The fears of charismatic leadership

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Tim Jones, lunatic cult leader, left us a strong message on the extent to which a leader can fool his followers. His helpless followers convey to us the message of repercussions of blind faith


 

The lost paradise – Jim Jones version 

I trust, most of the readers who are over the age of 50 could recollect the unfortunate incident which took place in the remote jungles of Guyana, in 1978 where more than 900 men, women, and children committed suicide or were forced to take their own lives by a lunatic cult leader Jim Jones. That was the largest deliberate loss of American civilian life until 11 September 2001. 

James Warren Jones known to most as Jim Jones was an American cult leader, political activist, preacher, and faith healer who led the Peoples Temple, a new religious organisation which existed between 1955 and 1978. Jones distinguished himself with his civil rights activism, founding the Temple as a fully integrated congregation. In 1965, he moved the Temple to California, where the group established its headquarters in San Francisco and became heavily involved in left-wing politics through the 1970s. 

As he was under media scrutiny since some former members of his temple started to disclose his misconducts, Jones left the US and established himself in Jonestown in Guyana, compelling many of his followers to live there with him. Jones arranged a mass murder-suicide of himself and his followers in his remote jungle community at Jonestown, Guyana, on 18 November 1978. This article will critically discuss the leadership traits which Jones used to convince his followers and the background on which he capitalised to do so. 



Political and social background 

War in Vietnam 

On 16 March 1968, a company of American soldiers brutally killed most of the people, women, children, and old men and women in the village of My Lai. More than 500 people were slaughtered in the My Lai massacre, including young girls and women who were raped and mutilated before being killed. The small village of My Lai was located in Quang Ngai province, which was believed to be a stronghold of the communist National Liberation Front (NLF) or Viet Cong (VC) during the Vietnam War. 

Quang Ngai province was therefore a frequent target of US and South Vietnamese bombing attacks, and the entire region was heavily strafed with Agent Orange, the deadly herbicide. The My Lai massacre reportedly ended only after Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot on a reconnaissance mission, landed his helicopter between the soldiers and the retreating villagers and threatened to open fire if they continued their attacks. 

Army officers covered up the carnage for a year before it was reported in the American press, sparking a firestorm of international outrage. The brutality of the My Lai killings and the official cover-up fuelled anti-war sentiment and further divided the United States over the Vietnam War.

 

Political assassinations

The civil-rights icon and Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing striking workers in Memphis, Tennessee on 3 April 1968, said that “the nation is sick”. The Los Angeles Times editorialised that “we are a sick society that has fallen far short of what we claim to be,” adding that a “kind of mental and moral decay is eating out the vitals of this country.” The New York Times pinpointed the sickness as coming from the stench of racial prejudice and racial hatred that remained powerful currents of thought. “We are becoming a violent nation of violent people,” the Louisville Courier-Journal moaned. The gunman shot and killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the following day. 

When Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June of the same year, President Lyndon Johnson cautioned the American people against jumping to any conclusions “that our country is sick.” But his vocal, defensive claim had the unintended effect of signalling that something was fundamentally off in the nation’s body politic. What was causing the violence? Was the United States sick? These were the widespread questions shaping American conversation in 1968.



Urban riots

In the aftermath of two assassinations, the country appeared powerless as the largest wave of urban riots in history engulfed more than 120 cities. The grim tally deepened the despair and sense of dread: 39 dead, more than 2,600 injured and countless African-American communities ravaged, left with millions of dollars in damages and losses.

These were shown on television. Indeed, as 1968 brought shockwave after shockwave, ugly news from the Vietnam War front, assassinations, urban riots, and a fierce national debate buzzed. Was the United States a society far more prone to violence than all other industrialised nations? 



How Jim Jones leverages the circumstances in his favour

 The situation was tailor-made for Jim Jones who was mainly preaching to his followers on social justice. Jones, who was white, founded his ministry, the Peoples Temple, in Indiana, where they promoted social justice, racial and class equality, and desegregation. In addition to their biological son, Stephan, Jim Jones, and his wife, Marceline, had adopted children of Korean-American, African-American and Native-American descent because Jones wished to empathise with the fact that all people are equal on earth. They called themselves the ‘Rainbow Family’. To make it more obvious he named his African-American adopted son Jim Jones Jr. Jim Jr.’s wife and unborn child were among those who died at Jonestown, Guyana.

