I am 99 percent over my embarrassment at choosing to live in a cult when I was in my late 20s. Of course, I still cringe when I hear end-of-world predictions like last month's doomsday forecast by Harold Camping of Family Radio Worldwide, but there is often something we can learn from even the most bizarre experiences.
I joined the cult because I was disillusioned with, and poorly connected to, the world. Located in the farmlands of the Midwest, the cult fascinated me, for a time. And it was intense. I was vulnerable, and the extreme views in the cult acted as an elixir. The followers believed that the axis of the earth would shift in 27 years due to planetary alignment. The world would collapse, and those living in the cult, and about 144,000 others, according to their interpretation of a passage from Revelation, would survive. I needed a new world view and settled on this ridiculous one in my immaturity.
The group of 200 was a rich amalgam of ex-hippies, young families, construction workers, artists, and a federal executive. Most were college educated, and they came from all over North America to the flat farmland. The men and single women would go off to work in the morning. I did an 85-mile commute to my office job in downtown Chicago with another cult member who was a salesman for IBM (IBM). Mothers saw their children off to school. It was a weird combination of Leave it to Beaver tradition while preparing for the end of the world.
I abandoned the cult within a year because I started to do my own thinking. I may not have known where I was going next after my brush with this pseudo-reality, but I knew it was not there. Despite the weirdness, the cult provided a hothouse of ingredients for several life-long leadership lessons. The ingredients: big mission, strong personalities, lots at stake, and dysfunctional leadership.
Lesson One: Take risks and make mistakes, lots of them.
The first thing I learned, of course, is that you can take useful knowledge away from just about any experience, even mistakes. The best leaders I have worked with know this and encourage experimentation and taking reasonable risks. The biggest enemy of any enterprise is complacency and conformity, not risk-taking and mistakes. As long as risks and mistakes are not horrendously stupid, they will advance the enterprise in some way even if things don't work out as planned.
Lesson Two: Don't soft-pedal the truth.
There are endless times in the busy, often conflicted life of a chief executive when it would be so convenient to gloss over the truth—or worse, to ignore it and explain it away. Bubbles, busts, and various disasters get built around our natural tendency for soft-pedaling. Think the mortgage meltdown, for example.
I learned this at the cult. When our efforts were stagnant, falling far behind the stated goals, the leader "reinterpreted" the results. One glaring example was that the cult stayed the same size for years—about 200 members—instead of growing to the big number initially predicted. Its membership was more a revolving door than an accumulation. We would look at the data of nongrowth and swallow the leaders' explanations for staying tribal-size. He facilitated a comfortable group rationalization so members would stop questioning themselves.
The best leaders don't gloss over mistakes or make excuses. When something doesn't work, they admit it, try to learn from it, and move on. "We made a mistake" and "I made a mistake" are power-engendering words. Candor multiplied by honesty is a huge source of leadership power. It builds the platform on which the foundation for the future can take shape.
Former General Electric (GE) CEO Jack Welch has said the best thing he learned from his mother about leadership was to see reality and call it so. Alan Mulally, head of Ford (F), thinks the same way. He stopped the fiction of recording revenue when the automaker shipped a car and instead mandated that revenue be counted after the dealer sold the vehicle. At first, this gave Ford and its shareholders a sour dose of reality, but it also helped the country's second-largest car manufacturer recover and build a better future.
Lesson Three: Always keep your humanity.
Leaders have to know what to do with the huge amount of "stuff" that followers project onto them. They know when to accept it, reject it, or play along with it. At our little cult, we were obsessed with the leader and his traits—right up until the time he got thrown out for sexual indiscretions.
This overwhelming tendency to project an almost unlimited quantity of positive or negative attributes on leaders—things like good and evil motives, character flaws, heroism, sexual prowess, whatever—affords them far more power than they deserve. Along with many others, I attributed a kind of humility to our leader, brought on by his mild manner, among other things. This positive attribution allowed us to project that the outlandish story of his life had to be true—he really did have these fantastical run-ins with secret brotherhoods that had chosen him as a leader. His soft-spoken metaphysical balderdash became, for us, the eager-to-be-duped, a story of an unassuming man just doing what he was called to do.
The best thing leaders can do to lessen this projection tendency is to puncture the pretense that comes with the role. Leaders need to be multidimensional. To do that, talk about such things as your family instead of always fixating on the organization's mission. Admit your limitations on the job and discuss how and why you changed your mind on an issue.
To be sure, I made a handful of good, life-long friends who, like me, left the cult weirdness behind and can now joke about it. Perhaps that's the final leadership lesson: Don't take yourself too seriously and make sure you can always have a good laugh at your own expense. I know I can and do.