“A leader is one who sees more than others see, who sees farther than others see, and who sees before others see.” – Leroy Eimes

People often refer to their work as a second family. The idea of belonging to a group where you are looked after is a natural yearning for human nature. Just like many families can have ‘a head of the family’, organizations can have leaders that take the position of knowing what’s best for the rest of the team.

Paternalistic Leadership Guide: Definition, Qualities, Pros & Cons, Examples

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The approach, where a leader is the most equipped to look after the interests of the organization and its employees, is referred to as paternalistic leadership.

In this guide, we’ll explore the concepts around paternalistic leadership and the core elements of this leadership style. We’ll explain what it takes to be a paternalistic leader, before examining the advantages and disadvantages of the style. You’ll also be able to read a few examples of paternalistic leaders to understand the strengths and weaknesses of this style.


To understand the guiding elements of paternalistic leadership, you need to grasp the different contextual forces influencing this leadership style. Paternalistic leadership has been influenced by the historic concept of paternalism, but also more recently the different cultural views of the paternalistic style.

The historical background

In order to comprehend the ideas behind paternalistic leadership, it’s crucial to examine the concepts of patriarchy and paternalism. Patriarchy, according to the Oxford Dictionary, refers to

a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is reckoned through the male line”.

It has been a popular model for organizing not just societies, but the family structures around the globe. Historically, the world has been a man’s world, with the male making the decisions in public and in private context.

Paternalism, while having roots in patriarchy, is not quite the same. Although the word paternalism is derived from the Latin word pater, which means father, the word’s closer root is the adjective patemus that stands for fatherly. In fact, paternalism differs from patriarchy in that it doesn’t focus on the male gender, but rather emphasizes the role of a parent or a guardian.

Therefore, the official definition of paternalism explains it as,

the policy or practice on the part of people in authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to or otherwise dependent on them in their supposed interest”.

So while the power is concentrated in a single person, paternalism and a paternalistic relationship doesn’t mean the power is in the hands of a man, as would be the case in a patriarchy. The key element of the theory is the concept of “the person in charge knows the best”, whether the person is a woman or a man. Nonetheless, due to the patriarchal structure of most societies, paternalistic constructions have often displayed elements of patriarchy as well.

Historically, the study and the appearance of paternalistic structures tended to centre on economic relations. For instance, the labor relationships of the pre-industrial society reflected paternalistic behaviors, with landowners having concentrated power in terms of controlling the economic gains of labor. But examples of paternalistic leadership have also been present in politics, academics, religious and private spheres.

In the early part of the 20th century, Max Weber examined the social construct of power, with his findings published posthumously in a book called Economy and Society. Weber acknowledged paternalism as one of the traditional frameworks of power, as one of the notable management systems in place across society. He described is as the pre-bureaucratic type of domination, writing that the power is

based not on the official’s commitment to an impersonal purpose and not on obedience to abstract norms, but on a strictly personal loyalty”.

Unlike bureaucratic power, paternalism didn’t establish norms and rules out of rationality, but from tradition and irrational belief in the leader’s right to rule. To Weber, paternalistic power can be effective because the framework of this type of leadership relies on “the belief in the inviolability of what has always been”. Paternalistic structures didn’t question the status quo or the legality of power.

Nonetheless, Weber argues that paternalistic practices would become obsolete, as the bureaucratic leadership framework would become more common. He saw this framework superior, as it relied on rules and emphasized individual rights more over the “common good”.


The Western and non-Western context

Aside from understanding the historical context of paternalistic power, it’s essential to look at paternalism in the context of culture. The modern business culture views and values paternalistic leadership in a rather distinct way, whether in the Western or non-Western setting.

In the Western world, paternalistic leadership suffers a bit from the loose connection to patriarchy and the false assumption that it might promote gender inequality. But more importantly, the paternalistic style is linked close to an authoritarian leadership style, which has a bad reputation in the modern, more democratically minded business world. The idea that “the leader knows best” is viewed mostly through a negative lens, even though paternalistic and authoritarian leadership differ in a number of ways.

