Student looking at mock crime scene evidence in room


Leadership gone wrong

Serial killers and cults might seem like an unusual course topic for the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. Professor Lauren Henley reveals their intriguing links to leadership.
I put primary sources before my students, and we interrogate them together.

What do serial killers and cults have to do with leadership studies?

Pedagogically, there are lots of parallels between killers and cult leaders and people that we think of as successful leaders. They’re all power systems. [Look at the] ways that they use something as seemingly benign as charisma to attract people to carry out nefarious plans.

Can you give an example?

[Say you’re a] college student coming to campus for the first time. You’re trying to make friends, taking a bunch of new classes, learning new professors’ names, and learning a new city. And someone says, “Why don’t you come study with me at the library?” You do it for one day, and they’re like, “Why don’t you study with me again tomorrow? I really enjoyed your company.” Then it comes time for fall break: “Why don’t you come home with me and my family? And why don’t you bring your roommate along?”

Soon, you and your roommate are revolving your lives around one person. But that person does the same to two, three, four other people. They’ve got a little following.

And now you get to winter break: “Hey, why don’t we all go rent a house in Virginia Beach for the week?” And you’re excited because now you think you have a community. And then it’s: “Oh, well, the only week we could get it is the last week of classes. So you’re going to have to skip a final or two.” And now it’s impacting your day-to-day life.

But you think that these are your people, you’ve found your home, you’re safe, and you’re comfortable. It’s very, very easy to get in deep before you realize.

I walk students through these kinds of examples to show how seemingly benignly someone can end up trapped in one of these kinds of groups.

Sounds like anyone could fall into that trap.

Absolutely. My students start out thinking all the usual stereotypes: that people who join cults must be particularly depressed or lonely, that they must be somehow weak in the mind or have some sort of negative home life and are looking for a surrogate family. At the end of the class, they’re like, “Actually, that could be me.” There’s no one kind of person who’s predisposed to joining a cult.

How do they come to realize this?

I don’t offer a moral stance on cults but rather show that they are about power in a corrupt sort of way. I put primary sources before my students, and we interrogate them together.

We also play a game on Day Two called Cult Following. Students get five cards [with amusing descriptors like “a message from the future” or “your very own spaceship”], and they choose three [to define their cult]. Their classmates ask questions, and they try to recruit them by answering according to their cult’s interests. It sounds outlandish, but in reality there are cults that actually hold some of these values.