The 9 Most Common Personality Traits In Cult Leaders

Cult and mental health experts reveal the characteristics often found in those who seek to control and manipulate others.
Illustration: Chris McGonigal/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images/Max/Netflix

With hit documentaries like Love Has Won and Escaping Twin Flames and podcasts like Let’s Talk About Sects and Escaping NXIVM, it’s clear the public fascination with all things cult is alive and well.

So too are audiences curious about cult leaders, who manage to compel everyday people to adopt outlandish beliefs and do horrible things.

“Cult leaders are notable for the enormous amount of power they have over their group,” Ashlen Hilliard, a cult intervention specialist and founder of People Leave Cults, told HuffPost. “This power is what many look for when defining a cult, but it’s not the only aspect that creates a cult leader. When you take a closer look, a cult leader often exhibits a classic set of traits and behaviours. Although there is variety in how these traits present, certain themes tend to ring true.”

We asked Hilliard and other experts to break down some of those common characteristics. Here’s what they said:


“Cult leaders are often highly charismatic and persuasive, with a magnetic personality that can attract and influence followers,” Hilliard said.

Cult leaders tend to be charming and clever, and use that charm to persuade people that doing what the leader commands is the best way to achieve their personal goals.

“They would never have followers if they didn’t know how to make people feel special and like they’re actually the centre of attention,” said mental health counsellor and leading cult expert Steven Hassan. “They say the right words, but it’s not genuine. It’s acting.”

Social psychologist and cult expert Alexandra Stein emphasised that being charming is not inherently toxic, however.

“Charisma is a personality trait that may be common amongst cult leaders, but if you know someone who is charismatic, that certainly doesn’t mean that they are on the pipeline to becoming a cult leader,” Stein said. “I like to ask the following questions: How are they utilising their charisma? Is there the potential for abuse? How would they respond to criticism of their actions?”

Authoritarian Control

“Cult leaders often have a strong need for control and may exhibit authoritarian behaviours, such as dictating the beliefs and actions of their followers,” Hilliard said.

The cult leader’s typical objective is to gain power over others, and to make their followers feel unable to break free.

“Coercive control is a pattern of behaviour used to dominate, intimidate, and manipulate someone,” Hilliard explained. “This can include a range of tactics, such as isolating the victim from friends and family, monitoring their movements, controlling their access to money and resources, and using threats or physical force to maintain control.”

“When a cult group or leader applies coercive control to a follower, that person may be left feeling that their only viable path is to remain in the group ― even if unspeakable acts are committed.”

- Ashlen Hilliard, cult expert

She noted that there tends to be “a gradual escalation of abusive behavior,” as the leader employs psychological, emotional or physical tactics to maintain power.

“When a cult group or leader applies coercive control to a follower, that person may be left feeling that their only viable path is to remain in the group ― even if unspeakable acts are committed,” Hilliard added.

That’s why cults often operate with strict routines and particular eating and sleeping habits.

“Cult leaders even manipulate people into not having personal preferences,” said Robin Stern, a psychoanalyst and co-founder of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. “Some people who grow up in cults don’t even know how to recognise their own emotions because they were told what to feel and [that] certain feelings weren’t allowed.”

She added that most cult leaders are master gaslighters who assert their reality over the reality of their followers, sow divisions and undermine people’s perceptions of their own feelings and beliefs.

Inability To Tolerate Being Wrong

“Cult leaders are not able to tolerate being wrong, nor do they want to have to take any responsibility for having wronged you,” said Rachel Bernstein, a licensed marriage and family therapist and host of the IndoctriNation podcast.

“So if you have been hurt by them, it’s somehow your fault, because you must have done something to deserve it, and it’s your weakness that caused their mistreatment of you to bother you,” Bernstein continued. “They are ultimately emotionally protected and impervious.”

She also noted that cult leaders tend to answer to no one and live by their own rules. It’s their world, and others need to learn how to exist in it.

“They often feel they are above the law, are beyond reproach, and enjoy shaming those in the group who defy them, disagree with them or, in essence, hurt their ego in any way,” Bernstein added.

That’s why it’s difficult to try to confront or reason with a cult leader.

“When cult leaders are confronted, or somebody questions anything they’re doing, they are likely to turn it to blame someone else and say they’re thinking in the wrong way or they’re being influenced by an outside force, like a parent or loved one,” Stern said.

“Sometimes when followers have contact with [their] family members, they question what the cult leader is doing or asking [the cult follower] to do,” Stern added. “Often then, the cult leader is critical of the family and puts them down or tries to gaslight the cult member into thinking that their family does not have their best interest at heart.”

Malignant Narcissism

Many cult leaders ”are malignant narcissists — those who have sociopathy and simply do not care about the pain they inflict, the damage they cause, and the lives they derail in order to get their very powerful ego needs met,” Bernstein said. “They are insatiable in their neediness and no amount of devotion and sacrifice ever quite feels like enough. So followers of these kinds of cult leaders often feel they are failing, and they need to work harder and sacrifice more of themselves each day.”

She said narcissistic cult leaders tend to lack empathy for others and may stop at nothing to get what they want.

“[E]verything they did or were asked to do was in the service of the narcissistic needs of the cult leaders ― often their financial needs or sexual desires.”

