As an Administration of Justice Major, I am very interested in the study of cults. In particular, how cults form and how they progress from seemingly noble causes and purposes to horrendous criminal activity. Although very thoroughly studied and documented, the incident at Jonestown in November of 1978, is excellent example of this. I have extensively studied Jim Jones, the People’s Temple and the resulting mass murder/suicide through the lens of criminal investigation and psychology. It may be interesting, however to apply leadership theories to help explain how this progression happened.
To better understand how leadership theories may apply, it is necessary to have some background information. Jim Jones, born in 1931, had an unhappy childhood, with an abusive father. He took solice in the church, in particular Sunday School. As a child, he held mock church services, mostly funerals for animals, with schoolmates. As a young adult, he became a student pastor within the Methodist Chruch. Disenchanted with the church’s stand on segregation, he eventually broke out on his own and formed the People’s Temple. As Leader of the People’s Temple, Jones preached a “social gospel of human freedom, equality, and love” (Jim Jones, 2007). People of all colors and races were encouraged to be members and the church, although small in comparsion to other churches, establshed soup kitchens, housing for elderly and mentally ill and provided job assistance. Jones employed some fraudulent tactics to boast membership including fake healing rituals. As investigations began into these frauds, Jones moved the Church to California. In California the church grew in number and the social programs it provided. However, under increasing paranoia and investigation of the government, Jones finally moved the Church to Guyana, out of the United States. There he established Jonestown, a self-sustaining yet isolated community that lived a socialist lifestyle. The socialist lifestyle of the community evolved into more a military type environment as Jones’s paranoia and need for power grew. After a delegation, including a Congressman from California, went to Jonestown to investigator allegations of members being held against their will, Jones snapped, ordering the execution of the delegation as they departed. Knowing this horrible act would bring down the wrath of the US government, Jones ordered the mass suicide and murder of the rest of the colony, stating to his followers “it was a revolutionary act protesting an inhumane world” (Jim Jones, 2007)
The Psychodynamic Theory of Leadership, is one theory that may provide some insight into Jones’s rise and power. The Psychodynamic Theory asserts that certain personality traits are well suited to particular leadership positions. (Northouse, 2012). What made Jim Jones so attractive to his followers? There is no doubt that Jones was very charismatic. He was described as “having an intensity about him that made people believe anything he said.” (Jim Jones, 2007) He used his charisma to preach ideals of social freedom to his followers, most of which had experienced being repressed. In doing so, Jones exhibited that he had an awareness not only of his own personality traits but also that of his followers. He understand the message they wanted to hear and delivered it in a way that motivated them to action.
Another aspect of the Psychodynamic Theory states although a leader can be successful, darker side personality traits can certainly exist. This was definitely the case with Jones. Jones exhibited the characteristics of the shadow self. The Shadow Self is the a part of the personality you find unacceptable and deny it’s existence, yet others can be aware of it. (Lesson 3 Commentary). Jones dissent into drug use and abuse is evidence of this. Jones also demanded loyalty and preached of sacrifice, yet was known for carrying on affairs with members, despite being married. In other words, the behaviors that Jones expected of his followers were contradicting to his own self-serving behavior.
The psychodynamic theory helps provides more depth into understanding the rise of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. Jone’s personality traits, and his ability to understand the plight of his followers and then position himself as a savior figure, help explain how the cult of Jonestown was formed. The theory however, does not provide much insight into how Jones retained that power, enough to lead his followers into death.
Penn State World Campus (2013) Lesson 3 Psychodynamic Theory
Northouse, P.G (2012) Leadership: Theory and Practice (6th Edition)
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications
Jonestown: Who Was Jim Jones
Leadership Styles: Martin Luther King vs. Jim Jones, Tina Parrish (2007)