Abusive Leadership

Laudable beginnings . . .

James Warren (Jim) Jones (May 13, 1931 – November 18, 1978) was, on all accounts, a formidable man. That he was a leader, focusing the desire for change that’s resident in others and then facilitating the creation of a brave new reality, is beyond dispute.

He was the founder and leader of the Peoples Temple, which is best known for the November 18, 1978 suicide of more than 900 Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana, along with the killings of five other people at a nearby airstrip. This was the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the events of September 11, 2001; the tragedy also ranks among the largest mass murders/mass suicides in history. One of those who died at the nearby airstrip was Leo Ryan who is to-date the only Congressman murdered in the line of duty in the history of the United States.

Jones founded the Peoples Temple Christian Church Full Gospel in Indiana during 1952 ostensibly as a strategy for advancing his closely held communistic / socialist leanings. His wife later claimed that he had never embraced religion but chose to use it as a way of spreading his political message of militant integration. He and his wife adopted several children of mixed heritage with similar objectives by his own admission.

The Peoples Temple grew substantially after it was relocated to northern California. Jones promoted ‘apostolic socialism’ initially but this message segued into enlightened socialism by the late sixties / early seventies, attracting many adherents, the majority of whom were black. His political star rose quickly at first but he was unable to curb his desire for self gratification and personal promotion and he lost his patronage. When he was threatened with exposure of his deceptive and dissolute lifestyle, he left the US to create a socialistic paradise in Guyana.

He was pursued by no less than a US Senator (Leo Ryan), a ‘concerned relatives’ group led by a former adherent, and a press team, who had some success in encouraging fifteen members to leave with them. The investigative team and deserting adherents were ambushed at a nearby airstrip and five persons lost their lives in a shoot-out.

Jones, apparently fearing a mass invasion by the authorities, convinced the over-whelming majority of his remaining followers to commit ‘revolutionary suicide’ by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid rather than to submit to ‘fascist oppression’. This was likely not the ‘dream’ that most were attempting to realize.

What went wrong here . . .

There seems to be little doubt that Jim Jones was a leader. His socialistic message is certainly not unique; it has been widely advocated throughout history and there’s been an unmistakable trend in its favour over the past few centuries. Also, parallels have been drawn often between Christianity and Communism even though they seem to be antagonistic at times.

The struggle for social integration has also been championed by greater people than Jim Jones and these have not led to mass suicides or any other negative occurrences that were characteristic of the Peoples Temple. The devotion of Jones’s followers is perhaps more sporadic than most but at least nine hundred souls stayed with him up to and including the end!

Jim Jones was a bright and intelligent person; he favourably impressed many important persons including Angela Davies, Walter Mondale and Rosalynn Carter. We know however that cognitive intelligence is not correlated with leadership effectiveness; social and emotional intelligence have far more impact. Jim Jones seemed to be quite adept in these areas too – he was undoubtedly a smart man.

This is not enough to establish an enduring leadership relationship with others; a significant level of insight and self-awareness is also required. There needs to be a deeper, mutual appreciation of possible consequences as well. Moving deeper, one more step, there’s a need to align perspectives (the way we frame situations, what’s included in the picture and, perhaps more important, what’s excluded) as well as the accompanying perceptions (what values we ascribe to what it is we are framing).

There was likely a measure of agreement at this level between Jim Jones and his adherents but it was certainly not consistent in content or over time. Jones had a predilection for ranging sexual practices, self aggrandizement and even political perspectives that some followers had difficulties in accepting.

This became a critical issue when Jones, as leader, attempted to focus intentions and to facilitate needed actions; some would take his lead while others rebelled and left the movement. The great majority, however, chose to stay the course, perhaps in hope of the realization of the social utopia which he promised to deliver.

Jim Jones was a skilled communicator, persuasive and compelling. Where there was dissonance and/or disagreement he was usually able to sway this majority, and he regularly rehearsed this by holding suicide drills. It could be that this was as much a demonstration that he had effective control over the group as it was a bona fide practice. It likely distracted people from the realization that he was actually adding little in terms of real value to group members – all were ‘high’ on rhetoric.

So, ultimately he failed to facilitate the creation of a sustainable new reality – which was his mandate. It can be argued that he was more interested in self than in others at a practical level even though his generic social concerns may have been real enough. In failing to deliver what the group members expected, he failed as a leader but at a tremendous cost – 909 persons died, 276 of them children.

The Pitfalls . . .

In every leadership relationship there’s the potential for disaster – the realization of outcomes that are far from those intended. It is a dynamic and complex relationship and there are many opportunities along the way for the relationship to depart from its true course.

Some of these are within the control of those being led and it’s not infrequently that a leadership mandate, granted initially in good faith, will be withdrawn or terminated by the group, simply because the focus or facilitation is no longer deemed appropriate to future needs – for whatever reason.

In the case of Jim Jones though, it would appear that there were ‘manipulations’, intended or otherwise, that in effect betrayed the essential trust that has to exist between the leader and those being led. There are ten vulnerable points or stages in a leadership process where intentions can be derailed which are clearly identifiable, so let’s take a look at them.

