Leadership Styles:
Martin Luther King vs. Jim Jones

(Tina Parrish wrote this paper for an Intergrative seminar in social science to get her BA in Social Science at Great Basin College in Winnemucca, Nevada. She graduated this past May.)

When people think of Martin Luther King Jr.,they think of a great leader. On the other hand, when people think of Jim Jones, they think of a crazy man who led his people into a strange ritual of mass suicide. These two men seem as far from each other as night and day. However, their leadership styles were not that different from one another.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. He was the son of a Baptist minister. In Howard Gardner’s book, Leading Minds, King described his childhood: “The first twenty-five years of my life were very comfortable years. I didn’t have to worry about anything… I went right through school, [and] I never had to drop out to work or anything” (Gardner, 1995). He grew up in his father’s footsteps and got his bachelor of divinity in 1951 and his doctorate in 1955. Gardner points out, “While King’s personal philosophy had not coalesced, he was interested in the connection between the individual’s relationship to God and his or her commitment to social activism on earth. He was also attempting to reconcile his personal experiences as a member of the traditional, emotionally suffused black church with rather abstruse concerns of recent Protestant theologians” (Gardner, 1995).

I think that Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a Dream” speech shows just what kind of leader he was, a man who was very effective at what he did. King was described by some as having a unique way of getting people to work together rather than fight. “This leadership was not confined to fine speeches. In private meetings, King was generally quiet. He listened while others argued, often angrily and at length, and then he would calmly sum up the debate and identify a way forward. From the outset of his career in Montgomery in 1955, right through to his death in 1968, King had a remarkable ability to get people, who would otherwise be constantly feuding, to work together. He was consistently reluctant to sever or sour relations with anyone who might help the cause. This was particularly important because a by-product of racism was a pronounced tendency to factionalism inside the black community. King became the vital centre – a point of balance and unity” (Ling, 2003).

Martin Luther King Jr. was a transformational leader. “[T]ransformational leadership starts with the development of a vision, a view of the future that will excite and convert potential followers. This vision may be developed by the leader, by the senior team or may emerge from a broad series of discussions. The important factor is the leader buys into it, hook, line, and sinker…. Whilst the transformational leader seeks overtly to transform the organization, there is also a tacit promise to followers that they also will be transformed in some way, perhaps to be more like this amazing leader. In some respects, then, the followers are the product of the transformation…Transformational leaders are often charismatic, but are not as narcissistic as pure Charismatic leaders, who succeed through a belief in themselves rather that a belief in others” (Transformational leadership, 2007).

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Jim Jones was born in 1931 in Crete, Indiana. Unlike Martin Luther King, however, Jones did not have the happiest childhood. His father was often abusive to young Jim who had a yearning to preach to others what he learned in Sunday school. He started out as a student minister in 1952 at a Methodist Church. Jones became disenchanted however, when the church refused to allow black members to join. He started his own church which allowed both black and white members to attend. In fact, he had as many blacks in his church as he did whites. “He preached a ‘social gospel’ of human freedom, equality and love, which required helping the lowliest of society’s members. Later on, this gospel became socialistic, or communistic in Jones’ own view, and the hypocrisy of white Christianity was ridiculed while ‘apostolic socialism’ was preached. Jones went so far as to encourage Temple members to call him ‘Dad’ and ‘Father’. He also asked his members to consider him the incarnation of Christ and of God” (Jim Jones, 2007). He moved his flock to the Redwood Valley, California, area in 1965, according to Jones, in order to escape an inevitable nuclear holocaust.

Photos Courtesy of California
Historical Society, MSP 3800

My uncle and his family were among the ones to follow Jones from Indiana to California This is where he met my aunt (my mother’s sister). Tim and Wanda Swinney and my ten-year-old cousin Darren followed Jim Jones to the death. My mother actually went to one of Jones’ sermons in 1969 or 1970. She was visiting her father in San Francisco and her sister lived in Ukiah. My mother says that she saw right through Jones from the start and tried to convince her sister to quit. However, it was too late for her to listen to reason by that time. She said that she watched one of the healings that Jones had. Of course it was a fake healing, but she said the people were so surprised and actually believed that he healed someone out of the crowd. He had an intensity about him that made people believe anything he said.