Jones was careful in selecting his followers. They were mostly from disturbed families. He housed the homeless to show numbers in membership. The intellectual capacity of his followers was questionable. He had a daycare centre. He had a medical care centre. Some wanted help whilst others wanted to help humanity. Jones claimed that he had special powers to heal the sick and dying. Staged healings had been a popular attraction in his regular meetings. 

He knew exactly what others wanted to hear from him. He addressed fears of others, doubts of masses. Though he started his preaching with the Bible, as and when his popularity grew, he switched over to social activities. Many transferred their pay-cheques, properties, possessions in favour of Jones to show their gratitude towards him.  

 

Charisma in leadership is a blessing to the leader as well as to his followers and to the community which he represents. It is certainly an added prerequisite to leadership. The followers too will be pleased to have a leader with a pleasant personality as it gives them some kind of psychological satisfaction and an edge over their competitors. However, as soon as the leader starts to use his charisma to boob his own followers, vulnerability starts. It is the risk of following the glamour and charisma of leadership without considering its other leadership competencies



Leadership traits of Jim Jones

Jones showed most of the traits of charismatic leadership though those were limited only to the facade of his character. He pretended to possess high confidence levels, deep compassion for others, extraordinary emotiveness, excessive determination, and a strong vision, which were the main characteristics of charismatic leadership. Apart from them, he was very attractive and possessed extraordinary communication skills. 

Jones pretended to be a charismatic leader who showed full confidence in himself. He didn’t show any doubt in his mission. He never expressed self-doubt. His powerful and pleasing personality attracted people. He wore sunglasses most of the time whether it was day or night, probably to hide his eyes from his followers to avoid his self-doubtfulness, under certain circumstances. He showed false compassion for the suffering and misfortunes of his followers. 

His entire existence was superficial. (Compassion is a characteristic that embodies all leadership styles but can be strongly found within charismatic leadership style. Charismatic leaders are compassionate, able to have an awareness of others, a mindset of wishing the best for others, and the courage to take action on behalf of others).

In 1960, Jones moved out from Indiana to California stating to followers that it’s a better and safe place for them to live. He further elaborated that any radiation consequence from a nuclear explosion could be avoided by moving to California. He showed extraordinary emotiveness towards the safety of his followers. But the truth was that he was not welcomed in Indiana by its people. But his followers didn’t know it which means Jones was smart enough to keep his followers in isolation. (Charismatic leaders can arouse and elicit intense feelings among their wider followers who have an emotional response. Charismatic leadership style creates an emotional appeal). 

Jones was a powerful speaker. He used to synchronise the sentiments of his speeches with his body movements. In most speeches, the substance was social justice. He clearly said in his speeches that he represented divine principles and divine socialism. Over and over, he echoed to his followers for social justice that they all die together without ending up in concentration camps. But, none of his followers neither believed nor suspected that their leader was a con man. (The most elite charismatic leaders have extraordinary communication skills. Strong communication skills help charismatic leaders to motivate their followers through tough times and help them stay focused when things are good).



Conclusion 

Tim Jones is dead and gone with more than 900 of his followers willingly or unwillingly. But he kept something for us to ponder. Charisma in leadership is a blessing to the leader as well as to his followers and to the community which he represents. It is certainly an added prerequisite to leadership. The followers too will be pleased to have a leader with a pleasant personality as it gives them some kind of psychological satisfaction and an edge over their competitors. However, as soon as the leader starts to use his charisma to boob his own followers, vulnerability starts. It is the risk of following the glamour and charisma of leadership without considering its other leadership competencies. 

Tim Jones, lunatic cult leader, left us a strong message on the extent to which a leader can fool his followers. His helpless followers convey to us the message of repercussions of blind faith. The few escapees from the Jonestown camp (the lost paradise) at the last moment convey to us the message of the importance of being vigilant, smart, and independent under critical conditions though you were being fooled before. 


(The writer is a visiting lecturer on leadership and strategic management of postgraduate degree programs. He is the founder of Infornets, a non-profit oriented organisation formed to share financial management and personal development skills. He counts 36 years of experience in the non-banking financial industry of Sri Lanka. He is a former CEO/General Manager of a non-bank financial institution and an ex-commission member of the National Science and Technology Commission (NASTEC). He holds a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the UK. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Professional Managers of Sri Lanka and a Member of the Institute of Management of Sri Lanka. He can be reached via pemack2016@gmail.com.)


 

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