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Paternal Leadership

I’ve known many leaders that are extremely protective of their staff.  You know, those managers who people go to when they’re struggling with problems or have gotten themselves in trouble.  These “paternal” leaders often provide answers and approaches to problems that are clear an easy to follow.  The loyal follower just goes off and executes on the direction provided and their attachment grows deeper to that leader.  The downside of paternal leadership is that the staff member doesn’t have the opportunity to learn how to solve problems themselves and to reach out to peers for guidance.  Paternal leaders will also “save” previous employees who are experiencing performance challenges in other organizations.  This “safety net” behavior ensures that the individual doesn’t grow from the experience and they often stop growing with the company and industry.

A friendly acquaintance of mine in an engineering firm is the strongest paternal leader that I’ve met.  She instills a staggering amount of loyalty for a number of reasons.  She has been in the trenches with the folks and has shared experiences, is remarkably charismatic, and she will come to the assistance of anyone who asks.  When these traits are focused outwardly to customers, that loyalty becomes a business asset; however, it has limited my friend as her responsibilities grew.  People within the organization know that those people who have known this leader a long time receive preferential treatment and are “untouchable”.  Over time those “untouchable” staff members lose some of their professional edge but their managers reach a point where they cant performance managed these staff members for fear of “breaking loyalty” with the senior leader.

I brought this subject up with a friend in an electronics manufacturing firm and he shared a similar observation.  There is a Vice President in his company that runs an organization with the nickname “the pirate ship”.  About half of the staff are his loyal followers and the other half cannot understand how the “protected” keep their jobs.  My friend described the people within the organization as having been immensely valuable in the startup phase of the company because they were fresh out of college, bright, and had an abundance of energy.  Over time, he said, they lost that energy and got out of touch with industry trends but their paternal leader created jobs for them that were marginally useful out of nostalgia.  Unfortunately, these loyal followers are unaware of their dwindling value and their leader is not doing them the favor of helping them understand what is expected and then holding them accountable for their business contribution…and their professional development.  Now they are far less marketable in a tough economy because they stopped growing with their company and their industry.

Organizations that are run by paternal leaders start showing their limits in a tough economy.  Employees who have not been challenged in years struggle to meet the increased needs of changing market situations.  Staffs are in place to deliver and leaders need to find ways to get the most out of their people.  If a leader has coddled and protected their staff, or has not insisted on professional growth, the organization is incapable of foreseeing changes in the competitive landscape, and changing the organization’s direction as necessary – a process that is critical in today’s ever-changing business landscape.



1 comment to Paternal Leadership

  • I have to say this of all your topics is probably one of my favorites. I know some folks where innovation is becoming an issue in these tough times because of paternal leadership. The take away is we should always hire people smarter than us.

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