Jonestown: A Study in Leadership

Remember Jim Jones?  The cult leader who set up a community of his People’s Temple followers in the jungles of north-western Guyana called Jonestown.  In 1978, he enforced the ‘revolutionary suicide’ of 909 people in the single largest non-war massacre of US civilians prior to the September 11, 2001 collapse of the World Trade Centre.  The irony is that, like most cult leaders, he was a paradoxical blend of strong leadership, good works, both good and bad teaching, unusual beliefs, psychopathic dysfunctionality and abusive control. The chilling account of his life in the 2006 film Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple was the most moving documentary I have ever seen (view here).

I marvel at the hold that magnetic leaders like Jones or Hitler or Stalin must have had over so many people, before ever having enough authority to use violence or intimidation to get their way.  They make great studies in natural leadership and charisma, even though their negative example has us steer to statesmen and sportsmen for more palatable sources of inspiration.

Whilst being appalled at the despicable crimes of Jim Jones, I think it is sobering for any of us who aspire to lead others to be humbled by the fact that people seeking to be led to a better life are so easily able to be duped and abused by means of a person’s charisma.  This makes the need for servanthood and humility to become hallmarks of great leadership, lest we quickly revert to control to achieve the ends that can so quickly justify such means simply because we can.

Character, and not charisma, becomes the defining difference by which positive leaders are separated from zany cultists.  Rather than engaging in a self-determined write-off of leaders who might hold to beliefs and practices that don’t sit well with us or with those we hang around, it is good to evaluate them a little more objectively.  Those whose motivation is altruistic service and people-centred living make for far more inspiring and welcome leaders.

Servant leadership was modelled by Jesus Christ and is a feature of much genuinely Christian leadership modelled today in churches throughout the world.  It is a kind of leadership that makes people the ultimate focus of every endeavour and inspires the sort of hope and betterment that makes church a place where people want to be.  It may not be by our works that we are saved for Heaven, but it is surely by our works that we are known.


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