Is Paternalistic Leadership Bad? A View from the Other Side of the Fence

I recently examined (as an external examiner) a PhD candidate. I thought it would be interesting as the title suggested it was about leadership in Africa. Yet, it turned out to be an investigation of the efficacy of three leadership styles in relation to other aspects of organisational effectivenesss from turnover intention to organisational citizenship. It made no mention of leadership styles, or theories, coming out of Africa. One such form of leadership that was ignored, as it often is in the growing literature on leadership in Africa, and for that matter the world in general, was paternalism. Much of the literature in Africa for example, as I have pointed out (Jackson, 2004), is concerned with offering western alternatives to what is seen as ‘African’ management and organisation. Certainly ‘ubuntu’ is offered as a possible ‘indigenous’ humanistic way of managing. But paternalism, which is a big part of what might be seen as African leadership, is looked upon negatively, or not looked upon at all. If we could approach this from a non-western perspective, would it have value in modern organizations in Africa, and other parts of the world?

Aycan (2006) has pointed out the negative connotations associated with the term ‘paternalism’ in the West. Demenchono (2009: 283) invokes Kant in believing that ‘…a paternalistic government, treating its citizens like immature children and thus infringing upon their freedom, is “the most despotic of all”’. This is mainly because the welfare of the state is not the same thing as the well being and of the population.  However, as Aycan (2006) quotes from Jackman (1994: 10): ‘paternalism is a time-worn term that has indefinite meaning in common use’. In fact Aycan (2006) defines the term from the Webster’s dictionary as ‘the principle or system of governing or controlling a country, group of employees, etc, in a manner suggesting a father’s relationship with his children’. Later, Pelligrini and Scandura (2008: 567), writing on paternalistic leadership, state that:

Despite diverse descriptions offered by different authors across time and cultures, more recent research typically defines paternalistic leadership as “a style that combines strong discipline and authority with fatherly benevolence” (Farh & Cheng, 2000: 91).

Authoritarianism refers to leader behaviors that assert authority and control, whereas benevolence refers to an individualized concern for subordinates’ personal well-being. This type of leadership is still prevalent and effective in many business cultures, such as in the Middle East, Pacific Asia, and Latin America (Farh, Cheng, Chou, & Chu, 2006; Martinez, 2003; Pellegrini & Scandura, 2006; Uhl-Bien, Tierney, Graen, & Wakabayashi, 1990). However, it has increasingly been perceived negatively in Western management literature, which is reflected in descriptions of paternalism such as “benevolent dictatorship” (Northouse, 1997: 39) and “a hidden and insidious form of discrimination” (Colella, Garcia, Reidel, & Triana, 2005: 26).’

They further state that in paternalistic cultures those in authority consider it their obligation to provide protection to those under their care. In return they expect loyalty and deference. Yet the extent to which this relationship is benevolent is often questioned. Some assert that benevolence is there only because the power holder wants something in return. Hence paternal relationships create obligations. Another way of looking at this is that paternalism is conducive to societal cultures where mutual obligations are a feature of what Hofstede (1980) and others have referred to as collectivism.

It is likely in an individualistic societal context, where a clear distinction is made between authoritarian and democratic forms of management (McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y, or Likert’s Authoritarian, Consultative, Participative management), that paternalistic management does not fit neatly into one of these slots, and if it does, fits into the authoritarian one. However, Aycan (2006) sees authoritarianism as quite distinct from paternalism. Authoritarian relationships are based on control and exploitation where subordinates show conformity simply to avoid punishment. In a paternalistic relationship the figure of authority, say, the boss, may be involved in the lives of subordinates as would be expected in a collectivist society. This would be seen as part of the leader’s care and protection role, but would be seen as a violation of privacy in an individualistic society.

Also with an acceptance of the authority of the leader, and an unequal power relationship that would be accepted in a high power distance culture, this may again be viewed negatively in a western society with lower power distance (although perhaps not so low in some western cultural contexts). It is for these reasons that Aycan (2006) has suggested that the benevolent aspects of paternalism have been difficult for western scholars to digest. It is particularly the ‘duality between control and care’ (p. 453) inherent in paternalism that is difficult for Western scholars to comprehend. It might be added further that this perception may well colour both the investigation and analysis of such leadership behaviour and organizational relations in non-western societies, from a western perspective.


Pelligrini and Scandura (2008) has suggested that problems may also arise because different authors are writing about different things. Aycan (2006) sought to clarify concepts, and in particular distinguished benevolent paternalism and exploitative paternalism. In the former a leader has a genuine concern for the subordinates’ welfare, with employees showing loyalty and deference towards the leader out of respect and appreciation of his protection. In the latter, while the leader’s overt behaviour is a nurturing one, care towards the employee exists solely to get the employee’s compliance to achieve the executive ends of the organization. Employees will indeed show loyalty and deference, but only insofar as the leader is capable of fulfilling the needs of the employee, and conversely can take away critical resources if the employee fails to provide such loyalty and deference. In contrast with paternalism Aycan (2006) also distinguishes authoritarian management which relies on control and exploitation of the employee who in turn shows conformity and dependence in order to receive rewards and/or avoid punishment; and, authoritative management, which again exercises control, but this time has the underlying motivation to promote the employees’ welfare, while the employee respects the leader’s decisions and rules as they know that they will benefit.

