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Delusional Leadership

I love documentaries – the story telling, the arc of one’s life, and the impact of said life on others. It seems the lessons of the lives of others are more telling, more easily discernible than in my own life. The bad decisions and successes of another, and how the personality changes over time. Documentaries are a deep dive and a classroom for inspiration and future planning. Until however, I come upon lives and stories that confuse me and have me shake my head in wonder. Why did they make that choice? When did they know they would have a significant life? Were they as afraid to do that as I was to learn about it? How were they not caught sooner? How do they come to believe they are special or the only solution to a group’s problems?

Cult leaders commit to a delusion about their power, ability, and mission. Their commitment breeds enthusiasm and influence, as followers and fans join their movement for a better life or self-improvement and to recruit others. Under the direct guidance of cult leaders, followers gain special knowledge, divine a special calling, on a path of spiritual enlightenment or manifestation, with unwavering reverence for the leader. Cult leaders build an enterprise on the hopes of innocents and draw them into the delusion – something that is falsely believed.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s delusion was that she was the female reincarnation of Jesus. Called an enchantress, Anne was seductive and glamorous, and nurtured like a loving mother through strength, power, and beauty. Teacher of a mix of eastern religions, Anne expected total obedience. She sought out professional people – doctors, social workers, lawyers – drugged them with LSD and presented herself as the reincarnated female Jesus. There would be a rebirth on a new planet and in the name of rescuing the earth, Anne stole newborn babies with the help of her expanded network of doctors, social workers, etc. The children were chosen and set apart to repopulate the earth after World War III or destructive natural disasters.

In Australia, seances were an after-dinner activity for the upper middle class. As an answer to the growing interest in alternative spirituality, yoga teacher Anne Hamilton-Byrne partnered with spiritualist Raynor Johnson to speak to the generation. They created an organization called The Great White Brotherhood, which became known as The Family. Anne was the spiritual leader. Anne picked 12 people, educated them in her doctrine, and initiated them when she deemed them ready. This was the 1960s.

Initiation into The Family began with a “clearing” experience. Converts are given LSD and when in a drugged state, Anne appeared in a white dress with smoke surrounding her like clouds. Out of the drug induced haze, initiated believed Anne Hamilton-Byrne was Jesus. Clearings happened at a mental hospital called Newhaven, where it could be said that “treatments” were given to “patients.” Newhaven doubled as a punishment place where disobedient followers were banished, labeled mentally ill, and hidden without resistance or anyone looking for them.

Anne created and nurtured a network of skilled professionals. Directors at Newhaven became converted followers and then recruiters for The Family. Doctors, nurses, and social workers facilitated a child theft ring under Anne’s influence. The children received care on an isolated estate by Anne, other women in The Family called aunties who worked on shifts, and later Anne’s husband Bill Byrne, who at the time of his marriage to Anne had a wife and children. The stolen children were raised together as siblings and were not told that Anne and Bill were not their biological parents.

Anne had a few possible origin stories: royalty, opera singer, and direct descendant of Jesus Christ. Raised in orphanages until adopted into a wealthy family, Anne had a biological family history of mental illness. Her real name was Evelyn Edwards and she was a barren widow due to a hysterectomy. Evelyn created a new persona that was refined, and classy. Anne was the new Evelyn and she was on a mission to adopt children. Anne created a community through The Family that I liken to her own personal Pleasantville. Anne and her followers bought homes in the same area. While the child theft ring was active, Anne wore maternity clothes for years to fake pregnancies. In this neighborhood, Anne’s followers swapped partners and housed children who were not their natural children. Love was promised as bait to the adults and then retracted were drawn in to the cult. In exchange for their fidelity Anne broke their spirits. LSD use continued as a truth drug for Anne to learn the childhood and early life details of her followers. Later, Anne would use the details to divide couples, ruin marriages, and split families.

Eventually, the house of cards fell. Law enforcement investigations progressed. Courts held session and the truth came out. Believe it or not, Anne Hamilton-Byrne died at age 98 in 2019. Bill Byrne died in 2001. The cult’s motto was “unseen, unheard, unknown.” Thus, neither Bill nor Anne were buried with fanfare or headstones.


The backstory of Anne Hamilton-Byrne and The Family cult is layered and extensive. Many lessons emerge from the destructive patterns enacted by Hamilton-Byrne. At the root is her delusion of divinity that requires total allegiance and obedience. This delusion was part of a new identity born from pain and loss. Evelyn Edward was barren; Anne Hamilton-Byrne created a family. Evelyn received the consequences of her circumstances, while Anne took control of her life and created circumstances. Evelyn was a victim. Anne was a conqueror.

I place delusion on the destructive leadership spectrum. Anne Hamilton-Byrne nurtured her way into the lives of the well-off couples and children she stole. Broken people were drawn to a woman who saw them, affirmed their value, and presented herself to them as the source of illumination and improvement. Anne received them, and offered a bond that made them beholden. They agreed, and saw a life ahead of them with gratitude for her benevolence. She chose them, to save them. What former life -- they saw was Anne presented. What sense of agency -- this woman has the answers. Now, they were debtors to the woman who changed them, their Jesus, Anne Hamilton-Byrne.


Where is the line in reinventing ourselves as leaders? Do we create a new identity on a new core belief? Or, do we earnestly seek to grow from where we are? Do we compromise natural seasons of growth for reinvention? This can look differently for us all: fear of confronting failure, weakness, incompetency, inability, and more. What could Evelyn have become with some support, healing, and personal accountability? Could she have built a family that was whole?

Leading with awareness of and honesty to self seems the antidote for delusion. Healthy self-government and assessment can prevent fanciful ideas from taking root. Accountability is a measurement of effective leadership in several models. We must own who we are so we can determine our choices for growth. Leaders need security to share, stretch, influence and promote others.

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