How much change can a leader make on the culture of an organization? Do leaders change the groups they lead or are they changed by the groups? Do the groups reflect the leader’s values or do their values reflect the group’s? Is an organization different, culturally, depending on who the leader is?
The rise of Trumpism in American politics has led to a lot of discussion around the concept of “cult of personality.” Some Trump supporters, for example, claim that they believe the 2020 election had to have been stolen because nobody is wearing Biden hats or attending Biden rallies. Those who voted for Biden have replied by saying that’s because they don’t belong to a “cult.” A cult of personality refers to a political party or organization that is built around a charismatic leader. That leader typically controls the narrative about him or herself, and no criticism of the leader is allowed by followers. The leader is a “genius,” the one who can solve all the problems, the only one who can represent the group. The leader re-makes the group in his or her image.
Historically, pretty much all Kings and Queens were like this. It was the norm. The American experiment was a sort of exception due to term limits and the competitive nature of a two-party system. Criticizing the King? You might get your head chopped off, unless you’re in Revolutionary France, in which case, you might just start chopping off others’ heads. But criticizing POTUS? That’s as American as apple pie (which is the least of the pies, IMO). And everyone’s heads, so far, remain intact.
But there have also been many pundits questioning whether Trump set the narrative or was just savvy at seeing where the base was and amplifying their grievances, usually while privately denigrating them. It’s probably a combination of both things. That’s probably a key ingredient to the secret sauce of a cult of personality.
Unlike Trump, Biden is not generally considered to be a charismatic figure. He hasn’t proven to be a great communicator in general. Like most Democrat leaders, he’s taking plenty of hits from “friendly fire.” The party isn’t even coalesced around a 2024 Biden run. It’s basically the opposite of a cult of personality. These differences in style aren’t directly tied to approval ratings, either, because both Biden and Trump had absolutely abysmal approval ratings. One just had a rabid base of supporters while the other was pilloried by friends and foes alike. The key difference, though, is that one wants to be a brand, an object of worship to followers, and the other does not see this as the role or a positive. The job doesn’t require cult status for the leader.
Is the Church set up to be a cult of personality? Yes and no. The majority of our leaders after the first two  have been decidedly un-charismatic. But, there’s an incredibly strong culture of leader worship (at its peak, possibly, based on Ziff’s analysis of the number of times our current leader is quoted within his own earshot). Church members have to literally affirm a belief that the top quorum is comprised of “prophets, seers, and revelators,” a claim even Brigham Young didn’t make when he was Church president.  If you are seen as disloyal or critical of Church leaders, you might get yanked into a Church court . This has actually ramped up significantly since E. Oak’s rise to the first presidency during which he has outlawed (checks Bingo card) disagreeing with policies and any criticism of leaders, even if correct and justified. Okey-dokey.
I say it’s ramped up, but let’s be honest. Joseph and Brigham were likewise not big on being criticized; running afoul of them could also land you on the outs with the Church. I mean, look at how many apostles were getting excommunicated back then. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those in close proximity to the leader were also the ones getting the hatchet. Loyalty was requisite.
But the Church became, over time anyway, quite bureaucratic. There was less focus on quoting the current top leader for various reasons: incapacity and personal preferences come to mind. For many of us, we lived decades under leaders who were not very focused on remaking the Church in their image and who mostly seemed egoless, another twig in the stream of the Church’s onward progression. President Monson, in particular, was unwell for many years, leaving leadership up to a mix of apostles with various personalities and agendas, but nobody with total power over the Church. That is no longer the case.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Pres. Nelson is leading the Church as a “cult of personality.” There do seem to be quite a few whose overt deference and praise of him lead me to believe that they view him this way. There are some members who have immediately adopted his priorities as their own, gleefully correcting others if they say “Mormon” or “home teaching” as if they caught them blaspheming. But there has also been significant grass roots pushback, particularly from the right, among the emboldened anti-maskers and anti-vaxers. It’s possible that some members view Pres. Nelson as worthy of their particular fealty, but it seems to me to be just as likely that it’s a combination of veneration of the office, a culture of quoting and obeying leaders as a way to gain social capital, and perhaps some alignment with his political views and his vision for the Church.
Which brings me to my next thought. Among progressive Church members and ex-Mormons alike, there’s a lot of angst around Uchtdorf’s perceived “demotion” from the First Presidency, an act that simply made his leadership less prominent and less influential in the Church. Would Church culture be significantly different under an Uchtdorf presidency? I believe it would be. For one thing, it’s likely he would call a First Presidency more aligned with his interpretation of the gospel (as did Nelson), and that would be a pretty big shift from where we are today. I could see him calling Gong and Renlund into the First Presidency. I could see him focusing BYU more on academics and less on litmus tests for conservatism. I could see him inviting those who have left to come back. I could see more actual equality in the temple language rather than sneakily adding “preside” into the sealing. I could see a whole lot less racism and sexism as a result, and Democrats feeling as welcome as they once were.
- What do you think Church culture would be like with an Uchtdorf presidency? Who do you think would be in the First Presidency with him?
- Do you think the Church would lose fewer members under a leader like Uchtdorf?
- Would any who have left the Church return under such conditions?
 With the notable exception of David O. McKay’s luscious head of hair
 When he said we no longer had a “prophet,” but just “apostles.” Not that he wasn’t basically the Kim Jong Un of the Utah Territory. He just didn’t claim to be a prophet, a title he reserved for Joseph.
 Er, invited into a “Court of Love,” or whatever misleadingly pleasant euphemism we’re currently using.
 Thankfully we’ve mostly quit talking about that, at least until the next global pandemic.