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Leadership in the ‘rest of the world’

A newly released study by the FIU Center for Leadership research team examined two leadership behaviors - benevolence and authority, under our noses, and in distant lands

Leadership tends to look different in different situations. Of course – some aspects of leadership look the same, but leadership is often an interplay of different leaders, different team members, and different contexts.

Parental Leadership FIU

Our international research team at the Center for Leadership has spent the last few years examining a form of leadership that is not discussed much in management textbooks or in the media, but that is very familiar to people in many parts of the world: – ‘paternalistic’ (or best characterized as ‘parentalistic’) leadership. First described by researchers seeking to understand the leadership styles of small Chinese family-owned firms, it shows up and is familiar to people in much of Latin America, parts of Africa, The Middle East and Confucian Asia. In other words, much of the world!

What does parentalistic leadership look like? It may sound peculiar to many of us. Specifically, it refers to leaders who simultaneously exhibit two features seen to be common to the role of a parent:

  1. Benevolence-- kindness and true caring for their employees on a personal level (asking about family, doing things that show you care about the person as a whole not just in the work context, or may include attending personal life events such as weddings or funerals)
  2. Authority-- making it clear that the leader holds power and authority to both reward and punish employees and in certain instances, may even encourage reverence or fear. It’s a bit like - ‘Don’t forget that I am the boss’.

So do these leadership behaviors work in motivating employees and producing better work and leadership outcomes? Our just-released research, appearing this month in The Leadership Quarterly research journal, examined and statistically analyzed over 160 studies in 4 different languages from over 15 countries (China, Taiwan, and Turkey are the three societies most commonly studied).

What we found is that benevolence is highly positive and beneficial– kind, true (and of course appropriate) caring for employees both within and outside of the work context, produces engaged and productive employees who have positive attitudes toward their leader. In North America, understanding and involvement in employees’ non-work lives understandably might make HR and legal folks a bit nervous – but we suggest that there are ways to do this that are not too invasive and appropriately tailored to the situation.    

The use of authority – particularly, strong forms of authority that might look dictatorial – really does NOT work as a general and central leadership tactic. Even in countries and societies where leaders often exhibit authoritarian styles of leadership at work (i.e. places where this is more ‘normal’ behavior), evidence from our research is very clear that it doesn’t work; employees are disengaged, less productive, and more likely to quit. So in regions of the world where this type of behavior is more typical – it is particularly important to emphasize to leaders that typical does not mean beneficial.

What we’re curious to look at in our future research, is when and where this style of leadership exists in North America. In talking with dozens of people about this project in and around South Florida, quite a few people have told us ‘You just described my boss!’. And we can’t help but think of many sports coaches – don’t they sometimes use a combination of benevolence and strong authority? There might even be a few instances where a strong form of authority can be beneficial for very short periods of time – even if it is generally a very poor tactic. Currently we don’t know what those situations are, if any.

Have you seen leaders exhibit benevolence and authority? Drop me a line to let us know.

If you would like a copy of our forthcoming publication, or want to tell us about your experiences – send me an email at nathan.hiller@fiu.edu.

Citation: Hiller, N. J., Sin, H. P., Ponnapalli, A. R., & Ozgen, S. (2019). Benevolence and authority as WEIRDly unfamiliar: A multi-language meta-analysis of paternalistic leadership behaviors from 152 studies. Forthcoming in The Leadership Quarterly.


About the writer

Nathan J. Hiller, Ph.D.
Academic Director
Associate Professor of Managment and International Business