Monday, February 06, 2012

Did Akin Gump Operate Like a Cult? Collective Psychological Regression and the Charismatic Leader

In an earlier blog post I posed the question whether the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld  operated like a cult.  I referred specifically to the group dynamics that prevailed among the legal assistant program employees with whom I worked during the period March 1988 to October 1991.   I also discussed the leadership style of the program's supervisory staff.

I have discovered support in the literature for the position that an employee group can take on the characteristics of a cult under the leadership of charismatic leadership.  See Ulman, R.B. and Abse, D.W. "The Group Psychology of Mass Madness: Jonestown," Political Psychology, 4(4): 637 (1983).

The paper's abstract states: "Through a synthesis of the concepts of charisma and collective psychological regression, we construct a theoretical bridge spanning the abyss between the two traditional approaches to leadership studies -- the study of the personality of the individual charismatic leader versus the study of the characteristics of the members of a mass movement. We argue that neither of these traditional approaches is sufficient to illuminate the underlying but often hidden dynamics that forge the psychological context within which a charismatic leader and members of a mass movement interact. Drawing upon a large body of earlier work from the fields of both psychoanalysis and the social sciences, including our own previous studies, we provide theoretical documentation for the concept of collective pathological regression within a charismatically led mass movement. As an historical example of this phenomenon, we analyze the Reverend Jim Jones and his followers in the People's Temple in an attempt to understand the group psychology triggering the mass madness that engulfed the inhabitants of Jonestown. Our conclusion is that without additional scientific efforts to understand and explain the events of Jonestown, members of the public remain vulnerable to further similar tragedies."


Gary Freedman said...

Note, by the way, that it was the People's Temple that turned out to be armed and extremely dangerous -- not the outsiders.

In all, 918 people died at the People's Temple commune, including 276 children. It was the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the events of September 11, 2001. This includes four that died at the Temple headquarters in Georgetown that night. Congressman Leo Ryan became the only Congressman murdered in the line of duty in United States history.

Gary Freedman said...

Note that this paper was written in 1983 -- ten years before the Vernon Howell (David Koresh)-led movement in Waco, Texas.