Furthermore, the Western business culture is focused more on the individual rather than the group. According to A. M. InunJariya’s analysis of literature on the study of culture and management style, the Western context promotes individualism. “They rely on their own view to determine what they should do,” Jariya writes. This preference for individual style in the Western culture can be another factor in why paternalistic leadership styles are not in favor. The nature of paternalistic style is that of creating a family style community, where the ‘father’ or the ‘mother’ figure, i.e. the leader, knows what is best for the community.

On the other hand, in non-Western cultures, such as the Japanese and Chinese business culture, the paternalistic leadership style has tended to be favored and dominant. According to academics, like Jariya, the connection with philosophies such as Confucianism, which emphasizes family and social harmony, the paternalistic style is considered appropriate and effective. These management cultures tend to favor collectivism and the concentration of power in the hands of those that ‘know the best’.

According to academics such as Aycan et al. and Pellegrini and Scandura, paternalistic leadership in countries like China and Pakistan is considered as “a relationship in which subordinates willingly reciprocate the care and protection of paternal authority by showing conformity”. The findings were mentioned in a literature review by Ekin K. Pellegrini and Terri A. Scandura. Their 2008 article Paternalistic Leadership: A Review and Agenda for Future Research examined closely the different studies done on the leadership style in separate cultures.

According to Jariya’s findings, the non-Western business culture emphasizes the hierarchal structure and group adaptation. It’s not to say authoritative leadership would work better, but the emphasis is on organizing in an obedient manner. Differentiating yourself from a group norm is often considered a shameful act to do. The strong emphasis on security also means employees are more willing to follow a leader that provides this extra security.

Due to the above, paternalistic leadership is viewed in a rather different context in the non-Western and Western culture. The styles use, and indeed its benefits to a workplace, in the Western business world have only recently began, with different academics looking at the framework’s application in an organization.

Furthermore, recent research suggests the culture isn’t necessarily the only important driver within paternalistic framework, but the key is to fit the leadership style with the right type of subordinates. Pellegrini and Scandura wrote in 2008 that “subordinates with certain values, such as a high need for affiliation or high respect for authority, may desire paternalism and be more productive under paternalistic leadership”, even if they are operating in a Western organization.


Let’s now turn our attention to the core elements of paternalistic leadership. In this section, we will explore the core framework of paternalistic leadership style, before analyzing the two core theories of motivation that drive the framework. At the end, we’ll also explore the two separate strains of paternalistic framework: benevolent and exploitative models.

The core framework

When it comes to leadership, a few core elements guide the way in which different leadership styles organize and manifest. These are:

  • The decision making power – Who has the power to decide?
  • The legitimacy of rule – Where does the power come from?

Paternalistic leadership is built around the authoritative idea that the leader is the person with the power to decide and his legitimacy comes from his or her expertise. The leader has the final say in making decisions and consultation is not required, as the leader is expected to make choices that benefit the subordinates.

The subordinates are treated as an extended family and in a sense have a more partner-like relationship with the leader than in autocratic model, for example. The leader puts the wellbeing of the subordinates at the centre of decision-making and tries to ensure people are treated fairly. Nonetheless, the power ultimately lies in the hands of the leader.

Furthermore, the power to rule comes from the leader’s position and the idea that he or she is the most capable of making the decisions. The legitimacy of rule relies on loyalty and trust. There is a natural understanding that the leader is the best equipped to make the decisions and that he or she would make choices based on what’s best for the organization and the subordinates.

Since the organization is considered a tight-knit unit, what is best for the organization tends to be equated with what is best for the employees and the leader. There is an understanding within the framework that there aren’t competing motivations at play because ultimately everyone wants the organization to succeed.

The framework requires complete trust in the leader on the part of the subordinates. Paternalistic leadership often expects the subordinates to work for the organization for a long time out of loyalty and respect.

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Paternalistic leadership and subordinate motivation

To understand the construct of the paternalistic framework, you must study different motivational theories. The theories, which have influence paternalistic leadership the most and highlight the framework’s viability, include Mayo’s view of motivation and Ouchi’s Theory Z.

Mayo’s human relation view of motivation

Elton Mayo is the founder of the human relation school of thought, which focuses on the idea that managers should pay more attention to the interests of the workers. He examined the relationship between the leader and the subordinates, drawing up his motivational theory during experiments at the Hawthorne factory.

The experiments separated workers into groups, with Mayo manipulating the environmental conditions and observing how this influences employee productivity. The changes occurred in things such as working conditions and Mayo expected productivity levels to decline, as conditions became worse. But in fact, the workers’ productivity didn’t change depending on these factors, which led to Mayo drawing up a set of relational conditions, which actually influence motivation.

Mayo noticed that workers’ motivation and productivity are improved by:

  • The ability to work in a team. The employees at Hawthorne weren’t used to working in groups, but once they teamed up, the productivity improved.
  • Enhanced communication. The experiment required more consultation and the subordinates at the factory began to provide regular feedback. The improved communication between the leader and the subordinates boosted motivation.
  • Increased leader involvement in personal lives. The more attention the managers at the factory provided in subordinates’ lives, the more productive and happy the employees felt.

All the above points tightly fit the framework of paternalistic management. The organization works as a group, the leader has an open and communicative relationship with the subordinates, and the leader is increasingly involved in the lives of the employees. The leader tries to put subordinates’ interest at the forefront of decision-making and the creation of a respectful relationship can guarantee employee loyalty.

Mayo’s experiments showcased that productivity and motivation don’t require monetary incentives or the best working conditions. Instead, the motivation is driven by a sense of community and caring. If the employee feels valued and looked after, he or she won’t require any other incentive to work. Employee motivation and productivity are influenced by social factors, instead of environmental factors or financial benefits.

You can learn more about Elton Mayo’s Human Relations theory from the below video:


Ouchi’s 1981 Theory Z

The other motivation theory closely linked with paternalistic framework is Theory Z. Dr William Ouchi devised the theory during the 1980s by examining the rise of the Asian economies, especially in Japan. The key idea of his theory was that leaders could guarantee employee loyalty by providing them with a stable job and focusing on the wellbeing of the employee, both in terms of professional and private satisfaction.

The basis of the theory lies in the dominance of Japanese companies during the 1980s. The organizations tended to have the highest productivity at the time and according to Ouchi, this was down to the focus on partnership and group work. In his book Theory Z: How American Business Can meet the Japanese Challenge, Ouchi, like Mayo, noticed that productivity and motivation are not dependent on factors, such as work conditions or organization’s technological capabilities. Rather, the secret was the management style.

Ouchi defined the Japanese management style as something, which,

focuses on a strong company philosophy, a distinct corporate culture, long-range staff development, and consensus decision-making”.

Furthermore, the theory made similar assumptions about subordinates’ motivation and productivity, as Mayo above. Ouchi’s assumptions are outlined below:

  • Subordinates are interested in creating close relationships with leaders and their peers.
  • Subordinates need support from leaders and they want the leader to show interest towards their wellbeing, not just at work, but also in their personal lives.
  • Subordinates can be autonomous, as long as the leader looks out for their wellbeing and supports them.

According to Ouchi, paternalistic tendencies aren’t incompatible with a certain level of consensus decision-making. In essence, the theory believes in the idea that because communication in paternalistic leadership is essential and since the leader makes decisions based on what is good for the subordinates, the decisions are driven by consensus, even when the leader ultimately makes the decisions.

Ouchi’s Theory Z should also be understood in the context of McGregor’s Theory Y and Theory X. As we will discuss below, paternalistic leadership has certain characteristics of Theory X. The theory, which is generally linked with autocratic leadership, assumes employees don’t like to work and tend to focus on fulfilling self-interests. Due to this behaviour, the leader should yield the ultimate power and provide the employees with the motivation to work, i.e. support and direction.

On the other hand, McGregor’s Theory Y, linked with participative management, saw workers more committed and motivated. Therefore, the manager doesn’t need to control or punish employees, as they are motivated through other measures. In essence, theory Z is a combination of these two styles.

For more information regarding McGregor’s Theories, check out the below slideshare:

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Benevolent and exploitative paternalism

The final core element that must be discussed in relation to paternalistic leadership is the idea of the two ends of the spectrum. According to Pellegrini and Scandura, paternalistic leadership and research surrounding it has focused on both benevolent and exploitative forms of the framework.

Paternalistic leadership in essence is about finding the balance of authoritative and benevolent behavior. While the leader is the one with the power, he or she is also more caring and interested towards the workers, as this can guarantee the subordinates remain loyal. Therefore, the framework can show qualities of more authoritative or exploitative behavior, or on the other hand, be a benevolent force.

Pellegrini and Scandura’s studies highlighted that in terms of the spectrum, difference is often evident in a different cultural context. As mentioned in the previous section, Western cultures and scholars view paternalistic leadership through a lens of “noncoercive exploitation”, while the non-Western studies have identified it as benevolent.

Overall, it is possible for the leadership to manifest in an exploitative manner or result in a more benevolent system. A leader can start to become blind with power and make decisions, which are not benefitting the subordinates, but rather him or herself. On the other hand, there can be a deep consultative element, as described by Ouchi, which means paternalistic leadership is more of a participative than authoritarian model of leadership.



The above delved into the elements of the framework and how the leadership style manages to convince subordinates to follow. In addition to understanding the framework, it’s also important to examine the qualities a paternalistic leader needs to succeed.

We’ll first examine the key characteristics a paternalistic leader must possess, before studying the best approach to generating trust and loyalty among subordinates.

The core characteristics

Paternalistic leadership is among the leadership styles that require plenty of the leaders. The type of leader that can successfully pull of this management style has to showcase the characteristics of influence, the ability to empower people, compassion, decisiveness and good organizational skills.

#1 Influential

First, it’s important you can influence other people. While the style does provide the leader with plenty of power, in terms of decision-making, it isn’t as authoritative as other styles. Instead of simply telling people what to do and ensuring subordinate compliance through coercion and the fear of punishment, a paternalistic leader must ensure subordinates understand he or she is acting on their behalf. Since the leader must guarantee the subordinates trust him or her, the emphasis must be on ensuring they respect him or her.

Influence can be manifest in a few different ways. You can be influential through superior communication skills, which captivate subordinates and get them on your side. On the other hand, you can show your influence through your extensive knowledge. By showing your expertise, you create respect among subordinates and they value your opinion, as they can see you know what you are doing.

It’s essential to try focus on both of these spheres of influence. Influential communicators don’t simply focus on the words they use, but also the body language. You need to show confidence in your communication and have an energetic approach to things, even when they seem mundane. You need to start using expressive language and become stern in your articulation. An influential leader doesn’t mumble or sound unsure.

For example, listen to the advice by Simon Sinek, who explains in the below TEDTalk how leaders inspire:


Aside from improving influence through communication, you can boost your ability to impact other people through knowledge. Not only does knowledge provide you confidence in your speech and action, it sows the seeds of trust among subordinates.

#2 Empowering

Paternalistic leadership is about getting the most out of subordinates. As a leader, you want them to succeed and grow, just as a parent would want their children to succeed. In similar fashion to a parent, you must empower the people around you to achieve their goals and grow, both professionally and as a person.

But empowering other people is not always an easy task, especially in a business environment. It requires a careful balance of micromanagement and full autonomy. Whilst paternalistic leadership doesn’t provide employees much autonomy in regards of decision-making and setting procedures, the leader’s role also isn’t to undermine or question the actions of the employees.

If you want to improve your ability to empower, focus on eight actions:

  • Create an environment for open and honest communication and feedback.
  • Provide incentives for subordinates to seek self-improvement.
  • Reduce risks and failure by creating better checks and balances, while using possible failures as learning opportunities.
  • Do not keep all the information to yourself, but share information with your subordinates.
  • Make sure roles are clearly defined and subordinates know what is expected of them.
  • Ensure everyone is accountable for his or her actions.
  • Support the subordinates’ efforts to be more autonomous and allow them to take responsibility when they are ready.
  • Thank your subordinates for the effort they put in for accomplishing tasks.

#3 Compassionate

In order to create loyalty, you need to show compassion towards your subordinates. Paternalistic leadership is about ensuring employees feel comfortable and valued; if you don’t have empathy and compassion, you can’t relate to what your subordinates are going through.

If you thought that compassion is a trait you either have or don’t have, you’d be wrong. Compassion can actually be taught, according to scientific research. A study, conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, found active compassion meditation helping people behave in a more altruistic manner.

Therefore, you should add compassion meditation to your daily schedule to ensure you are more able to relate to your employees’ feelings and generate a more trustful relationship with them. Compassion meditation is not a difficult thing to do. You can find a 30-minute guided routine by signing up online with the Centre for Healthy Minds.

#4 Decisive

Paternalistic leadership concentrates the decision-making into the leader’s hands. Not only does it require knowledge and expertise from the leader, but the ability to make sound decisions also asks for decisiveness. As a paternalistic leader, you cannot contemplate on the decisions forever and you must be able to pick your approach and continue marching forward.

The ability to make quick decisions and to live happily with the consequences might seem easy, but ask any leader and they will tell you otherwise. The saying, “With great power comes great responsibility”, perfectly captures the difficulties of being a leader. As much as you think you are prepared for making those difficult calls, when you are presented with two bad or two good options, the indecisiveness can easily creep in.


The road to becoming more decisive is not easy and it requires determination, but it’s not complex. You need to:

  • Set clear goals for everything you do. If you know what you actually want to achieve, you can make informed decisions. Remember, a clearly defined goal is not “to increase profits”, but “increasing profit by generating 20% sales next month”.
  • Create timelines for taking action. Having a deadline for the decisions makes you more accountable.
  • Delegate and remove the meaningless decision in your life. Did you know, for instance, that Barack Obama only uses brown or blue suits to avoid having to decide on the color of the suit every morning?
  • Be open to ideas and information. Decisions are generally easier when you are informed and aware of different implications. Therefore, don’t stop learning or being inquisitive.

#5 Organized

Finally, a paternalistic leader needs solid organizational skills. Since the decisions, procedures and goals require the leader’s undivided attention, it’s important he or she is able to keep hold of the different strings. Staying on top of the organization’s operations will further help generate trust among the subordinates.

How do you strengthen your organizational skills? According to Regina Leeds, a guru in organization and the author of One Year to An Organized Life, recommends always breaking everything down into smaller chunks. “The first thing to realize is that the whole of anything is overwhelming,” she told Fast Company.

Instead of seeing the big picture, which is naturally crucial as well, try to break down your tasks, goals and processes into smaller portions. Prioritize the essential things to work through and worry about the others later. Create routines that make it easier to stop having to worry about certain things. For example, automate emails or other miniscule tasks to ensure you don’t need to spend time on these.

How to establish a position as a paternalistic leader?

The above lists the key qualities paternalistic leaders showcase. But how do you turn these qualities into trust and loyalty?

First, you need to establish clear guidelines regarding the workplace and the specific mission. It is essential the subordinates are aware of what is allowed and what is not.

Talk about the objectives with your subordinates to ensure they understand the common goal you are working towards. Provide them with the opportunity to voice any possible concerns and if they need help, provide enough support. You want the subordinates to feel appreciated and valued. If you guarantee they are aware of the task’s requirements, the procedures to accomplish the task, and have the tools at their disposal, they will be able to reach the targets while feeling valued.


Another important part of creating a paternalistic leadership framework is your commitment to consistency. You need to be able to follow through with your punishments and rewards in a manner that doesn’t start favoring certain people or groups. While employee wellbeing is at the top of your agenda, it doesn’t mean tough love isn’t occasionally required. Expect accountability and show accountability.

In fact, for a paternalistic leader to gain trust with subordinates, leading by example becomes important. If you are able to steady the ship, showcase your expertise and keep the team on the right track, subordinates will admire you and trust your abilities. On the other hand, if you are erratic with your decisions, you seem unsure about your decisions and you don’t support your subordinates, their loyalty to you will diminish.

Finally, for a proper trust and loyalty to flourish, a paternalistic leader must properly explain his or her decisions. Although you are in charge in terms of making the decisions, you should explain your thinking to subordinates. The benefit of this is to highlight how the decisions could help them and to explain the realities of the situation. Even when the decisions might not be something your subordinates agree, they will at least appreciate the effort you made in letting them know why those decisions were made. Understanding the reasons can make acceptance easier.

The below picture summarizes the key points a paternalistic leader should keep in mind:

Paternalistic leader - key points(1)


Now that we’ve examined the core elements and characteristics of the style, it’s important to study its impact on an organization. The paternalistic style, just like any other leadership model, has strong advantages, but also notable downsides to its application.

Advantages of paternalistic leadership

The major advantage of paternalistic leadership to other authoritarian models is its focus on employee welfare. Although employees might not have the power to impact decisions within the company, a paternalistic leader’s decision making is strongly influenced by the effect different actions will have on the employee. Paternalistic leadership considers the wellbeing of employees to be one of the keys to company success.

The leader doesn’t simply make decisions in terms of what is best for the organization, but tends to favor the happiness of employees. For example, if the company needs to find ways to cut costs, a paternalistic leader wouldn’t consider firing employees as the best course of action. Instead, the leader would look for other ways, which would be less damaging to employee welfare.

In essence, since the focus is on making decisions that benefit or, at least, don’t harm the subordinates, the paternalistic leadership framework can boost employee motivation and therefore productivity. If the employee feels that the leader and the organization truly cares for him or her, they feel more connected to the organization and therefore are likely to want it to succeed.

The paternalistic leadership framework tends to listen to subordinates, even though it might not result in all the chances the subordinates might want to implement. Nonetheless, the framework allows subordinates to voice opinions and participate in the conversation. The ability to say what is on your mind can create a more open environment, where people don’t feel like their concerns are being ignored.

Overall, enhanced employee satisfaction, motivation and productivity are going to benefit an organization’s bottom line. If the organization has employees that feel valued and looked after, they are unlikely to look for opportunities elsewhere. Working towards stronger employee loyalty is at the core of a paternalistic leadership style.

On the other hand, the style can provide benefits in terms of the development of the employees and the quality of the decision-making process. Paternalistic leadership puts employee education at the centre of its implementation. Since the leader cares about employee wellbeing and performance, he or she wants to support the employee to be a better worker and a better person. Paternalistic leadership isn’t about punishing when mistakes occur, but leading the way to ensure the amount of mistakes is limited. It supports development, both in terms of gaining access to professional training, but also in terms of personal growth. It’s evident that the better trained your employees, the better your organization does.

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Paternalistic leadership doesn’t just provide the professional and personal development, but it can help employees make better choices as well. Since decisions are not done without consultation and care for subordinates, the leader has an important job in explaining and teaching subordinates about the decisions. As Mary Marshall, CEO coach and author of Putting Together the Entrepreneurial Puzzle, wrote in her blog post, the leader’s job is “to provide choice, as possible a good default suggestion, and most importantly explain “why”.”

Therefore, paternalistic leadership shouldn’t be seen as “do as you are told”, but more of a “this is the best thing for you to do, because…” approach to management. The focus on education can grow better future leaders and employees, as they will be better equipped to understand the benefits of certain actions and behaviors.

It should also be noted that paternalistic leadership style does benefit from the speed of decision-making in general. Similar to other hierarchical leadership frameworks, a paternalistic leadership model concentrates decision making into the hands of the leader, which provides speed for the organization. Since there is no formal requirement for consultation with subordinates or the need to conclude together, the leader is able to make decisions quickly. In certain instances, such as a problem with orders, speed is of the essence.

Disadvantages of paternalistic leadership

Despite the above advantages, the leadership style hasn’t escaped criticism. The first disadvantage of the framework is highlighted by the different outcomes in effectiveness in terms of cultural context. As mentioned in the first section, the cultural context matters with the leadership style, as paternalism is viewed differently in the Western and in non-Western cultures.

Hierarchy, in general, tends to be a positive force in terms of management in Chinese or Japanese organizations, for example. The cultural difference is important because it makes gathering empirical data on the effectiveness of paternalistic management style difficult. The leadership style is therefore difficult to view without understanding of the social elements of the organization it is used in.

But aside from the theoretical difficulty, it can have a negative impact in organizations operational effectiveness. Paternalistic leadership style can create a dependency on the leader. Since the leader acts as the decision-maker and the person “who knows it best”, the subordinates might feel less inclined to learn or look for solutions. In essence, “if you are treated like a child, you’ll start acting like a child”. Instead of making decisions on their own, subordinates can start running everything by the leader. This cannot just harm the employees’ ability to learn and develop, but also hit productivity levels.

Since subordinates are not part of the decision-making process, the morale can drop if the employees do not see the decisions as beneficial. Although the leader should ideally try to make decisions based on what is best for the employee, this is not always possible and different employees might see a same decision differently. While some employees might be satisfied, others might find the decisions a hindrance or simply ethically wrong. Therefore, just as autocratic leadership can damage employee morale, so can paternalistic leadership.

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Furthermore, the framework does have a dictatorial feel to it. Whilst subordinate input is not discouraged, the decisions are still in the hands of the leader. Placing power in the hands of a single individual can lead to problems. In paternalistic leadership, the issue is about the idea of the leader being the best person to make the decisions. If the leader doesn’t stay grounded and humble, the idea that he or she is the best person for deciding things can cause arrogance and lead to worse decisions. If there are no checks in place to question the leader’s decisions, then the organization might suffer. In short, paternalistic leadership could lead to complacency.

This point about complacency also relates to the sustainability of the framework. The system can be efficient and work well when things are going well – employees are happy, they are supported and motivated and the leader is making good decisions to benefit them and the business. But if the business suffers problems or has trouble with managing resources, the problems might arise. Businesses might not always have growing profits and innovation might be required to move the organization forward. But loss of profit might mean hard decisions, such as laying off staff or limiting their benefits, all of which can cause resentment among the workforce.

In addition, innovation has been shown by studies to grow when diverse opinions are allowed and encouraged. If the leader is always right, challenging can be difficult and thus innovation might stall. The problem doesn’t just touch on the leader’s innovative abilities or his or her complacency. Under a paternalistic framework, where employees enjoy benefits and are looked after, the employee might become content. This can reduce their willingness to work hard or look for new solutions, as mentioned above.


Paternalistic leadership and its unique characters, benefits, and disadvantages can be easier understood through the examples of real leaders. Below is a selection of leaders, who in their respective fields have used the leadership style to get ahead.

The examples prove the framework consists of different layers and show how the leadership can lead to great results, but also sometimes cause problems in sustainability.

Jack Ma / Alibaba

The concept of paternalistic leadership has been accepted as an effective strategy in non-Western cultures for a number of years. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then to find paternalistic leaders on top of some of the biggest companies from countries like China.

Jack Ma, one of the richest men in the world, has used the paternalistic style to create one of the world’s biggest companies, Alibaba. Although Ma has combined his paternalistic style with a touch of charismatic and participative leadership, the idea of him as the ‘father figure’ remains strong within the company. He has surrounded himself with a team that trusts in him and would do quite a bit to please him.

Although Ma isn’t excited about micromanagement, as some paternalistic leaders are, he does want to lead by example and ensure his subordinates are having fun while working hard. He acts as the unifying force within the company; creating the vision the organization should work towards.

To better understand Ma’s paternalistic style, watch the below video of him explaining the lessons he’s learnt about leading.


Ingvar Kamprad / IKEA

The founder of Sweden’s most popular export is a solid example of a paternalistic leader. Ingvar Kamprad’s leadership can be summed up by the quote: “If there is such a thing as good leadership, it is to give a good example”. Kamprad believes that by setting a good example, the subordinates will trust you more and perform their own work better as well.

