Saturday, January 10, 2009

November 2005: Charisma & Megalomania

Around the 18th of November, I began to worry about what I might write about this month. I got to the office, fired up my laptop, and checked both work and personal e-mails. I had recently signed up with the History Channel website ( to receive their gratis “This Day in History” e-mail. I enjoy browsing this e-mail everyday reading some items in detail and skimming most. I enjoy revisiting events that happen ten, twenty, or forty years and seeing if I recall the facts correctly and whether my perspective on the event has changed. On the 18th, the lead story marked the anniversary of the 1978 mass suicide of Jim Jones and his followers in Guyana.

That story was shockingly fascinating at the time and fascinates me still twenty-eight years later. I am amazed by the ability of someone, anyone, like Jim Jones to attract and mesmerize so many people into following him. They not only believed in his “message” but dedicated their entire lives to Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, as his church was called. People gave up their possessions, spouses, and children to follow this man. They not only followed him spiritually but decided, or let him decide, they should live in his commune. He started the commune in California only to move it to Guyana, hardly the first choice for the “let’s leave everything and go live on a commune” set.

James Warren Jones was born on May 13, 1931 in Crete, Indiana. In the 1950’s, he became a preacher and founded a church that he named “Wings of Deliverance” which he later changed to the “People’s Temple Full Gospel Church.” In 1964, he was ordained in the more mainstream Christian Denomination Disciples of Christ. Living then in California, Jones developed and advocated a concept called Apostolic Socialism based on social justice and the equal treatment of African Americans. Because of his involvement with the poor, the popularity of his church and his seeming respectability, then San Francisco Mayor George Mascone appointed Reverend Jim to the city’s housing commission!

It was about this time that Jones began to veer. He claimed to be an embodiment of Jesus, Akehnaten (Amenhotep IV), Buddha, Lenin, and Father Devine (an African American preacher of the early 1900’s who basically believed and convinced a small throng that he was God). It was a safe bet that with these revelations, the People’s Temple had assumed cult status.
In 1977 with the beginning of an investigation for tax evasion, Jones moved the People’s Temple and most of its one thousand adherents to Guyana, the impoverished little country on the Caribbean coast of South America. He wanted to create an agricultural utopia but he also wanted his followers to think of him as God. Back in California, those that did not go to Guyana began to complain about beatings and murders within the People’s Temple. Some even reported about a plan for mass suicide.

As a result of these allegations, Congressman Leo Ryan of California led a mission to Guyana to investigate. They arrived in Jonestown and interviewed residents over a three day period. When an attempt was made on the congressman’s life, the group decided to leave Guyana immediately. They took some twenty People’s Temple members who wished to leave. As they were boarding their plane, armed guards from Jonestown began shooting at them. The congressman, three journalists, and a defector were killed. Later that same day, Jones instructed the 914 remaining residents of Jonestown, including 276 children, to commit mass suicide. Most drank cyanide laced Kool-Aid, while others were injected with cyanide, and the less enthusiastic were simply shot. As the Kool-Aid drinkers lay in a most orderly array, Jones preached impending salvation to them. Jones was found seated in a chair dead from a bullet to his head. It was never clear if it were from his own hand.

Of course, Jim Jones was not the first or last of this type of charismatic megalomaniacs. The other that comes to my mind, simply because I was subject to the media blitz when the end came was David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. Koresh was born in 1959 as Vernon Wayne Howell to a fifteen year old unwed mother in Houston. In his youth, he was abused by his father, grew up a loner and was dyslexic. Koresh was involved in the Seventh Day Adventist Church but was thrown out as a result of questioning and arguing scripture with the elders. The fact that he wanted to marry a fifteen year girl he was in love with and had made pregnant also may have factored into the decision.

Upon leaving the Adventists, Koresh joined the splinter Branch Davidian Sect led by one Lois Roden. They were headquartered in Waco, Texas and their compound was called the Mt. Carmel Center. When Lois died, Koresh and Lois’ son George vied for leadership of the Branch Davidians. George won out but Koresh soon returned and took over with what can only be called an armed insurgency in which George was shot. In the ensuing trial, Koresh and his gang were unbelievably acquitted whereas George was arrested for an unrelated previous murder and was committed to a mental institution.

At this point, Koresh adopted the name David Koresh: David for King David and Koresh was the Hebrew version of Cyrus, the famed Persian King. He allowed polygamy in the sect and is believed to have fathered a dozen children, some to girls that were as young as twelve and thirteen. Koresh died on April 19, 1993 at the end of a fifty-one day siege by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that culminated in an all out assault of the Mt. Carmel Center by the Feds. Eighty-five Branch Davidians including Koresh and seventeen children barricaded themselves for a fight to the death. They all died in a fire that was either as result of the attack or as government reports theorized was deliberately set by Koresh and his followers leading most to believe these Branch Davidians committed mass suicide.

We have all met charismatic people in our lives. They are natural leaders. People gravitate to them, are charmed by them, want to be around them, and try to curry favor from them. I have examples from the first days of school, even in kindergarten, until today in the workplace. Sometimes, we call these people CEOs, presidents, generals, or religious titles and they become the stuff legends are made of. They have that blend of charisma and ego that get everyone behind them and enables them to accomplish great things.

