? Good; then please read on. If you are a training manager, HR manager, training provider, or a buyer of training programs, it's absolutely critical that you are aware of this.

The kind of leadership training, or personal development training I'm talking about has been described as "cult-like" and "new-age" training.

However, these are not how the programs are described when marketed. You're more likely to see descriptors like:

- Personal Transformation,

- Transformational leadership,

- Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT),

- Imagination and creativity,

- Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), and

- Self-help and self-actualization.

This stuff has been going on since the 1970's, and despite the warnings, lawsuits, and damage, they continue to spawn and emerge led by an army of disciples. Some of the early versions were Krone training, Erhard seminars, est, the Forum, and Lifespring. Here's a list of Large Group Awareness Training companies and their founders.

Today's popular versions include Tony Robbins, PSI Seminars, the Landmark Forum, and Pecos River.

So what's the problem? I'm no expert in the subject, so rather than repeat what's already been said very well, I'll defer to the following, and encourage you to read each one of these articles for a 30 minute tutorial on the subject:

1. Intruding into the Workplace, an excerpt from the book Cults In Our Midst, by Dr. Margaret Singer

2. The Siren Call of the Modern Pied Pipers, by Lawrence A. Pile

3. EEOC Notice N-915.022: Policy guidance on "new age" training programs which conflict with employees' religious beliefs

4. The Skeptic's Dictionary

5. And finally, for a more light-hearted view, read Dave Barry's hysterical description of his own personal 12 hour experience, Altered States.

There are countless more websites, articles, and books on the topic. However, most trainers, HR pros, and managers I talk to, especially those new to their jobs, are completely unaware of the potential dangers.

Now, I'm not saying that all of these programs are dangerous or bad. It's just that for corporate leadership development, we need to be aware of the potential problems and be informed. For example, if someone says they don't want to participate in one of these problems, then you better not make it mandatory, or there could be serious civil rights consequences.

You also have to ask yourself if employers have any business intruding into their employee's personal value and belief systems. There's some moral and ethical considerations to think about. Personally, I don't think there's any need for this stuff in the workplace. Companies should be concerned with performance, skills, and behaviors. What goes on in an employee's head or heart is none of their damn business.

We also need to be upfront with our employees and let them know what they are getting in to, so they can make their own informed choices.

This woman sure wasn't too pleased when her husband returned from a PSI seminar and decided he no longer wanted to be with her or their children.

How do you know the training you are considering might be crossing the line into possible cult-like brainwashing?

Here are 10 warning signs to watch out for:

1. There is secrecy around the processes and techniques used. "It can't be described, it has to be experienced" is what you'll hear. "Don't tell anyone about it, we don't want you to spoil it for others". Bull. Demand program objectives, outline, and a complete description.

2. Programs built on the ideas and/or leadership of one charismatic person. I'm always skeptical about any training program that's referred to by someones name, i.e., "Tony Robbins training", "Covey training", "Kroning", etc...

3. You have nagging doubts about the facilitators, staff or program content. Something just doesn't "feel" right. They act a little too "enlightened".

4. You get challenging, defensive or discounting responses to your questions about the program.

5. You get vague or over-general promises of participant success.

6. "Hard-sell" tactics. Pressure on graduates to recruit more participants. In corporations, individuals and departments are often pressured to "get with the program", and seen as resistant if they choose not to participate.

7. An unfamiliar set of jargon are used to describe key concepts of the programs.

8. Program facilitators use physical and emotional techniques to get people to "open up and share" (i.e., break them down and humiliate them).

9. It's impossible to measure and evaluate the outcomes.

10. Any of the following techniques are used: fire walking, chanting, hypnosis, meditation, massage, yoga, biofeedback, bizarre relaxation techniques, mind control, visualization, overly aggressive "attack" confrontational techniques, or excessive hugging and crying.

Any one of these by themselves is probably harmless, but if you pick up on three of more, then buyer beware.


Lisa Rosendahl said...

Will you think any less of me if I tell you I participated in Landmark education? The very things you described were the reason I stopped participating after a few sessions specifically the hard sell tactics. It wasn't ok for me to particpate just for me. It was a little unsettling overall. I believe I lost a few friends (?) when I stepped away from it.

Fred H Schlegel said...

Great list. It's important to remember that when a company recommends/encourages a training program they are speaking with authority. Even if the program is not mandatory there will be a huge amount of peer and management pressure to attend.

Dan McCarthy said...

Lisa -
Heck, no, I'll bet a lot of us have gotten close to this stuff. I have too. Sometimes it's harmless. But we at least need to be aware of what we're getting into.

Fred -
Good point, I've seen it happen.

