The Cult of Personality Mentorship (CPM): The Five Characteristics

How to avoid “mentorship” that is based on a cult of personality rather than that of legitimate substance

I have started writing this article nearly twenty times in my mind. I’ve played with, poked, prodded and picked at this topic on a subconscious level for months. As an unexpected outcome, I began by writing an article that instead became the 5 Characteristics to Look For in a Mentor, which is not quite what I expected! Clearly, my brain needed to purge that information first to identify the ought to (do) rather than ought not (not do).

As noted in my previous article, I believe strong mentorship based on the five characteristics outlined (whether direct or indirect) can make the difference between success and stratospheric success. I take mentorship very seriously and am blessed to have phenomenal mentorship in my life. I desperately hope that you not only find value in these two articles, but that they help guide you to find such mentorship.

And knowing what to look for is just as important as knowing what to avoid.

So. What Is It?

As I use the term “Cult of Personality” or “Cult of Personality Mentorship” (CPM), it’s worth noting that it is in reference to a very specific phenomenon in the realm of professional mentorship and coaching; I do not mean it in the traditional political context of Stalinism, populism or tribalism (although, the obvious links would be fascinating to explore).

Rather, the Cult of Personality within the self-help industry and particularly professional mentorship/coaching is a reality we should all be aware and wary of. In this context, it means that someone is attempting to lead or mentor others by attracting them to a system that revolves around personality attributes rather than substantive or objective truths.

They are the charlatans and snake charmers who stand on stage balancing their expensive (but not too expensive) suit against a backdrop of humble, rags-to-riches relateable stories by interweaving the American dream and American mythology in to a frenzy of “follow my system exactly and you too will be this successful.”

Utter bullshit.

The Charlatans: The Five Characteristics

It is possible, however, to identify the charlatans from genuine mentorship.

Il Ciarlatano (The Charlatan) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

№5 No Vested, Financial Interest → One of the most recognisable aspects to a Cult of Personality Mentor (CPM) is that their products or services have absolutely no recourse for your potential lack of success. There is no vested interest in your success once you have sold 40 pints of your blood to purchase the seminar tickets or re-mortgaged your house to afford the online course or sold your body on the street corner for access to the mentorship system.

On the one hand, one could argue that this is as it should be. Afterall, you are responsible for your success and if you don’t put in the work, then why should the mentor be responsible? And, to some degree, that is certainly true.

On the other hand, and this is my issue, there is often either cursory, or little to no support in helping you to progress. Once they’ve sold their product or service, there is no incentive to ensure you succeed except for ensuring good reviews or positive word of mouth (and at a certian point, even that hardly matters with marketing). Even worse is the attitude of well, Bubba, you clearly didn’t follow the system exactly as we told you; had you done that, you’d be a smashing success like the hundreds who figured it out! Now, off you fuck!

And that is not only dangerous, but unethical.

It’s also worth noting that the majority of CPM is often, inherently, indirect mentorship rather than direct mentorship.

Pietro Longhi: The Charlatan, 1757

№4 The Product is a System → My red flags wave and the sonic boom alarm is triggered when the entirety of the mentorship program is a system based on products through indirect mentorship.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me because this is important. I believe that having a system of mentorship (or a programme) can be wholly invaluable and there are numerous excellent mentors that implement such programs in order to ensure their mentees have the resources required to succeed; from John Maxwell to Tony Robbins and Andy Frisella, strong mentorship often provides excellent resources for mentees to use. That’s not the problem.

The problem arises when a few aspects come together:

(1) The system creates and maintains an arms length distance between the mentor and mentee through a series of products (e.g. books/e-books, podcasts, seminar conventions etc.). It is as if the mentor has supplanted themselves with products and you have neither a community of experts nor the mentor themselves to communicate with directly. There is, then, no possible manner of personalisation here.

