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Death to Paternalism!


If you have read my other posts on LinkedIn, you know that I usually write about topics related to agile practices or organizational agility. Today’s topic is no exception. However, it has a much broader appeal. While the lessons learned around the destructive power of paternalism are easy to observe within an organization, they are there in society writ large.


Here’s the Oxford Dictionary’s definition as a starting point:


“the policy or practice on the part of people in positions of authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to them in the subordinates' supposed best interest.”


There are two key ideas here that we need to take apart. First, the idea of restricting freedom. We cannot be autonomous and restricted at the same time. While we all need guardrails such as regulatory boundaries, and rules of civil behavior, paternalism goes beyond that to a level of micro-interference.


The second idea is subordination. The traditional notion of leadership is that leaders are “over” the people who report to them. Leaders decide and subordinates do. This “father (or mother) knows best” mentality implies that the rest of us can’t think for ourselves. If us subordinates succumb to this practice, we abdicate our own ideas to oblivion or worse, for others to appropriate.


Leaders throughout history have enjoyed the power of position. Indeed, many leaders aspire to the role for just this purpose. To “rule over,” to “dominate,” to “control.” I would contend that this very desire, which drives aspiring leaders everywhere, is completely misguided. It is at the core of why we have incompetent and even destructive leaders.


To be clear, this type of leader is not inherently a bad person. They have been misguided by the historical expectations of leaders. Ironically, most of us know in our hearts that this is not the mark of good leadership. When you think of the greatest leaders in human history, who comes to mind? Many of us will think of people like Gandhi and Mandella. Both of these men are examples of non-paternalistic leaders. They both led by example. They had their own values and they practiced them. They spoke truth to power -- and believe me when I tell you that the power they were speaking to was paternalistic.


Organizations who want to further their agile journey need to crush paternalism. You can’t do this by punishing leaders. Some leaders already get it. They know that it is far more effective to coach and support the coworkers to whom they are responsible. They recognize that they may be needed to help with some course correction if individuals or teams go off the rails, but otherwise, they need to stay out of the way and let them succeed, or fail and learn, on their own.


It’s hard and leaders deserve some allowances as they learn this new way of thinking. Training on coaching, giving/receiving feedback, and the role of a servant leader will help. Time and a commitment to non paternalistic practices will win the day. For those who get it, this transition is easy. Others will struggle and some may not be willing to give up power and control. For this last group, maybe a non-agile organization would be better.


For our governmental leaders…we can dare to dream! “Power at all costs” seems to be the rule. Us subordinates are an afterthought.


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