Ian Pratt said...

Finaly someone writes about it. Well done and brave. I am a big believer that leadership is about doing the basics well. There is no need for these big expensive programs.

Carol C said...

I agree ... but I'm sorry to see Covey's name listed with the craziness. His seminars are in a completely different category IMHO. In some cases, having your name identified with your material is simply good marketing (right Great Leadership by DAN?) - not the beginnings of a cult following. (Although I'm definitely a "follower" of yours, Dan!

Dan McCarthy said...

I just meant to use "covey training" as an example. While he does have a cult-like following, you're right, it's all right. And thanks!

Anonymous said...


Hits close to home. Well done.

Back in the mid 80s I was leading the AT&T divestiture change. My client was approached very aggressively by a rep of an organization which was an EST cover. He was suspicious and we checked it out carefully.

Lo and behold, a few AT&T employees from the West Coast started calling and evangelizing, putting on the heat. That made our decision even more firm.

A year or so later one of the former Baby Bells was sued heavily by employees who were sent through the program. And it was "programming" in most cult-like sense of the word.

This is a public service and well-presented.

Wally Bock said...

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.


Wally Bock

Ron Hurst said...

In my career I have taken Pecos River training twice, love Covey's work, have had some basic NLP AND attended a weekend long Tavistock leadership course. Setting off warning bell after warning bell Dan?

Perhaps I was simply able to keep all of these "trainings" In perspective and walked away better for all of them. I would not consider any of them to be "the answer" to leadership development, frankly most were simply avenues for me to become more aware of who I already was an provided a venue to do more of it. I certainly agree with the potential damage and cult like aspect of each (not Covey though).

Leadership development whenever treated like a generalized whitewash is ineffective and a waste of money for all but perhaps a general increase in awareness.

Leadership development is given a bad name by all the quacks who think they have "the" answer and can teach you how to be a leader in x easy steps or classes or whatever.

Leaders are developed one at a time by a gradual process of maturation, testing and adversity, revelation. You just cant get there by taking a course whatever it is.

Dan McCarthy said...

Ian -

Steve -
Thanks for the all too real example.

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks, Wally. Very cool!

Dan McCarthy said...

Ron -
very well said.

cv harquail said...


thanks not only for raising this concern but also for the links to resources to support your points.

It can be hard to raise these issues re: leadership programs without seeming like corporate buzzkill, but t is important for us to vet the values and the intent behind all of these'education' experiences. cvh

Anton Brunner said...

Hi Dan,

I have to disagree with your post here. While I have no doubt attended my share of worthless corporate trainings with touchy feely non-sense, I think you are engaging in some broad generalizations. Steven Covey, Tony Robbins and Landmark Education have been repeatedly engaged by some of the largest organizations in the world. You mention est in the group too yet it was credited in the 40th anniversary edition of Fortune Magazine as the major innovation of the 1970s in shaping modern management thinking toward empowering people. http://www.wernererhard.com/ind_week.html

Also International Society For Performance Impovement published a case study on the work the Landmark Education, now Vanto Group did in improving safety at a mine in Chile. It recieved the societies "Got Results Award" http://www.ispi.org/archives/gotResults/2005/Landmark_Education_GotResults.pdf

Tony Robbins has been honored by Accenture as one of the “Top 50 Business Intellectuals in the World”; by Harvard Business Press as one of the “Top 200 Business Gurus” http://www.nbc.com/Primetime/breakthrough/

Dan McCarthy said...

Anton -

No doubt some of these gurus and organizations are very good at what they do, and in many cases, have achieved results. They would have had to have some success and accolades, or they would not survive.

The point of my “warning” was not to label these programs as touchy feely or fluff – that’s another issue altogether. The point was to educate potential buyers of the techniques that cult leaders use to brainwash their followers, and to recognize the signs in leadership development programs.
It’s not black and white - that’s why I provided a list of 10 signs. I also only mentioned firms that were cited by expert sources as “cult-like”. Go ahead and Google “Landmark Education” or Werner Enhard est”. Sure, you’ll find success stories…. you’ll also find headlines like “Landmark Education destroyed my life--from the Forum to a psych ward" , and “est, why it produced psychotic episodes”. That should be enough to raise some questions and to be aware of what you are getting into.
Tony Robbins is probably a milder version, and no doubt he’s been wildly successful. I’ve never been to one of his programs, but have talked to co-workers, friends, and TR franchise sales reps who have. The programs meet at least ½ of the criteria on my list - enough to steer me away from using them as a company sponsored program, but OK if an individual chooses to attend one on their own.
Finally, I want to again clarify the Covey reference. His programs are not mentioned at all by the sources I listed. I only used him as an example of criteria #2. I’ve been to one of his seminars, have read his book, and I think it’s all good.
Anyway, thanks for commenting and offering another perspective, along with the additional sources. Readers should look at those too to get a balanced perspective.

