Paternalistic Leadership: Beyond Authoritarianism

Paternalistic leadership tends to get a bad rap in Western cultures because of associations with authoritarianism and its exclusionary name. But paternalistic leadership, common in Asian nations and other cultures, is more nuanced than it may seem.

By — on / Leadership Skills

paternal leadership, servant leadership theory

What’s your first reaction to the concept of paternalistic leadership? If you’re new to the concept and from an individualistic culture, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, or many European nations, you might dismiss the idea out of hand. After all, paternalism connotes top-down leadership, an outdated and exclusionary male-centered viewpoint, and strict authoritarianism. None of these qualities seems compatible with the type of participative leadership, inclusion, and employee autonomy that so many organizations and leaders strive for today.

Yet a closer look at paternalistic leadership reveals why many cultures have embraced it. We take a closer look at how it compares to other, more common leadership styles in the West.

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What Is Paternalistic Leadership?

In a Journal of Management article, University of Missouri–St. Louis professor Ekin K. Pellegrini and University of Miami professor Terri A. Scandura offer a comprehensive review of research and theory on paternalistic leadership.

As they note, the groundbreaking organizational theorist Mary Parker Follett shared in 1933 her belief that managers who aim to build a productive, satisfied workforce should strive to be paternalistic and nurturing. By placing the stereotypically feminine quality of “nurturing” alongside paternalism, Follett promoted a management style that recognizes and appreciates employees as people with interests, abilities, and preoccupations beyond their day-to-day work assignments.

More recently, based on their work in China, researchers Jiing-Lih Larry Farh of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Bor-Shiuan Cheng of National Taiwan University defined paternalistic leadership as “a style that combines strong discipline and authority with fatherly benevolence and moral integrity.”

These researchers identify three dimensions of paternalistic leadership: authoritarianism, benevolence, and morality. Authoritarianism refers to leaders asserting their authority and expecting obedience from subordinates. Benevolence refers to leaders demonstrating “individualized, holistic concern for subordinates’ personal and family well-being,” according to Pellegrini and Scandura. Paternalistic leaders take an interest in their subordinates’ personal lives, similar to a parent. And morality refers to the expectation that leaders demonstrate superior ethical behavior, which leads subordinates to look up to, respect, and identify with them.

In the real world, authoritarianism exists in obvious tension with benevolence and morality. It would be difficult for leaders to demand unquestioning obedience from followers while demonstrating concern for their well-being and high morals, after all. Indeed, researchers generally have found that an authoritarian leadership style does not lead to desirable outcomes for subordinates, such as commitment to their leaders or job satisfaction.

For this reason, not all researchers include authoritarianism in their definitions of paternalistic leadership. For example, in research on the topic, Zeynep Aycan of Koc University in Istanbul describes a type of “benevolent paternalism” in which employees respect and appreciate their leaders for the sincere concern they demonstrate for their employees’ well-being, in contrast with “exploitative paternalism” aimed only at meeting organizational goals.

Paternalistic Leadership across Cultures

Paternalistic leadership is a prevalent management style that has proven to be effective in many cultures, including in Pacific Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. In traditional societies, a superior can serve as a father figure—“nurturant, caring, and dependable but also authoritative, demanding, and a strict disciplinarian,” according to Pellegrini and Scandura.

In Mexico, employees tend to have high paternalistic values as a result of the culture’s respect for hierarchy and the predominance of strong family relationships. In return, Mexican firms take on certain responsibilities that the national government does not, such as providing several months of severance pay to fired employees.

In China, characteristics of paternalistic leadership are “deeply rooted in Chinese tradition and can be traced back to China’s patriarchal family system, Confucian ethic of respect for vertical order, and long history of imperial rule,” write Pellegrini and Scandura, citing Farh and Cheng.

Western scholars and practitioners tend to have an aversion to the concept of paternalistic leadership; for example, Peter G. Northouse referred to it as “benevolent dictatorship” in 1997. Indeed, paternalistic leadership is unlikely to be a desirable leadership style in cultures with loose social norms, which prize independence, creativity, and risk taking. In such cultures, such as the United States, the type of hierarchical relationship prized by paternalistic leadership will be perceived as outdated, inequitable, and constraining.

However, Western managers would be wise to consider the perspective of one worker from Turkey, where paternalistic leadership is common, who immigrated to the United States. “When I worked in Istanbul, I felt extremely overwhelmed by my managers’ interest in my personal life,” he told Pellegrini. “But after working in the United States for four years, I now find myself longing for that attention. American managers are disinterested and distant. They could at least ask me how my children are doing or whether I’m planning to have more.”

As this anecdote reminds us, viewing employees as well-rounded individuals with interesting perspectives to contribute and important preferences to consider—rather than just as faceless cogs in the bureaucratic machine—will always pay off, no matter your culture or your preferred leadership style.

What have your experiences with paternalistic leadership, if any, been like?

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