Bad Mentor: A Case Study of Jim Jones

Selfish mentors embody the Agency Theory, where the real reasons behind the leaderメs motivation are self-centric as opposed to follower-centric.

By Scott MacFarlane, MSM

We all know of mentors who have inspired us to do great things through their selfless acts. There are also a few leaders who as mentors have followed a model of selfishness. Similarities and vast differences exist between discipleship and mentorship. This case study will look at a leader/mentor, Jim Jones—who used a selfish attitude to control his disciples in the 1970s—and examine the benefits of mentorship and discipleship, self-centric and follower-centric behaviors, and the Agency and X Theories leadership and how they relate closely to selfish behaviors.

Power and Control

Jim Jones, founder of 1970s cult the Peoples Temple, considered his church and family one in the same (Scaliger). Jim Jones had a charisma that gave him a coercive power and control over his followers, who became more disciples of him than of Christ. Apostle Paul wrote that leaders should not be controlled by money (Holy Bible), but I would add that this also coincides with power and control.

Jones built his congregation under the guise of servant leadership, catering to the inner-city poor (who had nothing) and the young middle-class (who were looking for a way to get back at society). However, Jones’ leader-disciple relationship was hardly servant focused. In fact, it was self-serving, and his charismatic use of power placed so much control over his followers that the entire congregation moved to the jungles of Guyana in South America when the U.S. government began to investigate him (Scaliger). Adding to this self-serving definition, Jones set up a commune and named it “Jonestown.” Here he not only had psychological control over his followers, but geographic control, as well. Although he was able to manage both his church and family, it was all for his personal gain.

Following the move to Jonestown, some of his congregation realized what they had given up for Jones himself and defected from the commune. But the majority of his followers were loyal right up to the end, when, upon Jones’ orders, more than 900 people committed a mass-suicide in Jonestown (Scaliger).

The Jim Jones example is extreme, and chances are your corporate executives aren’t using this self-centric model. Recently, however, organizations such as Enron, AIG, WorldCom, and now even Solyndra have let greed and control ruin the global economy and displace thousands of workers (Shaw).

Traits of a Selfish Mentor

Selfish mentors embody the Agency Theory, where the real reasons behind the leader’s motivation are self-centric as opposed to follower-centric. This theory also weakens the motivation of followers, with the focus becoming more on self-interest. Therefore, a leader using this could ignore the human side of his or her followers, namely respect, trust, and motivation (Kivisto). Selfishness is also supported by McGregor’s X Theory of leadership in which the leader focuses on control of the followers with the premise being an absence of faith and trust (Cox).

How to Be an Unselfish Mentor

If you find yourself losing trust of faith, try this: Since a mentor-protégé relationship is based on trusting each other, focus all your attention on your protégé, using servant leadership in an effort to develop him or her. Another approach is to remember the acronym, S.A.G.E., devised by Chip Bell in 2002.

Surrenderyourself instead of being selfish.

Accept your followers by encouraging and supporting them.

Give Gifts to them (opposite of greed).

Extendyourself by putting their growth before the relationship.

Another thing to keep in mind is that although the mentor is looked up to, there is a fine line between being a role model and a power figure (Bell). To avoid this power struggle and the Agency Theory trap, a behavior-based relationship can be used in which the follower’s behaviors are closely watched and then rewarded accordingly. Conversely, an outcome-based relationship offers the followers a reward based on the achievement of outcomes (Kivisto).

Additionally, in a leader/follower (mentor/disciple) relationship, while the servant leader might have to sacrifice himself or herself for the needs of the follower, the transformational part of the relationship comes when both the leader (mentor) and the follower (disciple) benefit (Winston/Patterson). In this context, it is not selfish.

Discipleship Defined

Discipleship is an avenue to becoming a great leader, and fulfilling the teachings of Christ as servant leaders (Huizing; Winston/Patterson). Two variations of discipleship result in completely different outcomes.One drives the disciple from within and results in the feeling of accomplishment and self-actualization, whereas the other drives the disciple through worship, and allows the disciple to continue to grow. It is this worship-driven approach of discipleship that allows the mentor and disciple to have an ongoing relationship wheretheir entire life is in service to God (Huizing; Bekker/Winston).

To me, this definition means motivated from inside oneself with an end in sight (the feeling of accomplishment), and, therefore, that variation could be selfish. The leader in a disciple relationship is charismatic with the goal of convincing the follower to imitate the leader and is self-focused, and this “quest for imitating” also leads one to believe this could be from the disciple’s side, as well ((Bekker/Winston). Jesus was charismatic with this same goal, as were His disciples, and this is an example of an unselfish relationship.

Are You a Good Disciple?

To be true disciples, they must be humble and forego themselves for the sake of others; in other words, being servant leaders as opposed to being selfish (Huizing). But this definition is only applicable to the worship-driven approach of discipleship (Huizing).

The challenge then, is to decide whether one should use a willpower-driven approach and a self-centric model for discipleship. I would use mentorship worship-driven discipleship over willpower-driven discipleship because of the continual growth effort of the follower. The successful leader as a mentor must exercise control of his or her followers at the right time and place, be follower centric, and most of all, not be controlled by money or power. If you are to humble yourself and be a servant leader and mentor, which approach would you use?


Bekker, Corne & Winston, Bruce. (2012). Mentoring and Discipling. Streaming audio recording, Regent University School of Global Leadership and Entrepreneurship, 2012

Bell, C. (2002). Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning. 2nd Ed. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishing, Inc.

Cox, R., Plagens, G. & Sylla, K. “The Leadership-followership Dynamic: Making the Choice to Follow.” The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Studies. 2010, Vol. 5 Issue 8, pp. 35-57. Retrieved July 13, 2012 from

Holy Bible (NIV), Paul’s 1st letter to Timothy, Ch. 3, v.3.

Huizing, R. “Leaders from Disciples: The Church’s Contribution to Leadership Development.” Evangelical Review of Theology.October, 2011. Vol. 35, Issue 4, pp. 333-344.

Kivisto, J. “An assessment of agency theory as a framework for the government-university relationship.” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, Vol. 30, No. 4. November 2008, pp. 339-350. Retrieved 7 July 2012 from

Scaliger, C. “(South) American Killing Fields.” The New American, Vol. 28, Iss. 6. pp. 33-39. March 19, 2012. Retrieved July 5, 2012 from

Shaw, W. (2011). Business Ethics, 7th Ed. pp. 4-6, 130-131, 183. Boston, MA: Wadsworth-Cengage Learning.

Winston, B. & Patterson, K. (2006). “An Integrative Definition of Leadership.” International Journal of Leadership Studies, Vol.1, Iss. 2, p. 21.

Scott MacFarlane is a doctoral student at Regent University’s School of Business and Leadership. A retired Navy Chief Petty Officer, he worked as a first-line and mid-level leader, and taught leadership curriculum at the Center for Naval Leadership. His credentials include a Master of Science in Management from Troy University, a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Technology from Roger Williams University, Navy Master Training Specialist, and Workforce Development Professional Certification from the University of Virginia. He currently works as an instructional designer for Newport News Shipbuilding and is an adjunct professor for Strayer Univer

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.