LeaderSkillsTraining said...

Wow, I just this week added an article on my site (leaderskillstraining.com) that dealt with nearly this exact issue - making wise choices when choosing a leadership training program!

I think the best leadership training is about finding a personal fit for you that isn't just spam. You can try a lot of different programs, but it can often be a waste of time. I've found that some online courses (like the ones that leadership speaker and NSA president-elect Phil Van Hooser features on his site, vanhooser.com) are great because of the time and convenience.

The best leaders aren’t born with all their leadership traits present, but through effective training and practice they develop skills over time. It starts with having a plan and the proper program to make the best leadership traits part of your character. You can read my own article, Leadership Training Program – Making a Wise Choice, here: (http://leaderskillstraining.com//categories_leadership_vs_management_article.htm).

Scott Eblin said...

Hi Dan -

Really interesting post and clearly one that stirs a diverse range of experience and reaction. On your 10 warning signs to watch for, I'd day that items 1, 4, 6 and 8 are the ones that set off my alarm bells the most. I've been around some companies that have bought into some of these approaches and it can definitely have a bit of a cult like feel to it. One other sign I might add is creating a culture of "You're either in or you're out." That can be a pretty powerful impetus to join "in."

Congrats on your much deserved Best of Leadership blogs nomination.

Cheers -


Abhi V said...

Thanks for the article.

"What goes on in an employee's head or heart is none of their damn business."

Dan, employee behaviour is a direct result of what is going on in their hearts and minds.

I agree that some of these programs (certainly not Covey) can have adverse outcomes.

I disagree that we should not try to become highly aware of what makes our employees tick (exploring their hearts and minds). It is the responsibility of leaders to know their people. This makes forming/leading a winning team less of a hit or miss game.

Skills being present, 1)behaviours, 2)mindset and 3)system (evaluation processes, compensation, recognition, etc.). These 3 things need to support each other.

In transformation initiatives at work, employees need to understand the need for behaviour change which involves a shift in mindset to align with a new strategy. This is vital to successful (efficient) top-down as well as collaborative execution.

Dan McCarthy said...

Abhi -
Thanks for your perspective. I think I understand your point, but I'll still stand by my statements. Employer expectations around "mindsets" or values, are a slippery slope. For example, expecting our employees to have a "customer focused" or "collaborative" mindset sounds OK, although all we can observe and judge someone on are behaviors. However, expecting employees to have a "self-reliance" mindset could be considered intrustive. I know there's oten a fine line, but when in doubt, I think it's best to err on the side of work-related behaviors.

Jeff GJ said...

Any thoughts (or links to objective reviews) on National Training Laboratories?

Thanks for the article!

Dan McCarthy said...

Jeff GJ -
I've had no direct experience with NTL, but they seem credible.

Terry said...

I see many covey cult members here defending Stephen Covey. Just goes to show how these cults can grab the imaginations of people to their own purposes. I was forced (required class) to endure "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" in college. A large blight on our educational system. Teaching self-help books is not something one should be required to pay for in college or anywhere else. The college personnel was clearly infected with the covey cult. More about covey here: http://www.ualberta.ca/~tfenwick/ext/pubs/covey.htm

Mike said...

I agree that these well intended training programs don't amount to much. It seems to me that it would be more effective to give each trainee an allotted tuition $ and help them select something that is tightly targeted to their individual needs.

Anonymous said...

The only comment I can make is that after attending the Landmark forum I now have a completely restored relationship with my son, daughter and wife. Was it all because of Landmark? No...I had to work at it; but Landmark created a new way to view the situation and especially my behavior with respect to my family. My entire family fully contributes to society with employment and community support in a variety of ways. I do not like the "pressure" of Landmark and have made my concerns known to them. Frankly I think their program works for itself. I promote it to others becasue it has worked for me, not because I'm expected to meet a recruiting quota. I have degrees in both science and business and have managed others for over 20 years. I wish I would have been exposed to Landmark 20 years ago. Much grief in the workplace could have been avoided.

Anonymous said...

