Demystifying “Cult-Like” Cultures

The Traditional Definition of “Cult”

The word “cult” for most people induces all manner of responses, most of them skeptical, suspicious and wary. The meaning of the word extends from the view of extremists that see “a cult as a religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader”; to a more moderate view of “an exclusive group of persons sharing an esoteric, usually artistic or intellectual interest.”

Using the “Cult” concept in Business

James Collins and Jerry Porras in their book “Built to Last“* Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, adapted the definition into a business concept – “cult-like” cultures:

“Only those who “fit” extremely well with the core ideology and demanding standards of a visionary company will find it a great place to work. You will either fit or flourish in a visionary company, or you will likely be expunged like a virus – there is no middle ground. It’s almost cult like. They are so clear about what they stand for and what they’re trying to achieve that they simply don’t have room for those unwilling and unable to fit their exacting standards.”

This concept links closely to a further principle of companies that are “Built to Last” being, “Preserve the Core and Stimulate Progress”. Preservation of the core links to the fundamental ideological foundation upon which the organisation had been initially built. This core represented the thinking of the “why” of the organisation’s founders and it preserved this authentically. It was into this core, that employees were enticed; where teams were engaged in the selection of future team mates to ensure that they were fit for purpose – the purpose of the core thinking that set the culture of the organisation in place.

In establishing a “cult-like” culture, the core is formed from what the organisation stands for, for the fundamental principles that guide the manner in which it engages in and with the world – it’s internal world and that of its customers. It becomes the pivotal point from which authenticity and integrity are made evident and the stake in the ground against which ethics, morals and conduct of leaders and their people can be held to account.

Many organisations in the modern world are devoid of this moral and ethical compass resulting in misaligned practices and broken promises to customers and staff. Those that have invested in creating this core that is entrenched in the very DNA of the organisation and its people, are rewarded by the loyalty of both staff and customers.

Positive Use of “Cult-Like” Cultures in Business

The words “cult-like” are indeed contentious. What if one were to look beyond the emotions that the word conjures up in the mind of the reader, to the essence of the application of this principle. What if “cult-like” cultures provided their people with the core of a purpose larger than themselves to believe in; what if environments such as these allowed people to be and express themselves authentically and in alignment with the organisation’s core and their personal purpose; what if the core is an expression of meaningful work in being of service to staff and customers as the over-riding business philosophy? What difference therefore would organisations and their leaders make to the world within which they operate where they cultivated a culture that is positively “cult-like”?

Perhaps then it is worth demystifying beliefs steeped in superstition.

* “Built to Last” unlike James Collins other best seller “Good to Great” focused on research conductedon organisations that had sustained themselves for 50 years or more.


Definitions paragraph 1:

Article: TWELVE SHATTERED MYTHS – James C Collins

“Built to Last – Successful Habits of Visionary Companies”James C. Collins and Jerry I Porras, Harper Collins, 1997