- Robin Stern, psychoanalyst

“They often use doing charitable work or speaking about caring about others as a way to come across as loving, but ultimately it’s a way to launder their reputations,” Bernstein added. “When we look at the fact that most cult leaders are malignant narcissists, those with this disorder don’t often come with an ethical core that drives them. They don’t think about how to make a difference in the world, but rather craft a world where they are the gods and others are to live their lives doing good for them.”

Cult leaders frequently make their followers feel as though they need to work hard to earn the leader’s trust, rather than the other way around.

“I’ve heard from people in cults that they felt their life was going really well and that they were doing something special in the world,” Stern said. “They felt seen, heard and understood. But what they didn’t see for some time ― sometimes a long time ― was that everything they did or were asked to do was in the service of the narcissistic needs of the cult leaders ― often their financial needs or sexual desires.”


Unpredictability is a common trait in cult leaders as well.

“A cult leader often benefits from members and outside authorities not knowing their next move,” Hilliard said. “This can add to an air of divine inspiration or help convince devotees of [the leader’s] supernatural powers.”

By sowing chaos and uncertainty, cult leaders can establish their mere leadership presence as the only constant, even if their own behaviours are inconsistent. Followers are left with the singular goal of pleasing their leader.

“They keep followers in an unstable relationship with them, walking on eggshells,” Stein said. “The followers never know if the ‘nice’ leader or the angry, cruel leader is going to appear at any given time.”

Insecure Attachment Issues

“The latest theory amongst mental health professionals is that people with this level of disorder had insecure attachment in their first few years,” Hassan said.

He emphasised the power of loving caregivers. Growing up with someone who offers support and encouragement helps people develop a healthy sense of self.

“But these cult leaders have a hole where they should have a sense of self, so they’re always trying to compensate by getting people’s attention or feeling power over others, because they felt so helpless as a child,” Hassan added. “That’s a common profile.”

He noted that many cult leaders grew up in cults themselves and learned patterns of manipulation, control and abuse from adults, instead of developmentally appropriate, empowering and authoritative ― not authoritarian ― parenting.


“Cult leaders may hold unconventional or bizarre beliefs that are not grounded in reality, and may promote these beliefs to their followers as absolute truths,” Hilliard said.

The role of delusional beliefs in cults tends to generate headlines. Much of the recent attention on the Twin Flames Universe revolved around members’ fervent commitment to idea that they needed to be with one specific person ― even if it meant stalking that person or violating a restraining order. Members of the Love Has Won cult consumed colloidal silver for extended periods of time, even after seeing the physical harm it could cause.

“Some cult leaders are suffering with a delusional disorder, but their charisma causes them to attract others who ... believe their delusions,” Bernstein said.

“They are the ultimate judge and jury, deciding who moves up in the ranks and who gets demoted on a daily basis, so everyone is on edge, not ever knowing where they truly stand or where they will stand tomorrow.”

- Rachel Bernstein, therapist

Sense Of Grandiosity

“When someone is beguiled into a cult, they’re working for the good, the pleasure or narcissistic needs of the cult leader, but they’re often told their work has some higher purpose and they’re going to find meaning and happiness in a way they’ve never had,” Stern said. “It’s very effective, especially when the process of gaslighting and brainwashing is enhanced by tactics such as sleep deprivation, food control and isolation from their previous life.”

She pointed to the way many leaders create steps and levels of ascension into power for their followers ― and then use that system to make their followers feel important and recruit even more members.

“They are the ultimate judge and jury, deciding who moves up in the ranks and who gets demoted on a daily basis, so everyone is on edge, not ever knowing where they truly stand or where they will stand tomorrow,” Bernstein said. “This is a way to get people to be working day and night to prove their allegiance in order to keep themselves safe in the group and liked by the leader, the person whose approval matters now more than anyone else’s.”

She noted that cult leaders tend to get “drunk with their power of being a Pied Piper.” As their following grows, so too does their self-importance and their craving for even more admiration and attention.

“They lie, build grandiose life stories, often with a kind of ‘once was blind but now I see and therefore have all the answers’ narrative,” Stein added.


“Cult leaders may exploit their followers financially, sexually or emotionally, using their position of power to gain personal benefits at the expense of their followers,” Hilliard said.

They exert undue influence on followers ― meaning they pressure or persuade people to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do and that often run counter to their own best interests.

“For instance, a cult leader may convince a follower to sign over properties, businesses, or financial assets to the group to show their commitment,” Hilliard said. “Once those exchanges take place, the follower may feel that they have to remain in the group or risk losing everything. Undue influence can be difficult to identify, as the person being influenced may not be aware that they are being manipulated or may feel too intimidated to resist.”

She highlighted the many crimes committed by notorious cult leaders like Charles Manson and Jim Jones ― murder, terrorism, sex trafficking, sexual abuse, fraud, drug smuggling and more.

“It takes more than charisma to convince people to go along with ― or commit ― acts like these,” Hilliard said.

Stern stressed that people in cults usually lose their sense of personal identity.

“They often stop what they were doing before they met the leader ― going to school, having a job, being connected with friends and family,” she explained. “They are often seduced into a psychological state where they are disinterested in anything other than working for the cult and the promise of the cult.”

The role of leaders in actively controlling and exploiting people is part of what separates actual authoritarian cults from say, fandoms that get described as “cultish.”

“People ask me about Taylor Swift,” Hassan said. “But you can be a total fanatic fan of Taylor Swift and still have your own mind, conscience, freedom to ask questions and freedom to leave without fear or threats or a dissociative disorder.”