Beware of the ‘Cult of Personality’
The term “cult of personality” tends to conjure dramatic images of political or religious leaders influencing the masses. It seems grandiose and powerful. Cult of personality has varied definitions, but they all basically boil down to this: The situation that arises when an individual person gains intense loyalty from a group of people from the sheer force of his or her personality. Sometimes it is choreographed and uses tools such as the media to sway people to willingly step inside the person’s sphere of influence. Other times it is a slower, more subtle and possibly even unintentional ascent.
Cult of personality may often be used to describe political situations, but it is easily transferable to the entertainment industry (think Oprah) and to corporate culture. Look at Steve Jobs, walking on stage at company meetings in his trademark black turtleneck. Jobs had a reputation for being a bit off-kilter, but because of his brilliance in business and invention, he gained a following of people that would likely stick a fork in a light socket if they read somewhere that Steve Jobs thought this would make them be able to create better tech. As communication channels broaden and news streams 24-hours a day, it gets easier for people at every level elevate their personal brand.
Social movements and the nonprofit arena are not immune from this phenomenon. In the nonprofit arena, cult of personality tends to show itself in two main forms:
- The first is similar to everything described above. The person gains a following as a leader of a movement. An example of this could be Joel Osteen’s following of religious believers. His followers have the conviction of the faithful and will accept his words as decrees from God.Another example would be the four co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington: Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez and Bob Bland. The Women’s March on Washington was a quickly organized movement, with a deliberate set of planned goals and outcomes. The co-chairs rose to cult status when the march went global and included millions of people. It was a cause that needed leaders.
Joel Osteen and the Women’s March on Washington are both larger-than-life examples; they are both relevant here, because the movements they are leading are nonprofit organizations or are solidly backed by many nonprofit organizations.
- The second type of cult of personality that manifests in nonprofits tends to be on a smaller scale, but can drastically influence the impact and longevity of the organization. This type of cult-like following can sometimes happen in organizations where the executive director/CEO is either the founder or has been at the organization 8 to 10 or more years. Such longevity can be good for the organization in many ways, but it can also foster an environment where the community feels as though the leader IS the organization.As fundraisers and nonprofit professionals, we know how important it is to keep relationships with donors and the community all about the organization and the mission. This can be difficult when a staff member and a donor feel like they have become friends. It is hard sometimes for the professional to remember that their relationship with the investor/volunteer exists, because of both people’s affinity for the nonprofit.
When the founder of an organization brings their friends and connections into the inner circle of the organization, building the nonprofit’s network out from there, it ultimately gives that person an exceptional amount of control over decisions made on behalf of the organization.
An example I saw recently was an organization’s program director who was found out to have benefitted from an unethical personal deal, which was made possible as a result of his position with his nonprofit.
Instead of being appalled or outraged or calling for an investigation or audit, the supporters of the director took to social media proclaiming his virtues. Some even excused the unethical deed under the belief that since the director is such a good person, and he deserves the excess benefit he received. See the problem here? The director became synonymous with the organization in the supporters’ eyes and, when wrongdoing was uncovered, they took his side instead of looking out for the best interest of the organization.
When supporters overlook unethical behavior or even outright fraud, because they believe the nonprofit leader to be a larger-than-life personality that is the mission, we’re entering the cult of personality realm. Even a generally ethical person can, over time, become used to being treated in such exalted way that they begin to believe extra perks are okay for them because of their position.
It takes a truly strong leader to ensure such a situation does not become a reality at their organization. Establishing transparent practices, making at least some decisions based on multilateral input, projecting the organization above themselves and instituting a succession plan are all positive steps that cut down on the type of environment that creates a cult of personality. Sometimes just knowing when a leadership change is the best move for an organization can make all the difference.
Nonprofit organizations hold an important place in our society and impact our lives in every area from health care to entertainment to religion. We must let these organizations do their best work without putting their executives on pedestals that create unhealthy organizational environments.
Tracy Vanderneck is president of Phil-Com, a Florida-based training and consulting company where she works with nonprofits on fundraising, board development and strategic planning. Tracy has more than 20 years of experience in fundraising, business development and sales. She holds a Master of Science in management with a concentration in nonprofit leadership and a graduate certificate in teaching and learning. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive and an Association of Fundraising Professionals Master Trainer. Additionally, she designs and delivers online fundraising training classes and serves as a Network for Good Personal Fundraising Coach.