  • Improper Precedents – a leader’s claim to have special authorities or abilities which are not substantiated by prior events or other unbiased sources;
  • Manipulation of Current Realities – the leader takes improper advantage of a heightened emotional condition or suggests that the situation or consequences are different from what is presented;
  • Distortion of Causation – presenting or weighting facts / arguments in inappropriate ways (changing, distorting, withholding information) deliberately so to strengthen a proposition;
  • Distortion of Risks / Impacts – deliberate falsification of the degree of difficulty or consequences that could arise if a specifically proposed course of action is adopted / not adopted
  • Probability of Consequences – suggesting or proposing the likelihood of outcomes or benefits to an unreasonable level or extent in order to gain endorsement or acceptance of a plan of action;
  • Magnification of Potential Benefits – escalation of valued outcomes beyond realistic expectations as an inducement to get others to ‘sign on’ to a proposed course of action;
  • Unstable Commitment Levels – where there is insufficient focusing of latent desires for needed change before facilitated action is initiated and some individuals are not fully dedicated to taking action;
  • Insufficient Resources Available – while the desire for change is strong, there are inadequate resources or excessive restraints that will diminish or sabotage any remedial action taken;
  • External Influencers / Controllers – there are political and/or regulatory forces in force that are beyond the influence of the group that will limit or prohibit any desired change;
  • Undue Leveraging of Emotions – improper appeals to the basic or raw emotions of others that will distort their acceptance of present circumstances or their hope for alternative realities.

I’m sure there are other factors too which, from the perspective of those being led, might take a leadership process off its intended line; likewise there’re other motives unscrupulous leaders could adopt which might taint outcomes. It’s essential that we are all aware of the pitfalls so that we can be diligent – our future may well depend upon it.

What Can Be Done? . . .

We are all well aware that there are two sides to every story and to every leadership relationship. The effective and ethical leader will place the interests of the group being led, the individuals within that group and self interests in precisely that order of importance; less-than-ethical leaders may place these perspectives in reverse order!

The ‘red flag’ in any leadership situation is the suspicion of a betrayal of trust which will reduce confidence and cause schisms of one type or another. Surely, leadership without an acceptable threshold of trust is a non-starter. Each individual must not only trust the leader but also trust other members of the group as well as themselves; without this elemental trust little or nothing is going to change.

Trusting our self is very important simply because there’s no one who is likely to lie to us more than our self. Self deception is widely prevalent especially when our rational and unconscious minds are in conflict and not yet fully reconciled. In this state, we are particularly vulnerable to any and all suggestions and thus prey to an unscrupulous leader as well as to our own desires.

There are four defences.

Clearly, the first of these is Transparency. This is our preparedness to expose and critically examine all aspects of the leadership process - perhaps using the ten pitfall checklist above. Do we have all the facts, separated from assumptions, visible for all to see and challenge at any time? Are we open to contrary points of view? Are we in touch with our own feelings (emotional self-awareness) and open to challenges at the emotional level?

Next, we can encourage Clarification at every step along the way. First are we seeking to understand and only then to be understood? Are we standing guard at the portals of our own thoughts and feelings, accepting full responsibility for them and for any consequences that ensue? Are our assumptions, opinions and positions ‘suspended’ – hung out for all to inspect?

Another defence is Confirmation, the application of fairness towards others. Are we ready to suspend judgment until we have thoroughly understood and evaluated the position of others? Are we practicing empathy, trying to see the issues through the eyes of those who differ from us? Is our focus on the gap between us rather than on the personality traits and values of our opponents?

Finally, Contingencies, a plan for action that’s flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances. Do we expect that things will work out exactly as we anticipate or can we accept minor differences? Are we locked into an unfolding process that we feel has to be defended against all comers; be reasonable, do it my way?  Can we handle personal disappointments and setbacks as long as the group achieves its broad intent?

The Bottom Line . . .

There’s surely no simple answer to leadership integrity other than the subjective consensus of the group; consideration of the many tragedies in recent history reveals that there are no absolute standards to leadership effectiveness or integrity. Leadership is, and will always be dynamic, complex and situational on the whole, but this doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility for practicing due diligence at every exposure. In the eyes of history, we may be right in the short-term and wrong in the long-term, in seeking the changes we do - or vice versa,

Jim Jones was well intentioned and his leadership was not wholly misdirected or evil; it did go off the rails at some point and an insufficient number of his adherents recognized and responded to that departure. Who was responsible? He definitely allowed self interests to cloud his perspectives and perceptions and his response when challenged was hardly rational. His followers though had the power to withdraw the mandate they’d given him (and some did) but those who abdicated this responsibility paid the price with their lives and those of their children.

As leader or as follower we have an obligation to be prudent and diligent about the changes we are seeking. Every person involved must shoulder this responsibility fully and unconditionally – there’s no acceptable excuse for not doing so.

Think about it!