One could argue, however, that when a mentor is as prominent as John, Tony or Andy then, of course, they would develop a system in place of themselves; they can’t bloody well mentor hundreds of thousands individually! Ah, and that is true. But look at how John dealt with this problem: he created a team that is certified and specifically trained to his standards in order to help the community and individuals.

The John Maxwell Team empowers coaches, trainers, speakers and professionals seeking to add value to others and become top leaders as owners of their respective businesses, in their community or employment role, or for personal growth and development. This incredible team equips over 13,000 trained and certified John Maxwell Coaches to walk beside others in their journey toward their greatest potential.

A CPM would certainly not have a community of support nor would they have a specifically trained team of mentors to engage more personally with the community.

(2) It’s not possible to separate the system from the products nor is the system discerning. In other words, it’s not possible to access the mentorship system (no matter how blatantly simplistic it is) without the products themselves; and what’s worse, it’s often the click-bait, QVC version of mentorship: get this one item for FREE (original value of $75,873.00) and purchase the remaining system for the new low price of $97,954.00. Oh sweet baby Moses, there is no gif or emoticon in the world to adequately capture my deep disgust. And let me be clear, the disgust is not with charging of the material — no, I think that’s entirely fair and if a mentor is providing value, then they should be compensated appropriately. My disgust and annoyance is the way in which the business model and marketing work to de-value the system and de-value the substantive aspects of the mentorship (if there are any to begin with). It reeks of Get Rich Quick schemes and snake-oil.

And to that effect, the system is a one size fits all because, again, the premise is well, Bubba, you must follow the system exactly as we told you; if you follow the system, you’ll be a smashing success like the hundreds who figured it out! Now, off you fuck!

Again, that is not only dangerous, but unethical.

№3 The System is Narrative Based → I’ve spoken to quite a number of people over the years who were enamoured and enthralled by a particular CPM, whilst blissfully unaware of the type of mentorship they were being bug-zapped in to. I won’t be so inaccurate or hyperbolic to suggest a ‘cult’ like admiration because that’s childish. Also, I think people should be insanely enthusiastic and proud when they find good, strong mentorship; it’s just heart-breaking when the enthusiasm is misplaced on a charlatan.

Another characteristic of CPM is that their system of mentorship is based on showing you how to create a business or income by (1) building yourself in to a brand and (2) building the brand upon the foundation of a narrative or story. And, if you look closely, that’s exactly how the CPM has built their own following and business.

Again, please don’t misunderstand me. With my background in Comparative Literature, Comparative Religion, History, and Philosophy, I am acutely aware not only of a narrative’s power, but also its integral role in connecting people. Every good mentor uses stories like parables: to advance a teaching or point in a relateable manner. And that’s fantastic! As it should be!

Here’s the difference: whilst a proper mentor may use a deeply personal and harrowing story to convey a specific message (like a catalyst for their growth or change) or to connect with their mentee, a CPM will exploit a traumatic story from their past almost as emotional blackmail via vulnerability; and then they teach others how to find a traumatic story in their own life and use that as the basis for the creation of their own “system”. It’s like a strange, emotional pyramid scheme where products are built on a singular, distressing story that catapults the person into the business of mentorship. “I’ve survived this horrific experience and now I’m here to teach you what I learned. Buy my shit.”

What’s more obnoxious is that the “horrific” experience is often one that is shared entirely by every human on the planet at some point in their life (like the unexpected death of a loved one); it’s part of the shared human condition.

What’s more infuriating is that the mentee is then taught to create their own “system” of mentorship (through books/e-books, podcasts, YouTube series) with lessons learned from the harrowing experience. The problem, however, is that their “system” contains absolutely no novel content in the lessons sold; they are simply regurgitating universal truths that have existed in one form or another throughout religions, philosophies and psychology.

This is no longer mentorship. It’s a scam.

