The Landmark Forum – I went, so you don’t have to
We all have crutches to lean on in life. Many people rely on family. Others, exercise or their church of choice. For many, friends prop them up, listen to them and give them a kick in the shins or a hug of encouragement when its most needed.
For some people, however, these support systems are either not available or not sufficient for their needs. So they’re forced to seek guidance, encouragement and motivation in their personal, professional, spiritual and mental lives from another source.
This is the void occupied by Landmark Worldwide, “…an international personal and professional growth, training and development company—a global educational enterprise committed to the fundamental principle that people have the possibility of success, fulfillment [sic] and greatness”, according to their website.
Landmark is most famous/ infamous for its life coaching courses, sold to the public under the sub-brand banner of ‘The Landmark Forum’. The Forum is (initially, at least) sold as a three-day residential seminar during which participants are coached and encouraged to bring about positive developments in their lives. The sales pitch sounds great, if a little New Age Hippyish from the outset: -
“The Landmark Forum is designed to bring about positive, permanent shifts in the quality of your life. These shifts are the direct cause for a new and unique kind of freedom and power—the freedom to be at ease and the power to be effective in the areas that matter most to you: the quality of your relationships, the confidence with which you live your life, your personal productivity, your experience of the difference you make, your enjoyment of life”.
If this was the extent of the business of Landmark, I’d have no issue. The problem is, this initial coaching weekender is very much the tip of a much more underhand and ultimately expensive iceberg.
My experience with Landmark came as a result of a colleagues’ involvement a few years ago. Their enthusiastic validation the course’s merits and warm friendships they’d made therein made it sound like a health retreat twinned with a self-help book and a dating agency. It was all too good to be true. Even cursory questioning of the Forum’s methods and subsequent fee structure suggested all was not well in paradise. Unfortunately, my colleague would hear nothing of my cynical objections, ignoring my suggestion that Landmark sounded like little more than hack psychology masquerading as a life-changing spiritual entity and marketed as a ‘member get member’ pyramid scheme. The debate was left unresolved, my colleague still firmly fixed in their opinion (and a little miffed that I dared to question Landmark’s greatness). Concerned that there were more nefarious dealings at work, I decided to investigate further – so I signed up for an induction session.
A dank evening in mid-winter – a vacant office block north of Euston. I wandered through the decrepit entrance hall to the registration table, collecting my name badge on route that marked me out as a newbie from an ever-so-friendly-lady behind the desk. I walked into the main room (most of the floor) when it became clear this was not going to be just a brief sales pitch. There were over 150 people seated with a stage area and speakers at the front of the auditorium. It became apparent that the induction for trialists would begin within a meeting of authentic Landmark members, three of whom sat on the stage. After a brief introduction and welcome, each of the three took turns explaining what Landmark had done for them and how their lives had been significantly improved as a result of its coaching. Despite the hoards of members, this exercise felt like it was being sold directly to me and the other new folk brought in to see what Landmark was all about.
The first intro was from lady who had struggled with an infirm parent who she had to care for full time. It was heartrending in parts, moving and highly personal. Landmark had shown her how to achieve a better balance and find time to look after herself as well as her mother. The second was a young man who had struggled to form intimate personal relationships. The confidence he’d gained from Landmark had allowed him to open up emotionally, to the point that he’d offered hugs to random strangers on the Tube. This story sounded fairly similar to the ‘Free Hugs’ movement I’d seen in action in the States, but I let it pass. The third speech was equally moving and unexpectedly personal, almost embarrassing for someone to admit and discuss in a room full of people and strangers. The rapturous applause that followed each vignette was open validation, the message clear – you’re amongst friends here – nothing is off limits – leave your fear, shame and lack of confidence at the door.
After the intros, I was ushered with the rest of the novice flock to a small anteroom. The induction crowd had swelled to nearer twenty and a robust, bullish woman in her mid-thirties enthusiastically regaled us with her story.
Over the course of three hours.
Her focus was laser guided to the heart of the discomfort zone – her love life, or lack thereof. As tales of bad relationships, disappointing sex and a dearth of physical fulfilment rolled verbosely off her tongue, the nervous-looking participants were in the palm of her hand. She paused briefly to engage the room – “Why are you here?” she asked.
Few responses were forthcoming, most needing to be pried free with her enthusiastic but gently persuasive cajoling.
“My business failed”. “I lost my job”. “I feel inadequate”. “My marriage is failing”. “I can’t sleep”. “My sex life sucks”. “I’m lonely”.
I’m no journalist, so I came clean. “A friend is a member - it sounded a bit like a cult, so I thought I’d check it out for myself”.
