The Jonestown Tragedy: A Cautionary Tale Reminding Us of the Importance of Dissension


Posted on November 19, 2008 by Blake Leath

Last night, my wife and I watched "Jonestown: The Life & Death of Peoples Temple" on PBS.

It was a fantastic exposé, very well done.  And of course, the content and story itself -- the tragedy that was The Peoples Temple -- was heartbreaking, infuriating, and devastating.  There are literally hundreds of families still walking this earth that were scorched by the mania of Jim Jones.  One survivor alone lost nineteen relatives at the 'kool-aid-cyanide-suicide' which, as another survivor describes it, "Wasn't a suicide at all.  Those who did not imbibe were shot in the head."

The images of babies, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters... 909 in all, who died that fateful day, November 18th, 1978 -- are absolutely heartwrenching.

From sociological, psychological, anthropological perspectives -- the sleep deprivation, the communal property, the preying upon and taking advantage of the weakest and poorest, the intertwined subjugation and messianic messages, the 'turning' of husband against wife / wife against husband / parents against children / children against parents / neighbor against neighbor -- were... and are predictable recipies for baking the perfect cult.

In time, the idealism that began with peace and love was eclipsed by Mr. Jones' psychoses, and a dysfunctional, fear-based organization was created that began to turn on itself like ouroboros.  And once the implosion began, it raged swiftly, reaching its predictable conclusion within hours.

As we watched the documentary from our Monday Morning Quarterback Chair... our Hindsight is 20/20 Chair... the groupthink, peer pressure, and manipulative tactics were so obvious, so heavy-handed.  It's like watching a magician AFTER he's explained the trick.  "Well of course, I saw that coming."  But too few did.  Even those who expressed an interest in the preceding weeks to 'get out' could not resist the undercurrent.  Of those who survived, approximately 80 of them were 'elsewhere' that day, including Jim Jones adopted son.  Of the 5 or so who literally 'escaped into the jungle,' they only survive today because the gunmen surrounding the compound were unable to shoot or capture them.

This all reminds me of something I read in the fantastic, albeit short book, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, which is -- the greater the perceived losses of our current path x increasing commitment to that current path = a very difficult magnetic force to avoid.  Read the book for yourself, and you'll see how this applied to LBJ's "Great Society" and the War in Vietnam, to George W. Bush's "Iraq War" and "Surge" strategy, as well as to a decorated airline pilot who singlehandedly caused the worst airplane collision in aviation history.

It occurs to me that as organizational leaders, we are not immune from the kool-aid.  For many of us, our workplaces become a meta-family of sorts, with their own rituals, chants, slogans, values, and requirements.  We burn the midnight oil, devote ourselves wholly to the enterprise, feel guilt or remorse for giving our all yet perceiving it's never enough, and so on.

All I can say is, "Remain objective."  Welcome disagreement, keep perspective, don't over-consolidate power through excessive centralization, maintain a balance of power through diversity of thought and creativity, and always be open to contrarian perspectives and the freedom to experiment.  Sure, in the end, we must have alignment on a common course of action (or risk wasting resources, time, labor, and energy), but only after thoughtful, participative, engaged dialogue about those most important decisions that affect everyone and those who follow them.

In the end, I am haunted by the words of one Jonestown escapee who said, after describing the loss of his wife and newborn son, "I knew in my head 'this is wrong,' but I couldn't bring myself to speak the words."