Understanding the idea of Parent Leadership, or paternalistic leadership, is important if you work in India or many other Asian countries, but you might still be on the fence about it. Leading as if you were a father or mother might sound rather sticky or messy, especially when you think about your own family.
However, Parent Leadership is a legitimate leadership style, and instead of judging if the style itself is bad or good, you should look at good and bad examples of people who use it.
In my time in India, I’ve interacted with many leaders who naturally use this style. Some are very inspiring, like the one who made it a point to visit the housewarming ceremony of a junior employee. Others are extremely dysfunctional, like the one who refused to believe anyone else could do a better job than him at any business function.
In the next two articles, I will offer a picture of the best and worst sides of Parent Leadership. First, we’ll look at the best-case scenario to see the enormous potential this style holds. Next, we’ll look at a worst-case scenario to show just how bad things can get.
A quick review
If you are new to the concept, a Parent Leader leads the organization as if they were leading a family. Families have strict hierarchies and power relationships, but relationships are also extremely important. A Parent Leader values authority, benevolence, and moral leadership. Parent leaders are both controlling and caring; they offer guidance and protection in exchange for loyalty and deference. Click here for a more complete overview.
So what does a good Parent Leader look like?
They have a legacy approach to the business. In the popular BBC series Downton Abbey, Lord Grantham states in the first season that he sees himself as one in a series of stewards of the estate, not someone who should use it simply for his own benefit. Similarly, a Parent Leader is always looking at the historical legacy of the business. She wants to be remembered as a bright spot in the family legacy, but recognizes that it is bigger than her.
This affects how a Parent Leader makes decisions. A good Parent Leader thinks about how a decision will affect the legacy decades from now, not just in the next quarter. Because they have this legacy mindset, they are also less willing to do something that will tarnish the reputation of the company. I knew one Parent Leader who refused to go into a certain kind of business simply because “that’s not the kind of company we are.”
They recognize the need to build up good leaders. A good Parent Leader knows he will not be around forever, and that ‘children’ won’t always remain children. When dealing with the everyday challenges of parenting, my wife will often remind herself that she is raising a man and a woman, not just two babies.
Good Parent Leaders say the same thing. They give their team members a chance to grow and build up their skills in a safe environment. This might mean giving them the best education or training, or giving them an authority role slightly before they are ready to give them additional experience.
Jai Sinha advocates the same thing in “A Model of Effective Leadership Styles in India”. He says that new leaders are at first very dependent on the ‘parent’ figure, but slowly assume greater responsibility and need less direction over time.
They know when to take control. Although a good Parent Leader is empowering, he also knows that ‘kids’ don’t know as much as they think they do. Just like a good parent wouldn’t let their kids stay up till midnight eating candy on a school night, the good Parent Leader will sometimes make an independent decision that they know is for the good of the family.
For example, a Parent Leader might step in and shut down a proposal at the last minute, even though the team has worked on it for weeks. She does it because she has seen the company get burned in the past in similar deals, and she senses this is the same thing. Although the team might feel she has torpedoed their hard work, it may be the right choice.
They are genuinely concerned with their employees’ welfare. A good Parent Leader doesn’t visit an employee in the hospital because they think it will make the employee more productive later on. He does it because it’s the right thing to do. Good Parent Leaders don’t act superficially, but genuinely want team members to succeed in and out of the office. This might even extend to them using their connections to do favors like getting a child of a team member admitted to a certain school.
They use outside experts when needed. This is comparable to how the Godfather used a consigliere who was not part of the family for legal advice. A good Parent Leader knows when the company lacks some key expertise and will bring in the best outside advice. However, these consultants are not generally brought into the inner circle.
What does their ‘Family’ look like?
Similar to the feeling you get when you are around a high-functioning family, you can immediately tell when you see the team of a good Parent Leader. They communicate well, enjoy working together, feel safe, and are extremely loyal.
As mentioned, this is the best-case scenario for paternalistic leadership. In the next article, we’ll expose some of the potential failures of the Parent Leader style if done poorly. Please subscribe to get the latest articles delivered to your inbox.
Image Credit: Niyam Bhushan on Flickr