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Are you a paternalistic leader?

  • 5 Min Read

Billy Paul Ebenzer, Consultant – Learning and Development, Wipro Limited and Leadership Coach, examines the damage of paternalistic leadership, and how businesses can move forward from this model.

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If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a Leader”, quipped John Quincy Adams. In other words, the ultimate measure of a true Leader is not in terms of how many followers he/she has, but in terms of how many Leaders he/she has created. This is in essence what former US President John Adams insinuated while describing a good Leader as one who would ultimately make their followers “become more” like them. Many Business Leaders of today are ‘inspirational’, ‘courageous’, and even ‘benevolent’. However, only a few go on to don the ‘visionary’, ‘inclusive’ and ‘change agent’ hat too. To put it in perspective, much of today’s Leadership is more “paternalistic” than “transformational” and the young workforce (Gen Z in particular) of today finds it debilitating.

Paternalistic Leadership

Paternalistic Leadership, according to Business dictionary, is a fatherly managerial style where Organizational power is used to control and protect subordinate staff who are expected to be loyal and [unconditionally] obedient. A more modern version of paternalistic Leadership is where the Leader behaves like a “Conservative Dad”. This dad thinks he knows everything way better than the child and that the child should circumnavigate a certain path in order to reach a particular destination. This approach – though benevolent – leads to underutilization or burnout of the staff.

Moreover, paternalistic Leaders are difficult to approach. Even if they are approachable, they score very low on listening skills. And even if they listen, they would never like to listen to the bad news or improvement suggestions. Hence in some bizarre twist, a simple method to check the existence of paternalistic Leadership within an organization is to just count the number of employees who have nothing to say – these would far outnumber the ones who only speak and cannot listen.

Leadership schools of today

In most Leadership schools, the stress is on the importance of having a vision, integrity and cognitive and relationship building ability. Rarely do they emphasize on the importance of being a Servant (transformational) Leader – to serve people with their interests in mind and eventually step aside or walk alongside their followers, so that they too can follow in their footsteps. A strong sense of insecurity runs deep within many Leaders of today that they simply refuse to delegate or even accept the ideas of junior staff. While there is a good amount of traction on initiatives like “Diversity & Inclusion”, there is also a great resistance to include employees who are “young” and with a “difference in opinion and working styles” in the decision making process.

Gen Z’s dilemma

The current prevailing mood of resentment and anger found among youngsters and women is undeniable and justified. Popular movements such as “Me too” and latest memes such as “Ok Boomer” has only exposed the dark underside of paternalistic Leadership. A recent article in Times magazine, portrayed Gen Z as frustrated, angry and scared. It seems Gen Z apparently holds the Gen X responsible for milking the system dry and thereby leaving them high and dry to figure things out all by themselves. The recent police shootout of the four gang rape suspects (while still in custody and yet to face trial) in Hyderabad, India only affirmed the patriarchy’s culture of toxic masculinity – a terrible irony, as that was exactly what the whole nation was protesting against during that time.

Gen Z, otherwise known as digital natives, loves transparency a lot. In an age of information technology, where data is readily and freely available, the young workforce of today is a little perplexed when their Leaders go incognito. In the absence of real-time feedback and continuous communication, employees are prone to misread the situation or the message despite the best intentions and efforts of their Leader. And this happens when paternalistic Leaders, who are famous for their stoic silence, tend to believe that too much communication could distort the actual message and sabotage real results.

Gen Z’s Leadership expectations

The fresh campus recruits of today want their Leader to interact much like a coach rather than act like their doting parent. The young professionals of today isn’t much excited with their Leader’s five year plan for them; they are more concerned about their immediate requirements being taken care. The junior colleagues of today do not crave for special treatments like a family member; rather they would like to be recognized based on merit alone. The millennials of today is motivated more by autonomy and career development opportunities and less by promotions and salary increments.

The young workforce of today gets excited the moment they spot data but gets turned off the moment they hear the phrase “Trust me”.  The rookies of today would love to be mentored by a senior Leader but would strongly abhor any sort of favoritism. The fresh college graduates of today is wary of loyalty requests based on seniority and rewards, but is overwhelmingly appreciative of job requests where the purpose is well defined. In short, the Gen Z’s of today would happily take orders but is constrained to fulfill the order, when adequate support and a conducive environment isn’t available.


It is safe to state that paternalistic Leadership which used to work well once upon a time (might still work for formal Organizations) is no longer the preferred model of Leadership. And while it is a proven fact that paternalistic Leadership kills creativity, it also effectively dries up the limited pool of future Leaders we have currently. Hence, it is incumbent of a senior Leader – who has much to offer in terms of experience and foresight – to foster a culture of transparency and mutual respect. After all, can there be a greater joy than watching ones protégé surpass their Leader?

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