I have to remain anonymous due to the repercussions my quote will cause in my life and damaged family relationships.
A family member has attended a "Self development seminar" in Melbourne Australia that cliams to change your life in 48 hours.
It is founded and run by an Irishman who claims he was a convicted Drug dealer and Drug Addict.
he told my close family person that they had lopsided perceptions and needed to be grateful for all the bad things life had thrown at them.
he convinced them that good parents were in fact bad abusive parents.
he convinced them that siblings were not worthy of relationship because this person is now vibrating at a higher frequency and has evolved to a higher level spiritualy.
I fear for my family members sanity as they appear to have changed from lving and caring to a very angry and critical person who abuses the rest of the family because none of us want to go to Mjb meetings or listen to them when they try to make us believe what they belive.
We all got lots of phone cals from Mjb people and letters and such trying to get us to go to their meetings. Our family member who has got brainwashed by Mjb is trying to get everyone they know to go to Mjb and is spending lots of money on their meetings and stuff.
They think it has made them a better person.
We would all disagree as we can objectively see what it is doing to them, and the negative impact it is having on the extended family..

Luke said...

Hi Everyone,

Few words about Landmark Education and Vanto Group.
Few months ago I was invited by my girlfriend to Landmark Education seminar in London. Before attending the seminar I made research about it and found few websites like this one, very critical about the training. I was shocked and emotionally blocked. I wanted to rescue my girlfriend from the 'cult' hands etc. I was even considering to split with her should she have tried to force me to join her.

Well, few months later I switched and decided I would do it as an experiment. I knew few people who become very successful after attending the seminar.
I need to admit that attending the course was a very tough experience. It is not hard because someone is hurting you but because you need to face your real personality and who you really are.
People say that Landmark Education is an 'Brainwash' but you would realize that we are already brainwashed by our past experiences. Why some people are successful and why others are failures? Why two similar individuals who enter life in similar conditions can have two different lives? Does it really depend on the place you are born? Some people are born in developed countries but still struggle with poverty and some born in poor nations can become wealthy. Have you ever thought why these things happen? It is all in our mind and our inner believes. For one individual loosing a job is a disaster and for another can be an opportunity to start something new. Each situation can be read by others in totally different way as we have completely different life experience.
Landmark Education gives you knowledge to understand it and gives techniques to change our undermining us believes. Surely people are very critical about that because 'THEY DON'T WANT TO CHANGE THEMSELVES' People think that all what is going on around them is an coincidence and bad things happening to them are not their faults!!! If you attend Landmark Forum, I mean you stay until the end of the seminar' you will track your entire life backward and understand chain of events in your life. Of course people who do not want to face it, give up, and than write the silly comments on-line.

There is an old saying, Dont judge the book by its cover, and that is what people mostly do. If you want to know more about the Landmark training and the entire philosophy of change please get 'Three Laws of Performance' book by Steve Zaffron & Dave Logan and read it.

Last words. Do you want our world to be as it is now? Wars, unemployment, poverty etc. This has been happening mainly because, human as an individuals, are programmed to be better than others. We are greedy because we need to be better than Mr X,Y or Z and need to have more than them. I believe one day people reflect upon that and thanks to Landmark we have mind tools to understand it.

Many Thanks,


Anonymous said...

When a business promoting itself as a form of Education and Self Development, Personal Development,Wealth and Money Management, etc.. in effect offering a glitzy presentation on a website, that seems to be offering courses to help you improve every facet ofyour life, you would not expect that it is going to cause the total fracture of family relationships.
That has been my personal experience of MJB Seminars in Perth which has broken my family apart due to it's influence on a family member.
"Relationships and You" the first MJB Seminar is supposed to enable participants to have better relationships and transform their life in 48 hours.
YES! I can confirm, it does transform lives.
I have not seen my son in 6 years because I tried to talk to him about the strange philosophies of "8 spiritual planes one can ascend" and "evolving" by learning to "vibrate" at a "higher frequency" and the "therapy" of having your head yanked violently to "balance the two hemispheres of the brain" called "Beta Balance" to name just a few of the ideas they now consider truth.
I have to accept that I may never see my son or grandchildren again. My crime was to voice my concerns as a loving parent about the strange ideas MJB Seminars was implanting in my son's mind through their LGAT or Large Group Awareness Training Seminars that are using unenthical Cognitive Psychotherapy mathods.
ie Taking people through an expensive 48 hour roller coaster of emotional experiences under extreme pressure in a large group.
So sad to lose what used to be a loving relationship just for speaking caution to a person out of loving concern.
It was always my belief and personal experience that a mature and well balanced person can accept disagreement, differeing beliefs, and agree to disagree without having to break off relationships within a family.
All families have disagreements, differences of opinions, of one kind or another, but they usually stick together as a family.
That is the strength of families as a component of our society. Apparently belief in what MJB Seminars teaches has caused my son to cut off all contact.

Anonymous said...