Her beaming grin and clap of applause barely hid her derision. And then something odd happened. She moved on, but then so did two of my fellow inductees, Mr. Inadequate behind me and Miss Poor Sex Life next to me, both of whom had been highly willing, friendly and encouraging participants until that point. They sat back down next to Mr Failed Business and Mr Lost My Job, smiling warmly and initiating conversation as they did so. It was clear that out of twenty people in the induction, at least seven were Landmark plants. My heckles raised as the presenter continued. I went to the bathroom.
Except I didn’t - not immediately, at least.
“We encourage people to wait until the end of the session” our now less-than-warm leader called out firmly as I slunk towards the door. “It helps keep you focussed”.
Qualified psychologists would have a field day with this unusual tactic but apparently, it’s something Landmark employs throughout their life coaching courses. I left anyway, having to walk down the back of the main amphitheatre to the bathrooms near the entrance. The main room speaker stopped talking, one hundred and fifty heads turned, and three hundred eyes burned into the side of my head.
I dared to break the rules. I threatened to walk out of my induction early. In the bathroom I decided enough was enough – I’d been listening to the sales pitch dressed up as life coaching in a room of planted staff for over two and a half hours. I was bored, annoyed and a little disturbed by what I’d seen.
But then, I decided to ride it out, ostensibly (and in part in morbid fascination) to see what other manipulative tricks could be employed to rope in new sign ups.
As I crossed back across the main room the heads turned once again, but this time with beaming smiles all saying the same thing:- I hadn’t quit – I’d been for a piss but hey, I was new – I’d learn bladder control on the weekend retreats.
Back in the first timer’s room, our exuberant hostess was on a roll and finally getting to the point. Landmark had helped her define her ‘self’, her personal and professional life, relationships and yes, even her sex life had been influenced in a positive way. I glanced down at my notes – our three-hour induction session had been an A to Z of sales and marketing tactics, strategies and flimflam seemingly sold through a pyramid structure in which members graduated through levels as their ‘expertise’ in the Landmark way improved. At the top of the pyramid was a faceless U.S. corporation skimming over $100 million a year in revenue in exchange for falsely sold waffle.
I left before the main room’s session had finished and traveled home feeling pretty hollow, a little freaked out and ultimately quite saddened for my fellow participants who felt that an obvious a money-making scheme such as Landmark really was the answer they’d been searching for.
Further research revealed the extent and the extraordinary success of Landmark worldwide, the corporate umbrella that covers the various strands of the organisation. With headquarters in San Francisco, Landmark has 53 offices that operate programs, courses, seminars and retreats in 125 cities. By their own admittance, Landmark is a business owned by over 600 of its employees, many of whom, I believe, are the early adopters in their coaching pyramid.
For those in the lower quadrants paying hundreds of Pounds, Dollars and Yen to attend weekend coaching seminars as they move up the coaching ladder, a heavy onus is placed on bringing friends, family and colleagues to induction sessions - each year this sales funnel acquires more than 193,000 people to its courses worldwide. Sadly it seems highly unlikely that those outside the inner circle will ever achieve coaching nor financial Nirvana – Landmark has cleverly inserted the wonderfully named ‘Wisdom Courses’ to the top of their coaching tree.
At this upper echelon of nonsensical psychobabble, they have 25,000 ‘high achievin’g members and offer such cash-burning treats as Wisdom Unlimited, Partnership Explorations, Year-end Vacations and even a Conference for Global Transformation – each of which will come with a stiff price tag and no doubt some fairly full bladders.
Landmark isn’t doing anything illegal. It’s not a cult – it’s just a business that’s learned its entire operational methodology from cults, its sales patter from IBM and its marketing and CRM strategy from Facebook. It appeals to those who are desperately searching for answers and draws them into a multi-tiered environment of friendly and relatable people. Once involved in the inner circle, every Landmark member becomes a part of the sales funnel (whether they recognise it or not) and the fees that are charged are steep, but not enough to bankrupt anyone. In addition, some of the coaching methodologies are decidedly suspect, from bringing up childhood annoyances, calling family and friends to ‘clean up’ past issues and burning bridges with those who don’t support the individual’s decisions.
Landmark therefore has a constant and ever-expanding group of members drip-feeding incremental revenue into the central coffers, never dangerous enough to concern the authorities but ultimately no more useful than a session with a qualified therapist or a chat with a close friend.
At best, Landmark is a harmless way to meet people and discuss your problems in an open and accepting community and costs less than proper therapy (to start with, at least). At worst, it’s a misleading and costly organisation that uses hack psychology to entrance, educate and exploit people who have exhausted other avenues when seeking answers to their life problems.