Wilhelm Marstrand (1810–1873): En charlatan

№2 The System is Personality Based → This characteristic of CPM seems self-evident, but it is worth exploring. Proper mentorship is not based around the mentor’s personality. Rather, it is based on the merits of what they have accomplished, built, triumphed over, experienced and their ability to share this in an applicable manner to help others find success. That’s not to say that the mentor shouldn’t or doesn’t have a personality or even a particular way they approach mentorship. It means that their personality is one amongst numerous legitimate characteristics that validate their role as a mentor.

And it is worth noting that when choosing a mentor, it’s paramount that their personality and method makes sense to you. For example, one of my mentors (who I absolutely adore) is not for the faint of heart; he will innhilate any method of coddling, snow-flake appreciation and excuses. And he will do so with brashness and carefully chosen words that violently untether you from whatever nonsense you believe. He is not for everyone nor would he ever seek to mentor anyone and everyone indiscriminately. But he is the type of mentor that I appreciate and who ensures I grow. And the only reason he has the authority to speak in to my life is not because of his personality (because he will shake the shit out of you), but because he has merited the role of mentorship (again, check out the article that explores these characteristics).

A CPM is wholly dependent on their personality as the basis of their mentorship. It is part of their marketing tool. Their success is built on you buying their product/service — see the problem? As their system is based on personality rather than experience and building or creating something of substance (be that a business, charity, or success in a particular field), the mentorship will not be results based. And this leads me to the final and most alarming aspect of CPM.

Jean Tassel (1608–67) : Le Charlatan

№1 The System Precedes Results → This characteristic of CPM is perhaps one of the most frustrating and its most defining characteristic. Whilst legitimate mentors spend years developing and creating something bigger than themselves (a business, organisation, or extraoridnary success in a field) and only then deign to mentor others, a CPM has created little to nothing before their entrance into professional mentorship.

John Maxwell spent years developing and honing his skills in building Churches and congregations around the United States. He created, developed and built results long before becoming a professional mentor. Andy Frisella founded Supplement Superstores, Paradise Distribution, and the prominent fitness brand 1st Phorm International. He too created, developed and built results long before becoming a mentor as the MFCEO. Tony Robbins was a peak performance coach for numerous celebrities and practiced NLP and Hypnosis therapy long before developing his Leadership Academy and professional mentorship. Get the drift?

CPMs, however, are objectively bereft of such experience and results. Rather, their mentorship system/program, the products that you purchase, is their evidence for their own success and entrepreneurship. This is not only ass-backwards, but highly unethical. If the answer to the question “What have you built or created to justify being a professional mentor?” is “Well, I’m a professional life coach/mentor because of my experiences and story” then run.

Unless there is substantial evidence of success and results preceding and informing the mentorship system, I don’t believe the person has earned the authority to speak in to another person’s life; certainly not my life! I’m particularly wary of life and career coaches (and my goodness can I name a few) who are clearly pursuing their new profession because they failed miserably in their own previous careers — why in Hades would you take advice from them? Notice, that’s much different from a retired CEO or Managing Partner who spent the past 40 years developing excellence in their career and then decides to mentor others in their field of knowledge and experience.

If your potential mentor’s sole source of success is based on developing a mentorship brand, then be very careful. A legitimate mentor should have fruit on the tree long before you give them a right to guide your life.

Lambert Doomer, Le Charlatan

It may seem as though the issue is with mentors who charge for their products/services or those who rely on teaching a specific system. And to some extent, that is true. But only in so far as I would be more careful to research such mentorship in more detail. Ideally, it would be a vested interest partnership.

I know plenty of solid, strong mentors who charge for their products/services and use a specific system to help their mentees; the difference is that they also meet the 5 non-negotiable characteristics to look for in a mentor.

The real issue is that CPMs are no different than 16th century charlatans who trade in snake oil and illegitimate claims of success. And they make it substantially more challenging for legitimate mentors and coaches in the profession to discern themselves.

If any of this resonated with you, give a girl a slamming high five. It’s always comforting to know when one person’s crazy matches another. Or join me in the Twitterverse!