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The world is full of charlatans and some are disguised as false prophets. Their domain is not confined to religion. They can be found in politics, health care, business, and almost every other sector of life. They have a strong magnetic pull…an almost irresistible lure of truth and hope. They all have one thing in common:they prey on the fears, insecurities and ignorance of their followers. In a world so desperate for leadership, it is easy to fall victim to those who appear blessed to provide it.

How do they operate?

To lure people into their fold and make them converts, false prophets use a two-prong strategy:

  1. Define an enemy that can be blamed for the follower’s troubles and anxieties.
  2. Make bold promises for vanquishing the enemy and restoring the follower (and the world-at-large) to a state of health and prosperity.

In religion, the enemy is sin (Satan) and, all too often, other religions that are an affront to the religion of the prophet’s followers. The prophet promises to vanquish sin and false religions that are contrary to the tenants of the one *true* religion, to restore the word of God.

An example is Osama bin Laden, who founded al-Qaeda and claimed responsibility for the September 11 attacks on the United States and numerous other mass attacks around the world.

In politics, the enemy is the party on the other side of the political divide, along with their policies and appeasement of lobbyists and evil foreign powers who are out to destroy the follower’s way of life. The prophet promises to vanquish the other party’s policies, backers, and the evil foreign powers, to protect the country and restore it to prosperity.

An example is Senator Joseph McCarthy, who conducted a witch hunt to root out communists in America and ruined the lives of dozens of people by falsely accusing them.

In health care, the enemy is disease (very often obesity). The prophet promises to vanquish disease with a magic pill or some other new therapy, to restore the follower to health. The Internet abounds with false prophets peddling worthless concoctions.

The most historic example is Clark Stanley, who literally gave meaning to what we now call a Snake Oil Salesman.

In business, the enemy is a lack of profit, usually caused by an inferior product, strategy, waste and/or bad management team. The prophet promises to create a more competitive product and/or strategy, vanquish waste and incompetent management, and restore the company to profitability.

An example is Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap, who never created or built a company, but put several good ones out of business and thousands of their employees out-of-work.

The false prophet’s playbook is pretty simple: ENEMY. VANQUISH.RESTORE. Sometimes restore can be swapped for “CREATE,” (as often seen in startup companies), because the prophet’s promise is to disrupt the old world in order to create a better world for followers (users and investors). There are dozens of companies that were led by false prophets who raised hundreds of millions of dollars from followers. Those companies are now extinct. Some of those prophets are doing it all over again. Some followers never learn, they keep drinking the Kool-Aide.

How do you spot them?

In religion, false prophets are wolves in sheep’s clothing. In politics, they are oligarchs in liberal or conservative clothing. In healthcare, they are con artists in healer’s clothing. In business, they are malevolent dictators in management guru clothing (usually pinstriped suits).

In every sector, they look the part, but are not actually the part they are playing.

Spotting a false prophet is not always easy, they are very clever. The ramifications of the solutions that they propose are unknowable and, therefore, difficult to refute. It is easy to sell a bright future. It is easy to sell any alternative to the poor conditions that followers currently suffer from. To turn a phrase on its head, the devil you don’t know is preferred over the devil you do know, when things get bad enough.

History offers us some clues on how to spot False Prophets:

  • Their divinity is self-proclaimed. Most false prophets are self-anointed. True prophets are anointed by others. Warren Buffet did not declare himself the “Oracle of Omaha.” It is a moniker bestowed upon him by his followers, who have benefited greatly from his teachings and example. Beware the self-proclaimed “visionary,” or prophet by any other name. They never miss an opportunity to tell you how great they are.
  • Their enemy is an easy target, but not their true aim. How many wars and ethnic cleansings have been waged in the name of national security, or to defend the people’s “way of life?” Who benefited the most from those wars and cleansings? Vanquishing the enemy benefits the prophet and his backers…the privileged few, more than his followers or the world-at-large.
  • Their promises to vanquish the enemy do not match their actions.When company leaders fire half their employees and give themselves hefty raises and bonuses, the enemy is not actually a lack of profits for the company. It is not enough riches for the company’s leaders. Business gurus talk up the importance of team culture, while surreptitiously working to overthrow it and replace it with one that maximizes their own wealth and power. Followers are expected to sacrifice; false prophets are entitled to prosper. Remember the leaders of Enron?
  • Their stories of persecution and redemption are fabricated.Remember the Gulf War: weapons of mass destruction and the brutal slayings of babies in their hospital beds? All fabricated. False prophets seduce their followers with stories of wrongs that must be righted, and tall tales of repressed people who rose up to become mythic heroes and heroines. None of their stories need be verified, because to question them would be an act of bad faith or patriotism on behalf of the follower.
  • Their rhetoric is arrogant; spiced with slander and self-aggrandizement. To raise themselves up, false prophets must tear others down – usually entire groups. They are blind to their faults and convinced they have all the answers. They cannot stand on experience or competence, so they deceive with inspiration. False prophets are focused on amassing more followers. True prophets are focused on creating more leaders, who will be better than they.

All too often, the False Prophet is exposed only after much damage is done…after innocent people are made to suffer. They are easy to decipher in hindsight. To spot a false prophet before it is too late, one must know what a true prophet (leader) looks like. That requires looking into his or her past stances, behaviors, and performance, because those are the best predictors of his or her future actions. Ignorance is not only the lack of knowledge, but the result of laziness and turning a blind eye. Lazy people, and those who turn a blind eye, are destined to suffer the whims of false prophets.

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Post Author: Michael ODonnell