Jim Jones was a Charismatic leader. “Charismatic leaders use a wide range of methods to manage their image and, if  they are not naturally charismatic, may practice assiduously at developing their skills. They may engender trust through visible self-sacrifice and taking personal risks in the name of their beliefs. They will show great confidence in their followers. They are very persuasive and make very effective use of body language as well as verbal language…. Deliberate charisma is played out in a theatrical sense, where the leader is ‘playing to the house’ to create a desired effect. They also make effective use of storytelling, including the use of symbolism and metaphor” (Charismatic leadership, 2007). Jim Jones often played on the emotions of his followers. He had them convinced that he could heal them and would have fake healings during his sermons.

There are certain people that use charisma to lead, including cult leaders. Jim Jones is the epitome of a charismatic leader. He was very good at charming everyone around him, including many high political figures in the San Francisco area in the 1970’s. He had some very noble ideas of racial equality; however, his drug use made him show the narcissistic qualities that changed him from a Transformational leader to a Charismatic leader.

Transformational leadership and Charismatic leadership have many of the same qualities. The article on Charismatic leadership puts it this way:

“The Charismatic leader and the Transformational leader can have many similarities, in that the Transformational leader may well be charismatic. Their main difference is in their basic focus. Whereas the Transformational leader has a basic focus of transforming the organization and, quite possible, their followers, the Charismatic leader may not want to change anything.… Despite their charm and apparent concern, the Charismatic leader may well be somewhat more concerned with themselves than anyone else.… The Values of the Charismatic leader are highly significant. If they are well-intentioned towards others, they can elevate and transform an entire company. If they are selfish and Machiavellian, they can create cults and effectively rape the minds (and potentially the bodies) of the followers …Their self-belief is so high, they can easily believe that they are infallible, and hence lead their followers into an abyss, even when they have received adequate warning from others. The self-belief can also lead them into psychotic narcissism, where their self-absorption or need for admiration and worship can lead to their followers questioning their leadership” (Charismatic leadership, 2007).

The similarities between Martin Luther King and Jim Jones are uncanny. Both were preachers in the same time era, during the ‘60s when people were finally seeing that it did not matter what the color of your skin was, we are all equal in God’s eyes. They both preached about racial equality. Both were idealistic and wanted peace in the world. However, whereas Martin Luther King was nonviolent, Jim Jones became paranoid and believed that everyone was after him and his flock. Peoples Temple had a stockpile of weapons that they smuggled into Guyana. He had a military force that surrounded him all the time, supposedly because there had been several attacks on his life.

The day that Congressman Leo Ryan went to leave Jonestown he was attacked by one of the Temple members. Then while the congressman and his party were waiting to board a plane at the Port Kaituma airstrip, they were ambushed by Temple members. Thiswas the domino that caused the mass murder-suicides on November 18, 1978. Jones claimed that because the members had killed the congressman, the U.S. Army would come down on their compound and kill everyone including the children. Some of the members protested, asking if there was another way. Jones told them there was no other way. Even during the final moments of Peoples Temple, Jones was playing on the crowd’s emotions. He told them that they were not committing suicide but it was “a revolutionary act protesting an inhumane world” (Jim Jones, 2007).

Jim Jones started out with his heart in the right place. He was a good leader at the beginning as well. However, I think that drug use and maybe his own personality traits got the better of him. Jim Jones could have easily been another Martin Luther King; however, we must learn from the lessons of others. In the pavilion where Peoples Temple members died under the leadership of Jim Jones was a saying. “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” May we remember and not repeat the mistakes of the Reverend Jim Jones.

Works Cited

Charismatic Leadership. Retrieved on August 1, 2007.

Gardner, Howard. Leading Minds. 1995. New York. Basic Books.

Hatfield, Larry. Utopian nightmare Jonestown: What did we learn? 1998. SF Gate.com.

Jonestown. Who was Jim Jones? Retrieved from Connecticut College on August 1, 2007.

The Jonestown Institute. Retrieved on August 11, 2007.

Ling, Peter. Martin Luther King’s Style of Leadership. 2003.

NobelPrize.org. Martin Luther King Jr. Retrieved on August 11, 2007.

Northhouse, Peter. Leadership: Theory and Practice.2007. Michigan. Sage Publications.

Osherow, Neal. Making Sense of the Nonsensical: An Analysis of Jonestown. 2004.

Transformational Leadership. Retrieved on August 1, 2007.