Cults in Suits: The Dark Side of Corporate Devotion : Future Focus Counselling & Consulting

While recently watching Netflix’s “How to Become a Cult Leader,” I was struck by the thought of the parallels between corporate and cult cultures. Cults often bring to mind images of brainwashed followers and enigmatic leaders, whereas corporations typically conjure up scenes of business suits, boardrooms, and commerce. But scratch beneath the surface, and you might find more parallels than you’d expect. My personal journey offers a vivid illustration of this.

I recall the annual company meetings where thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of employees and customers would assemble once a year, almost as if to worship at the feet of their leaders. Dressed in our uniforms, we hung onto every word our leader pronounced, breaking into spontaneous dances and cheers. Those were days when 80-hour workweeks felt normal, sleep was scarce, and an all-consuming belief in our company’s mission seemed intoxicating. Merely being chosen to attend these annual summits felt like an honor, and my heart swelled with gratitude.

Years later, with the lens of a therapist, I reflect on these annual gatherings — the larger-than-life aura of our corporate leader, our unwavering devotion, and an almost blind allegiance. The resemblance to cultish behaviors is stark and undeniable. This introspection led me to explore why corporations might sometimes mirror cult-like characteristics.

  1. Charismatic Leadership: Cults often rally around a charismatic figure, and corporations can similarly be steered by visionary CEOs or founders. Their presence can evoke a devotion that verges on reverence. In his article “Is your corporate culture cultist?” Kets de Vries (2019) posits that genuine leadership is about unlocking an individual’s potential, not fostering blind loyalty.
  2. Strong Internal Culture: Both entities emphasize creating a distinct internal culture. Kets de Vries (2019) queries, “Do employees believe in the company’s vision because they genuinely resonate with it, or out of mere obligation?”
  3. In-group vs. Out-group Dynamics: Cults define themselves by their distinction from the “external world.” Similarly, corporations can foster a sense of belonging, occasionally at the cost of viewing competitors as ‘the other.’
  4. Controlled Communication: Cults might regulate information flow to keep their influence, paralleled by corporations with stringent communication guidelines.
  5. High Commitment Levels: The unwavering commitment seen in cult members is mirrored in the corporate world, where grueling hours and personal sacrifices become the norm.
  6. Reinforcement Mechanisms: Cults and corporations have ways to reinforce norms. Cults may employ social ostracism, while corporations use performance metrics.
  7. Branding and Identity: Symbols in cults and branding in corporations serve similar purposes: fostering unity and identification.
  8. Recruitment Strategies: The fervor of cult recruitment can find echoes in corporate drives to woo potential talent.
  9. Challenges Upon Exit: Leaving a cult is infamously tough. Exiting a corporation, too, can come with its own set of challenges.
  10. End Goals: Both entities strive for growth and promoting their missions. Yet, as Kets de Vries (2019) astutely notes, a corporate culture that shuns diversity or dissent can veer precariously close to cultish behavior.

In conclusion, understanding these commonalities illuminates the profound influence of group dynamics on human behavior. It’s a call to action to ensure a clear delineation between healthy corporate culture and potential cult-like deviations.


Kets de Vries, M. F. R. (2019). Is your corporate culture cultish? Harvard Business Review.

How to Become a Cult Leader. (2023). Netflix.

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I am licensed to practice in Washington State and the following Canadian Provinces: Yukon, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland.