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Of leading and following: What makes a religious Svengali?

March 31, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ ``I can be your shepherd,″ he said in the videotape.

And then Marshall Herff Applewhite continued down the final leg of his two-decade path and fell, quite willingly, beside his followers.

The stiletto-eyed man who guided 38 souls into silent, orderly suicide seemed the latest incarnation of an age-old tradition: a Svengali whose blend of charisma and ideology enticed people to follow his teachings _ and his decision to die.

The techniques of leadership can be subtle, shared by good and ill. For every Kennedy, there is a Manson. And to dismiss Applewhite’s followers as lemming-like victims of adept manipulation is, experts say, to see only part of the picture.

From Masada’s Jews to the Rev. Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple to David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, there have always been deep, problematic questions: Is it the leader who entices the followers or the followers, desperate for a cause, who enthusiastically march behind? What happens when the people who are in control are out of control?

``These people do have free wills,″ said Gerald R. McDermott, an associate professor of religion and philosophy at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.

``They are influenced by the leaders, yes,″ he said. ``That doesn’t mean their minds have snapped or they have been coerced. It means they have found something or someone who accepts their search for transcendence.″

Leadership, especially charismatic leadership, is a mixture of many qualities _ the ability to speak coherently, to impart ideas and to use metaphor to relate spiritual tenets to real-world issues are all crucial for president and dictator, imam and pastor.

Then comes the second step: seeking out those prepared to believe.

``I think the charisma is the icing on the cake,″ Jim Jones, the son of the Peoples Temple minister, said Friday on CNN. ``We have great manipulators all around us. They’re opportunists, and they see that some people need to have a vision or a dream. And they take the opportunity to manipulate them.″

Applewhite, who once described himself as existing at ``the level above human,″ mixed a hypnotic sense of purpose with Christianity, alternate realities, methodical regimentation and liberal sprinkles of science fiction and astrology.

His style, followers said, often appeared on the surface as equal parts techno-messiah and Ward Cleaver; even as a child, he was authoritative and had quick answers to problems.

But if one thing marked Applewhite’s leadership _ at least at the end, videotapes left behind indicate _ it was his disciples’ strong sense that they were taking their own initiative based on their convictions. He was just the conduit.

``This is not like Waco or Jonestown. Each one did this of their own volition even though they were in a cult,″ said Dick Joslyn, who left the Heaven’s Gate sect after 15 years.

That, experts say, is common in religious-based manipulation: A leader controls psychologically or spiritually vulnerable followers by isolating them and continuously reinforcing notions of free will and belonging.

Because of this, people who study leadership are beginning to watch those who are led as closely as those who actually lead.

``Usually everybody considers leadership and no one thinks of followers,″ said Bill Rosenbach, director of the Leadership Development Center at Gettysburg College and an expert in what he terms ``followership.″

``I think what happened in this case was that the followers who developed were dependent, uncritical thinkers _ subordinate in the worst sense of the word,″ he said. ``Followers who are independent and critical thinkers keep leaders straight.″

The term charisma comes from the Greek word for gift, ``charizesthai,″ which in this case is one bestowed upon the leader. It is not necessarily destructive.

``Churchill and Gandhi and Mandela, they used charisma in much the same way, but they had what we feel are worthy goals,″ Rosenbach said.

A charismatic leader has to encourage followers to reject old realities and create new ones in a way that the leader not only teaches, but embodies.

``You say, how can these upper-middle-class folks fall for this business about the UFOs?″ said R. Scott Appleby, an expert on new religious movements at Notre Dame University.

``Well, these charismatic leaders have reached these people at a very different level. There’s been some kind of very radical transformation of their heart. These people weren’t converted because they said, `This is the kind of idea I’ve been looking for _ a comet that hides a spaceship.‴

In the modern American media society, even utopias are derivative. Mythology wrapped up in TV shows like ``Star Trek″ and ``The X-Files″ gives leaders raw material for an ideology at once familiar and convincingly unique.

``They make it into a collage,″ said Fred Clothey, chairman of the religious studies department at the University of Pittsburgh.

To that extent, Applewhite was helped by the Internet, which gave his ideology both a forum and format attractive to the type of follower he wanted to attract _ one primed to believe in technological transcendence.

Even early on, long before cyberspace, Applewhite had the savvy to know his audience. He had a sense of irony; he acknowledged he might be perceived as a kook and, later, ran an ad in USA Today referring to the ``UFO cult.″

But Applewhite was as suspicious as anyone else of other self-proclaimed messiahs.

``Some people are like lemmings, who rush in a pack into the sea and drown themselves. ... They join any movement,″ he said in a mid-1970s feature article.

``Some people,″ he concluded, ``will try anything.″

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