The foundation of IKEA was purely an effort to create a family business and the core values of the company still emphasize the idea of ‘one big family’. Kamprad set the vision, the goals and operational strategies from the start. He was in control of the decisions, but he tried to make decisions with the ‘family’s’ wellbeing at the core of his thinking.

Kamprad wanted workers to have fun, but also to ensure they serve customers to the best of their abilities. He believed in the central theme of paternalistic leadership, which claims that by improving employee motivation through caring and support, you also end up driving the bottom line.

If you want to maximise results, it’s not enough to preach. You have to set a good example,” Kamprad once said.

Francis Ford Coppola

The world of film offers quite a few examples of paternalistic leaders, with the famous director Francis Ford Coppola being among them. The movie industry creates the perfect framework for the leadership style, as you work closely together on set, but the tight budget and schedule means someone has to be in charge.

In most instances, the chief decision-maker is the director and Ford Coppola is no different in this. Like a paternalistic leader, he aims to create a family-like environment without handing over the reins of power. His actors, cameramen and other members on set refer to him as ‘Papa’ or ‘Godfather’. Coppola once said, “You can make the decision that you feel is best, but listen to everyone, because cinema is collaboration.” Understanding your subordinates and the ability to make decisions that suit them, require collaboration even though the final word is with the leader.

Due to his success as a director, as well as his way of treating cast members, Ford Coppola has created an aura around him. People who start working with him tend to revere him even before. The paternalistic requirement of loyalty and trust has therefore already been achieved.

Jose Mourinho

Finally, the sporting world has also provided us with paternalistic leaders. Football manager Jose Mourinho has excelled while using a framework, which closely resembles the paternalistic style. The manager, who has reached success with teams like Real Madrid, Chelsea and Inter Milan, has become a revered figure in the football world.

Mourinho has shown the paternalistic ability to influence his players to achieve the best success by supporting and defending his players. He has told players they are the best, even when they haven’t performed well. He keeps the pressure off the players and instead takes the hit himself in the pressrooms to allow players to focus on performance.

I always say that as the coach and leader you must be the master motivator of your team. When performance levels drop, your energy, motivation and drive can be the turning point for change,” Mourinho once said.

Mourinho uses the motivating tactic of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. His team is a family unit that must go out and fight against the ‘other’.

Because he has been able to achieve success, players respect him as an accomplished leader. But more crucially, Mourinho shows resilience, commitment, and the passion to win, which results in his players looking up to him.

The more you understand your team the more you can lead them. I never liked the kind of leadership where the boys say: he’s my leader, I have to respect him. I prefer them to say: I respect him and he’s my leader,” he explained his leadership mentality.

On the other hand, Mourinho also has shown the downside of paternalistic behavior. If the loyalty goes, then the leadership is hard to obtain. This happened during his last time managing Chelsea. The players stopped believing in his vision and because he believed, he is right, the respect and loyalty quickly eroded.


Paternalistic leadership is often misunderstood as a leadership concept. The model is too closely associated with patriarchy and gender-based leadership. In the Western context, paternalistic leadership is thought as another form of authoritarian leadership, but perhaps with even more condescending nature. On the other hand, the leadership model is revered in the Eastern countries, such as China and India. The focus there is not on the decision-making structure, but on the sense of being a big community, where the leader is looking after the subordinates.

Indeed, if a paternalistic leader is able to create an environment of loyalty through his or her expertise and commitment, the style can provide effective benefits to any organization. It is a powerful framework for improving employee motivation and productivity. It supports swiftness and efficiency, without harming employee wellbeing.

Nonetheless, paternalistic leadership is based on the assumption that leader alone can make the right decisions. It perhaps expects a bit too little from its subordinates and doesn’t always provide them the tools to thrive. Since it relies so heavily on the leader’s ability to make sound decisions and to lay down a vision, it can cause the organization to suffer from lack of creativity and oppressive behavior. As mentioned above, stubbornness and tunnel vision can be the drawbacks of the leadership model.

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