But, there is a dark side as well. Channeling ones ego and charisma to do good or great things is not always so easy. For some, it is easier to become addicted to the power inherent in these gifts i.e. the ability to control and manipulate others. It is an addiction as potent as heroin and can twist one’s mind. We see and recognize the sometimes thin line between genius and insanity, or in this case, between beloved charismatic leadership and terrifying megalomania. The same natural gifts and skill sets can make you Winston Churchill or Joseph Stalin, Billy Graham or Jim Jones.

I had a boss who was charismatic. He was a great leader. He motivated all who worked for him. He pulled us all together and created a cohesive team from what was a dysfunctional department. We followed willingly and eagerly. He valued our input and thoughts. Sure, he had an ego, but certainly one that also enjoyed seeing his team do well, prosper and advance. He always wanted a divisional presidency. By continually delivering results, he eventually got his goal. The job, however, was beyond his organizational and motivational skill set. The personality and style which got him the job were all suddenly useless. He veered and became a real SOB. I could not believe how quickly and completely it happened. His people hated him, even now, five years later. He decided to retire, or was retired, when it was clear that things were not going well. Thankfully, his true personality and nature re-emerged.

What is charisma? The word comes from the Greek word, kharisma, meaning gift. Charisma is the innate ability of one draw the attention and admiration of others. Charismatic people have an air of confidence, being in control, easily engaging others, and simply attracting others to be around them.

Charisma differentiates a good leader from a good manager. A charismatic leader easily draws and involves others to his or her aspirations and endeavors. A good manager is an able administrator. When one person is both a great leader and a great administrator, I would call this person a great leader. Often charismatic leaders in business, coaching or religion will have a #2 that is a very good manager.

Certainly, Jim Jones and David Koresh had charisma. What caused them to use their gifts in such a negative way? I believe that they became addicted to the power over others. They both thought of themselves as gods. The word megalomania came to mind. I looked it up and found that the roots of this word are also from the Greek; megalo meaning big or huge, and mania meaning mad. Megalomania now has a clinical name. It is called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). It is characterized by extreme feelings of self-importance, a high need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. I missed the crucial point about empathy. Certainly, if ones ego is off the charts, there can be no empathy for others as they have to be lesser beings in comparison.

Sociologists estimate that .7-1% of the population are megalomaniacs. Probably charisma has the same incidence rate. Assuming that charisma and megalomania are independent traits and have the same incidence rate of 1 % or 1 out of 100, then the incidence rate of charismatic megalomaniacs is .01% or 1 out of 10,000. I hope there are not this many potential Jim Joneses out there. Probably there are other factors, e.g. jail, which keeps these nutballs (note: nutball is neither an acceptable nor politically correct clinical term) from actually wreaking any more havoc then we have already experienced.

There is always a lighter side
(in this case two):

I. As an undergraduate, I had a very nice lady Dr. Fran Cousins as my advisor in my sophomore year. Being a professor of Sociology, she strongly encouraged me to take a sociology course. I had signed up for a philosophy course and she thought I would get more out a related sociology course, which she just happened to be teaching. I never would have even considered taking any sociology course firm in my belief that it was pseudo-academic discipline or some other sophomoric mumbo jumbo.

Whenever we met on campus, we would chat and she would encourage me to take sociology courses. It got to be a wonderful game we played. Obviously, the seeds planted by Dr. Cousins way back in 1972 blossomed and resulted in this Sociology 101 paper. I tried looking her up on the Michigan website and even Googled her name to no avail. I am assuming she is long retired and perhaps even passed on. I was just going to send her my Sociology 101 paper for her to comment on. She would have been so happy and probably recommend some courses I should consider taking.

II. The Jim Jones story also brought up another related memory. In 1978, a young lady named Robbie Timmons became a newscaster one of the local Detroit TV stations. She was a little awkward and tried too hard at her job. I was teaching at the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus. The editor of the school paper was in one of my classes. As a result, I read the campus paper more than I might have in other circumstances. The editor felt the same way about Ms. Timmons and began roasting, tormenting and lampooned her in the pages of the paper. It was relentless and pretty entertaining.

Then, unexpectedly, the station she worked for fired her in March of 1979, just in time for the April Fools issue of the paper. The entire issue was dedicated to the mass suicide of University of Michigan Students distraught with the canning of Ms. Timmons. It was hilarious. There were pictures of students lying dead all over campus, in the hallways, draped over building signs, in the library, randomly scattered on the grounds. The issue was so good, it made the evening news. A few weeks later Ms. Timmons herself came to campus for Robbie Timmons Day. Ms. Timmons soon got another position and is still broadcasting the news in Detroit. I smile and think the zany mass suicide students might have actually helped her career.

1 comment:

  1. Although some people may be unable to define charisma, most can name a few charismatic people they have known. A charismatic leader which graced history was Winston Churchill. He came to power in the middle of World War II, and upheld the morale of the British people during a very difficult time of the war.