Followership in Peoples Temple:
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by Wendy M. Edmonds

(Author’s note: I am a PhD candidate in the University of Maryland Eastern Shore’s Organizational Leadership Doctoral Program. In determining my research focus, I was reminded of how the Jonestown massacre had always intrigued me. Imagine how the contribution from those who survived the worst destruction of human life in a religious cult at that time, can help us understand the relationship between leaders and followers. This qualitative study takes a unique approach of using Followership and Sacrificial Leadership as a theoretical framework to unfold themes that may illuminate reasons for the unquestioning member loyalty and offer new insights into leadership – followership interdependencies. The findings from this research will be delivered in Spring 2010.

(Anyone who is interested in participating by sharing your thoughts, I can be reached at wmedmonds@umes.edu.)

The Good – Jim Jones, leader of Peoples Temple in Indiana, was seen in the eyes of many as a well respected reverend, an average person called to do extraordinary things in a life that would change the world. He was educated, with degrees from Indiana University and Butler University. Jim Jones started a church known as Community Unity in 1954 (Cordell & Cordell, 1998), for the purpose of creating a community for those less fortunate than others. This included the unemployed, underemployed, the ill and the homeless. Jones later moved his congregation to California where it continued to grow in numbers throughout several big cities on the West Coast. In fact, by one measure, church membership swelled to almost 5000 in the mid-1970s.

The Bad – However, the business dealings of the Temple began to create suspicion. Local newspapers began running stories about Peoples Temple being involved in illegal activities (O’Connor, 2009). Fearful of having the truth exposed, Jones arranged to move many of his followers to Jonestown, Guyana. There, in the midst of the jungle, he had leased close to 4,000 acres.

Documentation reveals that the leader of the Temple developed a belief called translation through which he and his followers would all die together and move to an afterlife of bliss (O’Connor, 2009). Additionally, Jones had been known for abusing prescription drugs and had become extremely paranoid about the U.S. government trying to attack Jonestown.

The Ugly – In 1978, the “translation” Jim Jones had rehearsed so many times before with his congregation, was not a rehearsal at all: it was show time. This very act of drinking grape Flavor Aid laced with potassium cyanide – coupled with the assassination of five members of a congressional party at a nearby airstrip, and the slashing deaths of a mother and her three children in the Temple’s headquarters in Guyana’s capital city of Georgetown – took the lives of 918 men, women, and children. But there were those who survived the worst destruction of human life in a religious cult in the United States at that time.

I have begun research on the Jonestown survivors to study followership with the intent to unfold themes that may illuminate some of the reasons for the unquestioning followership members of the Temple exhibited, and that may offer new insights into the leadership – followership interdependencies.

Followership

From its infancy, the study of leadership has been the study of leaders: what they did and why they did it (Bass & Bass, 2008). Examples of great leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Myles Horton of the civil rights movement are credited with positively affecting the lives of many and moving this nation to unprecedented changes. Most leadership theories are largely leader-centric, with followers only recently entering into the equation as a second thought. Since the word follower is considered something of an insult, certainly in the United States, it has been shunned by those in the leadership field (Kellerman, 2008). Consequently, many leadership scholars consider the inclusion of followers in leadership theory a major paradigm shift. In keeping with the theme of moving in another direction, the following leadership theory is applied to frame this research in its exploration of self-sacrificial behaviors in Jim Jones (the leader) and the transformed leader (follower-turned-leader).

Sacrificial leadership

The term “self-sacrificial,” as defined by DeCremer and Knippenberg (2004), suggests a person’s willingness to suffer significant losses to maintain personal beliefs and values. Leaders can augment followers’ discernment of their obligation to the vision by self-sacrificing (Singh & Krishnan, 2008). One school of thought among researchers holds that leaders use self-sacrificial behavior to entice followers to behave in the same manner. Others believe that leaders exhibit this type of behavior as a demonstration of trustworthiness to entice extreme loyalty. It is the manipulation of followers’ devotion that enables leaders to disguise the distinction between faithful follower and blind follower. Furthermore, members’ susceptibility to the leaders’ influence can be used as the line of demarcation from a church to a cult. Defining cults is two-fold. Evangelicals identify groups outside orthodox Christianity as cults because of their aberrant religious beliefs, while secular researchers use abusive behavior as the major factor.

Still, the common thread is that cults of this nature demand followership.   Jim Jones’ charismatic domination turned lethal and caused a tragedy of great magnitude. However, there are valuable lessons to be taken from this. In the words of Smith (2008):

Jonestown has vanished, consumed by fire in the early 1980’s. It would be folly if we failed to learn its lessons. Jonestown was not an anomaly. Rather, it was a product of the evolving ethos of our time, an ethos that tends to repress and trivialize the essentially religious impulse.

Moreover, it is the experiences of Peoples Temple survivors that provide the backdrop for this qualitative study. Some, who were once considered followers of Jim Jones, had transformed into leaders as survivors in a crisis. Zimbardo (2009) refers to one such survivor-turned-leader as a black Moses leading some of his people out of Hell. It is my hope that grounding this research in followership and sacrificial leadership theories will provide a framework in which the responses and expressions of the participants offer profound revelations into leader-follower interdependencies.

References

Bass, B. M., & Bass, R. (2008). The Bass Handbook of Leadership; Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications (Fourth ed.). New York, New York: Free Press.

Cordell, G., & Cordell, J. (1998). The Open Door, Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Retrieved March 23, 2009.

DeCremer, D., & Knippenberg, D. v. (2004). Leader self-sacrifice and leadership effectiveness: The moderating role of leader self-confidence. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes , 95, 140-155.

Kellerman, B. (2008). Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

O’Connor, J. (2009). Cult class examines ‘shades of gray.’ National Catholic Reporter, 45 (10), 14A.

Singh, N., & Krishnan, V. (2008). Self-sacrifice and transformational leadership: Mediating role of altruism. Leadership & Organizational Development Journal, 29 (3), 261-274.

Smith, Jr., A. J. (2008, November 16). We need to press forward: Black religion and Jonestown, twenty years later. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Retrieved March 24, 2009.

Zimbardo, P. G. (2009, January 25). Jonestown Heroes. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. Retrieved March 20, 2009.

Last modified on January 21st, 2014.
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