While learning about charismatic leaders and the Transformational leadership process, I kept thinking about cult leaders. Charisma, as defined by Weber, is a special personality characteristic that essentially gives someone special powers. It is reserved for few people, and results in the person being treated as a leader (Northouse, 2016, p. 164). House defined some more specific characteristics of a charismatic leader: they are dominant, self-confident, and have a desire to influence (Northouse, 2016, p. 164). He also describes their behaviors – such as being strong role models for the beliefs they want followers to adopt, are able to articulate their goals, communicate high expectations and confidence in their followers. (Northouse, 2016, p. 164). These characteristics and behaviors lead followers to trust their leader, develop similar beliefs as their leader, become obedient to their leader, feel an emotional involvement in the leader’s goals, and even have an “unquestioning acceptance” of their leader (Northouse, 2016, p. 165). If there was ever a phrase to conjure up thoughts about cults, “unquestioning acceptance” is it.
The theories of Transformational leadership are similar to charismatic leadership. Transformational leadership, in particular Bass’s model, describes various factors of a transformational leader, charisma being one of them, although coined in this model as “idealized influence” (Northouse, 2016, p. 168). Also included is inspirational motivation: leaders who motivate their followers to achieve more and use symbols and emotional appeals to do so, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration: providing support and addressing needs (Northouse, 2016). Transformational leaders use these four factors to motivate their followers to rise above their own self-interest for the sake of the organization and reach their full potential.
When Teri Buford O’Shea recalls her early days in Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple church, she describes many characteristics of him that could be describing a charismatic and transformational leader. He was dubbed a visionary, building a new community where people did not have to worry about food or housing (Gritz 2011). He was very involved in civil rights, and seemed to be doing a lot of good in the world, adopting children and helping with community development. He donated to charity, built schools, ran social and medical programs, and preached social equality for everyone (History.com). His charisma attracted many to his movement, estimates indicates there were around 20,000 members at one point (History.com). As O’Shea put it:
“If you wanted religion, Jim Jones could give it to you. If you wanted socialism, he could give it to you. If you were looking for a father figure, he’d be your father. He always homed in on what you needed and managed to bring you in emotionally.” (Gritz 2011).
He eventually established a community in Guyana, Africa, dubbed Jonestown, for his followers, and around 1000 of them moved with him there in the mid-1970s. He led them to believe this would be a safe, utopian community where everyone would be equal, loved, and happy. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Jones began to unravel. O’Shea described it as “paranoia” (Gritz 2011). Essentially Jones seemed to become consumed with the fear that people would leave Jonestown, and that the government and media were out to destroy him and his cause.
Jonestown residents had to work long, hard days building up Jim Jones’s vision, and were punished if they dissented, threatened if they expressed any desire to leave. He also told his followers that they were in danger of being attacked, and had them practice mass suicide drills in case of that happening (Gritz 2011).
In 1978, Leo Ryan, a U.S. representative from California along with some reporters and family of Peoples Temple followers, traveled to Guyana to investigate concerns of the treatment of members (History.com). When the group went to leave, they were ambushed with gunfire by some of Jones’s followers. Ryan and a few others died. In the meantime, Jones gathered his followers. This time was no drill. He told them that they were in danger, and instructed them to commit a “revolutionary act” and commit suicide (History.com). Drinking juice laced with cyanide and sedatives in the midst armed gunmen, over 900 people died that day, a third of them children (History.com). Until the September 11th terrorist attacks, it was the single most loss of U.S. civilian life in a non-natural disaster (History.com). Luckily for Teri Buford O’Shea, she was able to leave before this happened, picking up on the impending danger, and managed to convince Jones she should return to the United States to assist with his legal affairs (Gritz 2011).
So how does this happen? The people who followed Jim Jones didn’t see any warning signs at first that they were in danger. They were essentially blinded by Jones’s charismatic traits and seemingly lofty goals of equality and his idealistic vision for the future. Jones was such a powerful leader, he actually convinced hundreds of people to leave their homes and to create a new settlement to fit his vision on an entirely different continent! They were so committed to his goals and vision, they fed their children poison and laid down beside them to die for it. His followers were clearly influenced to transcend their own self-interests for the vision of their leader, and many of them clearly possessed an “unquestioning acceptance” of Jones. That sounds like charismatic or transformational leadership to me. But then there’s that caveat – transformational leadership is a process that involves creating a connection with followers that raises both their motivation levels, and their morality levels while working towards a collective goal (Northouse, 2016). Nothing about Jones’s actions is moral. Whether he ever was is a question for another day.
Luckily, there is a term to describe this situation – Jim Jones is a classic example of pseudotransformational leadership. A pseudotransformational leader is self-consumed, exploitive, power oriented, and has warped moral values (Northouse, 2016). They discourage independent thinking in their followers, and exhibit little care for others. While the pseudotransformational leader has charismatic traits, and is highly inspirational to followers, he is also manipulative and dominates followers to support his own values (Northouse 2016). This type of leadership is threatening to the welfare of its followers as it ignores the common good (Northouse, 2016, p. 163). The fate of the Peoples Temple followers is tragic and serves as a tale of caution. Charismatic/transformational leaders can be very convincing, which is why they are so effective. Their traits and behaviors are inspiring to followers and “transform” them to move beyond themselves and work towards the leader’s vision. I personally think there is a fine line between charismatic/transformational and pseudotransformational leadership that needs to be carefully walked. As seen in the tragic fate of the people at Jonestown, and other cult suicides for that matter, charisma can be dangerous.
Gritz, Jennie R. (2011, Nov 18). Drinking the Kool-Aid: A Survivor Remembers Jim Jones. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/11/drinking-the-kool-aid-a-survivor-remembers-jim-jones/248723/.
History.com. (2010). Jonestown. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/jonestown.
Northouse, Peter G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.