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A Benevolent Dictatorship

Toxic leadership thrives with followers. The more sincere and less informed about the behind-the-scenes details, the better. Destruction is the result of toxic leadership, with ripple effects. lives are forever altered. Organizations take darker and more restricted turns at the toxic leader's whims.

What then of a dictator? On a larger scale, dictators need followers to have a viable position of power. The ignorant and helpless majority receives good and evil from the despot's hand. The knowledgeable and successful elite are labeled a threat to absolute control, and are removed from the community.

Warren Jeffs is the case study for dictatorship in the four-part Netflix documentary series called "Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey." The series offers insight into the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, shortened and referred to as the FLDS Church. Viewers enter the storyline at the end of the life of lead prophet Rulon Jeffs and observe the transition to Rulon's son Warren Jeffs as leader of the church. Firsthand accounts of former members, witnesses, reporters, and law enforcement take viewers on a journey of winding roads by the will of Warren Jeffs. What the future holds, only Warren Jeffs knows.


Photo by Luan Cabral on Unsplash

"Keep Sweet" is several things. For the purpose of toxic leadership study, the documentary tells the scary tale of authoritarian despotic leadership. Instead of a nation, Warren Jeffs oversees the FLDS community. A wisp of a man who is all carrot and no visible stick, Warren Jeffs is convinced of the redemptive values in his message. His leadership brings changes in doctrine, fellowship, marriage, and appearance. Survivor after survivor shares similar accounts of manipulation, confusion, and division. Life under Rulon Jeffs contrasts with life under Warren Jeffs. "Keep Sweet" makes the case for the strategic planning of Warren Jeffs to control the minds and behaviors of the FLDS community.

Though soft-spoken and physically unassuming, it is the manner and method of Warren Jeffs to create fear and cause the congregation to follow. Former FLDS member Dowayne Barlow said of Warren's reign of terror, " Fear drove the compliance" (ep. 1). In the first episode, the voice of Warren Jeffs is heard in a recording. "Whatever the Lord commands through His Prophet is right, even if it seems wrong to our tradition."

Like the wizard in Oz, Warren Jeffs creates and enforces a culture bent to his will. He has a blank check to fill the minds, direct the money, and arrange the marriages of the community. "Keep Sweet" reveals the ambition of Warren Jeffs to replace his father Rulon Jeffs as the Prophet. As Rulon's health declined, Warren rose to take over the business of the community. When Rulon died, Warren controlled the details and married his wives.

In episode three, a recording of Warren's voice is heard. "We are in a benevolent dictatorship." What is a benevolent dictatorship? By definition, it is the absolute rule of a leader due to personality and experience, who governs at the will of and in the best interests of the people. The distinguishing marker of a benevolent dictatorship is a wise use of power to prevent abuses (yourdictionary.com). Watching "Keep Sweet" though, there is the impression that the will of the people is surrendered fully to the Prophet.

Warren Jeffs ascends in an oppressive authoritarian system. He isolates and removes the threats to ensure compliance by the rest. No detail is allowed without his permission, and fellowship is a response to the fear tactics. Replacement of school curriculum and the removal of outside educational influences protects the indoctrination process.

Polygamy aside, is our leadership practice different from that of Warren Jeffs? Do our charisma and persuasion achieve positive results? How do we respond to diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns? To be on mission, does everyone have to be and act alike? How far will we go for compliance?

"Keep Sweet" is a reminder to keep learning and growing in one's leadership practice. We can be convinced of our uprightness to the point of self-delusion and harm to others. Or, a less extreme similarity, we can hold on to an idea so tightly and reject alternatives that our teams feel pressured to bend to our will. Force is not leadership. Force is fear and terror. We may be nothing like Warren Jeffs. The responsibility is ours to assess ourselves and our leadership practice, minding the strengths and the weaknesses.

Leadership exists on a spectrum. It is more than good or bad. Leadership is full of principles and practice, clear indicators and nuance. Toxic leadership is not the most extreme expression on the spectrum. At this stage of my understanding and reading, I find terror and despotic leadership to be the worst of the destructive leadership expressions. Leaders, vulnerability and trust are our superpowers. They lend themselves to pure, ethical, and whole commitment in leadership. I implore us to take a reverse lesson from the leadership of Warren Jeffs: have an ethic of care for the people.