A relevant aspect of paternalism is that it is situational, or perhaps more accurately it is relational, in the extent to which a leader exhibits (benevolent) paternalistic attitudes and behaviour towards subordinates as a function of the relationship between them. Within a collectivist society a benevolent paternalistic relationship may only exist between in-group members, whereas out-group members may be treated in a completely different way (perhaps in an authoritarian way: although Jackson, et al, 2008, found evidence in Kenyan SMEs that a form of paternalism was also applied to out-group members). Pelligrini and Scandura (2008) also point to the relationship between paternalism and leader-member exchange (LMX) in the literature. Because paternal leadership is so personal, it is also dependent on the quality of individual relationships with subordinates. Certainly in-group/out-group relationships are important in this, but not the only factor. This being the case, there appears to be much scope with paternalistic relationships to show favouritism and special treatment to particular individuals or groups. ‘Nepotism’ (wasta) certainly appears to be a factor in relationships in Arab countries (although as Ali, 2005: 190, points out this may be against Islamic principles) as it is in many collectivist societies. Whether or not there is a direct relationship between paternalistic leadership and nepotism is not clear.

The fact that the word ‘nepotism’ carries negative connotations in itself does not mean that personal favours are unethical in themselves. Certainly the Arabic wasta appears not to reflect such negatives ideas, and in fact reflects the taking care of one’s own in a tribal, paternalistic society.  While Islamic principles, for example, appear to favour competence over personal favour, it also looks towards the boss as a shepherd to his flock. Looking after his own flock, as opposed to taking care of someone else’s to the detriment of his own, also raises interesting (ethical) issues. Yet if few studies exist of paternalism in Middle Eastern countries, other than in Turkey (e.g. Aycan et al, 2000; Pellegrini & Scandura, 2006), other regions such as sub-Saharan Africa are also poorly represented. Yet as Aycan et al (2013) point out, following Kagitcibasi, (1996), paternalism represents the predominant mode of leadership in the majority world. Aycan (2013: 977) also goes on to relate the main facets of paternal leadership identified in her research as ‘creating a family environment in the workplace’, ‘establishing close personalised relationships with subordinates’, ‘getting involved in employees’ non-worklives’, ‘expecting loyalty and deference from subordinates (leader considers loyalty more important than performance)’, and, ‘maintaining authority and status hierarchy’. The type of results-driven leadership encouraged in the West may not be appropriate therefore when applied in the majority world.

So, why is this important? Firstly, the concept of ‘leadership’ as a separate and distinct field of study emanates of course from the West (USA) in results-driven, individualistic and instrumental cultural contexts, where it is seen as distinct from ‘management’. Hence Bennis (1991: 398 ) said rather glibly that ‘Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right’. This was a distinction that Barsoux and Lawrence (1990) questioned in the French organisational context. Clearly this field hasn’t been overly informed by organisational behaviour in the majority world, and can lead to misdirection and uninformed research as in the case of the PhD candidate above. Research such as Aycan’s is leading the way, and should be brought more clearly into the mainstream of management studies.

Secondly, much of the disparaging of paternalism (I’ve just looked up the meaning of this on my computer system’s dictionary and it says: ‘the policy or practice on the part of people in authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate or otherwise dependent on them in their supposed interest’) from western scholars is from a moralistic stance: it’s an ethical issue. It’s an ethical issue that needs analysing in an informed scholarly way, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to something that appears to be abhorrent to our western sensitivities. From my perspective, and I may be a bit narrow here because I can’t see any other perspective, this requires a cross-cultural analysis of what is regarded as ethical and appropriate in different cultural contexts. I maintain that management and organizational studies (and any other social and behavioural studies) is a political activity, where it is important to make moral, ethics and values apparent and comprehensible. Hence, incorporating paternalism into leadership studies is important (as a majority world perspective) but only if the moralistic components are properly analysed. In fact, incorporating this type of analysis into management and organisational studies generally is what cross cultural management studies brings (or should bring) to the table.

Thirdly, this also has important real world implication in what managers do, and what managers and potential managers are taught. Leadership Studies for some time have been fashionable and an important component on MBA programmes and management programmes generally. But how many MBA students in Nairobi, Lagos or anywhere else in Africa or the majority world learn about paternalistic leadership? How many learn about transformational leadership, but knowing it isn’t going to work in their organization? But so far, through a lack of research, we don’t really know very much about the nature of paternalism in, for example, African organizations. In fact this is an area with so far scant research (paternalism is mentioned in the GLOBE study, House et al, 2004, mainly in connection with the Humane orientation, but only superficially and merely making links in the literature with this orientation rather than being incorporated into the study). Hence this is huge gap in the literature and therefore in management knowledge, and something that needs to be addressed more comprehensively in both an etic way, such as Aycan’s research, and in an emic way, for example focusing on indigenous African management and organization to understand more fully the nature of paternalism, and its positives rather than negatives.

