For this blog I’m going to look at the leadership style of Jim Jones, leader of the cult The People’s Temple, whose influence forced over 900 people to “drink the Kool-Aid” and commit suicide in November 1978. I will compare Jones’ leadership to the characteristics of transformational leaders (and their followers) outlined in our lesson in order to argue that Jim Jones was an effective transformational leader, despite not being “good.”
Transformational leaders inspire followers to look outside of their personal desires and needs into the needs of the “greater good” (The Pennsylvania State University, 2018). There is no doubt that The People’s Temple followers believed strongly in their greater purpose. In fact, this belief was proven in an extreme way when the followers gave up their own lives, martyring themselves for the larger cause.
One of the characteristics of followers outlined by our lesson is that followers of transformational leaders submit willingly to the leader. In fact, they do so to the point that they set aside their own thinking skills. The People’s Temple followers submitted willingly to Jim Jones, partly because they were dependent on him. Their dependence deepened when Jones moved them all to Guyana, further isolating them from influences (including their own families) that he thought could threaten his psychological and physical hold on his followers (Johnson, 1979).
Good transformational leaders have good rhetorical skills and can appeal to followers at an emotional level (The Pennsylvania State University, 2018). Jones demonstrated his powers to his followers through deceptive tactics through staged miracles and other deceptions (Johnson, 1979). Pretending to cure terrible diseases in followers (like cancer, for example) most certainly appealed to followers on an emotional level and helped reaffirm loyalties to Jones. Successfully convincing his followers that he was Jesus Christ reincarnated probably helped his efforts a good deal as well.
Jones started his movement in California, which was a good choice of location–progressive people who were eager for social change (Johnson, 1979). This was the best choice for Jones’ vision, which was to promote communist social goals. It’s possible that he was able to make communist goals attractive to poor people if the people felt that capitalism was responsible for their lower social standing. Because he had a strong vision for a perfect society, Jones demonstrated the transformational leader characteristic of vision: future-oriented with a desire to change and overcome the problems of the present (The Pennsylvania State University, 2018). To Jones, the problem of the present was capitalism, and the proposed change was communism. Further, it was easy to rally support in a progressive, frustrated, social-change-oriented state like California was in the early 1970s. “Charismatic leaders who are widely admired may be seen as having outstanding qualities which are particularly suited for helping solve the crises of the time” (Johnson, 1979, p.316).
When the group moved to Guyana, everyone was expected to pitch in on the hard work that was required for 900+ people to survive in wilderness: knocking down trees, growing food, building shelters, etc. This demonstrates the situational characteristic of “task interdependence,” whereby part of Jones’ transformational power came from his followers having to work together to complete tasks. Guyana was a paradise for his followers who felt that they could finally create the socialist utopia they had been promised and working so hard to manifest. Here, though, is where Jones’ power started to unravel, as newspapers from home began demanding investigations into the Guyana compound. His solution to this problem, this threat to his power over these people, was to exert more power than ever before–have them all commit mass suicide, giving the ultimate sacrifice for “the cause.”
Jim Jones had charisma and a need to control, a dangerous combination. He used his oratory and interpersonal talents and his transformational leadership skills to manipulate hundreds of people to believe his lies, fall for his stunts, abandon their families, leave their country, and excuse his physical and sexual abuses. Transformational leaders can inspire great things, as evidenced by JFK and MLK (perhaps a clue as to whether someone was a transformational leader is whether you can identify them based on their initials). But, the kind of powerful ability that can inspire people to hold a cause over individual liberties should always be in check.
Johnson, D. (1979). Dilemmas of Charismatic Leadership: The Case of the People’s Temple. Sociological Analysis, 40(4), 315-323. doi:10.2307/3709960
Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2018). PSYCH 485 Lesson 10: Power and Influence. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1942231/modules/items/25010877