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Lighthouse: 'A very British cult'

A digitally edited lighthouse photograph

Not all cults feature wild-eyed leaders, far-flung locations and bizarre rituals. Some insidious organisations can seem entirely legitimate and even mundane. One disturbing example is Lighthouse, the life coaching company whose true nature has been exposed by the BBC’s podcast A Very British Cult.

No ordinary life coaching company

‘You’re very, very teachable. You’re very, very open.’ These were among the warm, encouraging, flattering sentiments which Jeff Leigh-Jones heard every day from his mentor at the life coaching company Lighthouse.

Jeff, a sailor from Portsmouth, hadn’t originally been seeking life coaching as such, he’d simply joined a webinar on the bestselling self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

It was through this webinar that he got speaking to Jai Singh, the affable, friendly chap who turned out to be a mentor at Lighthouse. Before long, their online conversations had become a fixture in Jeff’s life, with the sailor confiding everything to Jai. Chatting for hours at a time, Jeff laid bare his ambitions, his insecurities, and details of his relationship with his partner Dawn.

At first, Jeff felt he was genuinely benefitting from the interactions. ‘It was brilliant,’ he later recalled. ‘I was motivated. I was inspired.’

But the conversations were also eating into his life, with Jeff socialising less to make time for Jai. He even chatted with the mentor while on holiday with Dawn. And then the financial aspect began to creep in, with Jeff being told that contributing to Lighthouse would help him ascend the organisation and bring lucrative opportunities.

In June 2021, Jeff sold his house and gave £28,000 of the proceeds to Lighthouse. This was after he’d already paid the organisation £32,000 from re-mortgaging. He had been encouraged throughout it all by Jai, who’d repeatedly hammered home the idea that investing in property was ‘pointless’.

Jeff was now well and truly in the grip of the organisation. In total, he paid them over £130,000.

The tyrannical leader

Jeff was just one of many people who’d been led into the all-consuming world of Lighthouse. Many have spoken out to the press about handing over tens of thousands of pounds, often taking loans and destroying their own credit ratings.

Resisting the requirements of Lighthouse was difficult, thanks to the domineering presence of its founder, Paul Waugh. A self-proclaimed multi-millionaire businessman from South Africa, Waugh presided over mammoth webinar sessions where dozens of Lighthouse members hung on his every word.

The abrasive, outspoken Waugh alternated between making grandiose philosophical statements and then directly criticising members who dared to dissent. Dawn was one target of his rage, with Waugh regarding her as an ‘enemy’ that Jeff had to overcome in order to devote himself to Lighthouse. Waugh went as far as telling Jeff that unless he cut her off, he would inevitably be filled with resentment, ‘snap’ and murder her one day.

The hallmarks of a cult

Lighthouse has been classified as a cult by experts such as social psychologist Dr Alexandra Stein, who contributed to the BBC investigation and has been the subject of personal attacks from the organisation.

Dr Stein has underscored how Lighthouse had all the hallmarks of a cult, including a charismatic and authoritarian leader, a rigidly hierarchical structure, and an emphasis on isolating its members using coercive control techniques.

With Jeff, the aim for Waugh and his underlings was to divide him from Dawn. With another member, Anthony Church, they sought to isolate him from conventional healthcare. Anthony had struggled with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, but Jai Singh persuaded him to reduce his medication, going as far as coaching him on how to convince his doctor that he didn’t need the treatment.

Another member, known as Erin (not her real name), had come to Lighthouse after suffering trauma including sexual abuse. When she refused to turn against her loved ones, Waugh verbally attacked her during calls, calling her a ‘cynical old witch’ and diagnosing her as a narcissist (a favourite insult in the world of Lighthouse).

The end of Lighthouse?

For years, Lighthouse operated under the radar, even though many members lived together in cramped, communal properties in true cult-like fashion (Waugh himself was comfortable in a country mansion). But increasing levels of scrutiny have finally exposed what’s really been going on.

The BBC’s investigation has revealed that there’s no evidence Paul Waugh was any kind of ‘multi-millionaire businessman’ back in South Africa. Moreover, he appears to have lied about his friendships with the likes of Stephen Covey, the motivational speaker and author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

In March 2023, Lighthouse was officially shut down by the High Court following an investigation by the UK government’s Insolvency Service. The court found that Lighthouse had failed to provide financial records during the investigation, that it had ‘filed misleading or false accounts’, and that Paul Waugh himself had behaved in an ‘unacceptable’ manner.

Despite such official condemnation, the organisation still has a presence online, defiantly rejecting the many allegations that have been made. And, while some former members like Jeff have been able to move on with their lives, others continue to reel from the immense trauma inflicted by the organisation.

In Dr Stein’s view, the existence of Lighthouse is an ominous counterpoint to the ‘stereotype that cults are in California where people wear long orange robes.’ Instead, as Dr Stein has pointed out, there can just as easily be ‘a cult in your neighbourhood.’