China in Africa: The End of Western Paternalism - Follow this link for another view
China in Africa: The End of Western Paternalism?

Just one example (if you are still with me). One of my main projects at the moment is looking at China in Africa at the management/organizational level, with a very broad hypothesis that there are better synergies between Chinese managers and African staffs than between Western managers and African staffs. In theory there are similarities between Confucian principles (such as ren) and African ubuntu (if this concept can be pinned down without the hype!). But what part does paternalistic leadership (which Aycan and others have asserted is commensurate with Chinese values and principles) take in the management of African staffs by Chinese managers? There is a lot of negative reporting about authoritarian management and worse coming out of the western press, governments and even academics. Does paternalism apply just to Chinese staff, and not to Africans? How can Chinese managers make better use of possible synergies with African cultural values through paternalistic leadership? Watch this space.


Ali, A. J. (1995) Cultural discontinuity and Arab management thought, International Studies of Management and Organization, 25(3):7-30.

Aycan, Z. (2006). Paternalism: towards conceptual refinement and operationalization, in K.S. Yang, K. K. Hwang and U. Kim (Eds.) Scientific Advances in Indigenous Psychologies: Empirical, Philosophical and Cultural Contributions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 206, 445-66

Aycan, Z. Schyns, B., Sun, J-M, Felfe, J. and Saher, N. (2013) Convergence and divergence of paternalistic leadership: a cross-cultural investigation of prototypes, Journal of International Business Studies, 44, 976-978

Aycan, Z., Kanungo, R. N., Mendonca, M., Yu, K., Deller, J., Stahl, G., & Kurshid, A. (2000) Impact of culture on human resource management practices: A 10-country comparison. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 49(1): 192–221.

Barsoux, J-P. and Lawrence, P. (1990) Management in France, London: Cassell

Bennis, W. (1991) The four competences of leadership, in Kolb, D A, Rubin, I M and Osland J S ends) The Organizational Behaviour Reader (5th Edition), Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Colella, A., Garcia, F., Reidel, L., & Triana, M. (2005)  Paternalism: “hidden” discrimination. Paper presented at the meeting of the Academy of Management, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Demenchono, E. (2009) The Universal Concept of Human Rights as a Regulative Principle: Freedom Versus Paternalism, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 68(1): 273-301

Farh, J. L., & Cheng, B. S. (2000) A cultural analysis of paternalistic leadership in Chinese organizations. In J. T. Li., A. S. Tsui, & E. Weldon (eds.), Management and organizations in the Chinese context, 2000, pp. 84-127. London: Macmillan.

Farh, J. L., Cheng, B. S., Chou, L. F., & Chu, X. P. (2006) Authority and benevolence: Employees’ responses to paternalistic leadership in China. In A. S. Tsui, Y. Bian, & L. Cheng (eds.), China’s domestic private firms: Multidisciplinary perspectives on management and performance: 2006, pp. 230-60. New York: Sharpe

Hofstede, G (1980) Cultures Consequences, Thousand Oaks: Sage.

House, R, Hanges P J Javidan, M and Dorfman, P W, (2004) Leadership, Culture and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies, Thousand Oaks: Sage

Jackman, M. R. (1994) The Velvet Glove: Paternalism and Conflict in Gender, Class, and Race Relations, Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press.

Jackson, T. (2004) Management and Change in Africa: A Cross-cultural Perspective, London: Routledge.

Jackson, T. Amaeshi, K. and Yavuz, Y. (2008) Untangling African indigenous management: multiple influences on the success of SMEs in Kenya, Journal of World Business, 43(3).

Martinez, P. G. (2003) Paternalism as a positive form of leader-subordinate exchange: Evidence from Mexico. Journal of Iberoamerican Academy of Management, 1: 227-242.

Northouse, P. G. (1997) Leadership: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Pellegrini, E. K & Scandura, T. A. (2008) Paternalistic leadership: a review and agenda for future research, Journal of Management, 34(3): 566-93

Pellegrini, E. K., & Scandura, T. A. (2006) Leader-member exchange (LMX), paternalism and delegation in the Turkish business culture: An empirical investigation. Journal of International Business Studies, 37(2): 264-279.

Uhl-Bien, M., Tierney, P., Graen, G., & Wakabayashi, M. (1990) Company paternalism and the hidden investment process: Identification of the “right type” for line managers in leading Japanese organizations. Group and Organization Studies, 15: 414-430.

One comment

  1. In the end, it’s when a country can have its own majority of local managers take the executive and strategic leadership reins.

    It would be interesting to interview seasoned local African business managers a decade from now to glean their experiences with Western “paternalistic” leadership vs. with mainland-led Chinese business leadership. I have this terrible feeling the biggest might be on emotional intelligence which is culturally based…sometimes.

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