Wow, When I read this post I thought for sure you were writing of Discover Leadership Training based out of Houston TX. I was sent by my company who required all employees to attend. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect and was not dissapointed in that they use all of the tactics used in your original article. I believe if you go into these programs well grounded with a good sense of being you can survive without much influence and you can recognize what is garbage and what is useful. With that said I believe their are too many who attend these programs that are insecure and looking for answers to better their lives and are swept away and given unrealistic expectations and promises. these people end up crashing and burning once they return home to the real world without their support group. Discover is very good and not letting go and teaming you up with a power partner to help you stay engaged as long as possible. Don't get me wrong, I made some lifelong friends at the conference, however, the majority of it was in direct contridiction of my personal belief system ie... do what is good for you, worry about yourself, blah blah blah....... I have been raised to focus on the needs of others before myself and this Philosophy has treated me and my family very well. Not to say I am not a believer in self improvement because I believe whole heartily believe in getting my house in order, but to keep the focus on what's best for me all the time, just doesn't sit well with me. Thanks for the article.

Unknown said...

True, there have been many who claims effective ceo coaching and development training. the list presented on this article is something that provides a great idea of what to watch out.

Unknown said...

This is exactly the experience I had.

I was beyond skeptical, having experienced a manipulative religious group in my past and now doubting everything because of it.

I did the Forum because my wife had taken the course and felt it would be something very beneficial to both of us if I took it.

I had looked all over the web and found tons of "cult" accusations and that only fuled my skepticism...but in the end, I chose to trust the person I know and love who has actually gone through the course rather than follow some negative peron online whom I've never met.

I don't have the "feeling" that the Forum is "the best thing I've ever done"...but, I see things a bit more clearly now and realize I can really be anyone I want to be and do anything I want to do without focusing on the "BUT" which falsely puts a relationship between my desires and excuses of why they can't be possible.

I am continuing my education with Landmark and just completed the advanced course, which was really a great experience in building groups and learning how to look outside myself to affect the world for change in a possitive way.

My whole group is excited to take the Self Expression in Leadership course which is the final course in the 3 part curriculum.

Just wanted to put my 2 cents in as a person who has had a positive experience from Landmark having gone in with little expectations of success.

Dr. S said...

I am a successful heart surgeon. I first participated in a Tommy Vu seminar in 1987. He promoted selling foreclosures and how to do it. He advertised on late night TV while on a yacht with bikini-clad women. He promised I could make thousands using his system. While I never made any money and probably spent $10,000 pursuing it at the time, it did open me up to other possibilities other than grinding out a 9 to 5 job. In 1991, I stumbled upon the Landmark Forum and became addicted to the results it produced in my life. The most important lesson I learned was that I was responsible for my life. And that my parents did an awesome job! Then, I did the Miracle of Love in 1996. Another "cult" that put God #1 in my life, something that Catholicism never did. In 2003, I did T. Harv Eker's Millionaire Mind, and got integrity around money and cleaned up my credit. In 2009, I did Tony Robbins and walked on Fire, which showed me I can do ANYTHING. Today, I still regularly participate in whatever seminar, cult or experience I can. I have personally performed over 4000 heart surgeries, lung surgeries, trauma surgeries, etc, etc, etc. I have personally performed 125 heart transplants and 35 artificial hearts. I am the chairman of my CT surgery department and my group and I'm 51 years old. I am a good, faithful, loyal married man with 3 children. I have saved thousands of lives. I don't blame anyone or any cult for my shortcomings but myself. I give credit to thousands of people for how I turned out from my teachers, mentors, professors, parents, friends and cults. I am sober, have excellent credit and live moderately. And I don't critic, criticize or judge anything I haven't done or anyone who does something I have never done. Maybe try one of the cults you criticize, produce real results in your business and life and then edit your comments. And put this comment on top of your good comments about your blog. With love, compassion and truth, Dr. S

Unknown said...

I went to the Empowering Minds program being given out by Canadian schools and the organization that ran the operation was Rapport International. I can confirm based off my experiences that 9/10 of these warning signs were present and they were prominent throughout to entire experience. I truly believe there was some brainwashing present and I think some of my teen peers may have been affected poorly because of it. Hell, I even feel brainwashed to an extent, especially on the hard sell tactics. After I left, the techniques had me going around inviting others, including my siblings and I even suggested the course for my parents. They didn't know about the majority of what happened there and they still don't. If you feel emotionally or mentally unstable, I'd suggest that you avoid these places, as they create stressful and possibly dangerous environments, as previously seen with Landmark. Of course, it is all up to you, but the prices that usually follow suit are a bit questionable, to say the least. Stay safe everyone!