Patriarchal & Matriarchal LeadershipOct 30, 2023
If you have worked very long, there’s a good chance you have seen or even felt the overreach of a patriarchal/matriarchal leader. Sure, it probably shows up more in family-held businesses, but it is not restricted to only that structure.
Lots of people have written about leadership styles and stereotypes. There are many. And they all have upsides and downsides. The key is to match the right leadership style with the right organizational culture with the current organizational season. That is the trifecta for any successful leadership tenure in any organization.
Although matriarchal leadership has traditionally been applied to the mothering style of leadership and patriarchal as the fathering style of leading, I would suggest they usually have become blended in our modern culture. What is patriarchal/matriarchal leadership? It is simply going too far with the family motif of leading.
Let’s first get some foundation by splitting them apart.
The patriarchal leadership style is synonymous with command and control. Anne Dranitsaris describes patriarchal leaders this way: “Naturally directive, they easily make choices for others and tell them what to do.” It’s not all bad, of course. Streamlining the decision-making structure reduces chaos and provides definition and clarity when organizations desperately need it.
But the nasty underbelly of patriarchal leadership is usually self-protection and a desire for control at all costs. This can happen in businesses, families, churches, political parties, nonprofits. Where there is leadership, there can be addiction to control.
The way it plays out is that patriarchal leaders often attract young, inexperienced employees and leaders, while high performers often leave because they’re so hamstrung by the senior leader. Drawn to clarity and vision, these young true believers become long-term loyalists, which reinforces the leader’s hold on control. These loyalists are either unable or unwilling to force change, so the leader’s grip stays unchallenged.
Given the clear dangers of patriarchal leadership, the pendulum often swings to a more matriarchal style. This style emphasizes care and empathy for employees and stakeholders in the organization. These are good things, to be sure.
But of course, care can become hyper-caring, and empathy can become hyper-empathy. The leader becomes so concerned with how every employee and client is thinking about them that their creativity, energy, and time are spent keeping people happy with them, and less and less effort is focused on delivering results.
Like the patriarchal style, there’s good here, but taking either to the extreme will run your organization into the ground.
The Blended Problem
There’s a similarity between the two styles that is worth calling out. Both patriarchal and matriarchal leadership styles see and treat the organization and people too closely—as they do their families. Both styles subtly imply to employees, “You can’t leave,” but maintaining that kind of hold on people is poisonous to long-term health.
Here’s what I mean: Patriarchal leaders play the role of the stereotypical dad. Employees are the children. The leader is the provider, the protector, and the interpreter of the outside world. “I’ll set rules in place,” the leader says, “and they’re for your good.” Don’t ask why our org chart is the way it is; don’t suggest a different level of financial risk might be wise. Trust me.
Matriarchal leaders similarly play the role of the stereotypical mom, and again, employees are the children. Here the leader is the encourager, the nurturer, the listener, the peacemaker. “Come to me with your problems,” the leader says, “and I can help make them right.” Didn’t get your projects done on time? Nervous that our cash flow isn’t strong enough? Everything will be okay. Trust me.
Both leadership styles emphasize, implicitly or explicitly, that the organization is one big extended family, and both statements end with “trust me.” And trust, loyalty, and obedience are valued above all else in the organization. Patriarchs demand trust and loyalty; matriarchs coerce them. But both get them.
Joe Pinsker of The Atlantic put it even more bluntly. Calling work a family means: “We’ll foist obligations upon you, expect your unconditional devotion, disrespect your boundaries, and be bitter if you prioritize something above us.”
Short-term You can get some traction utilizing a strong dose of either patriarchal or matriarchal leadership style. You can get off the ground with a patriarchal structure that clarifies chaos, and you can hold a team together amid chaos with a matriarchal structure.
But if you go back to the same tool repeatedly (or if you throw out one tool and switch to the other one all at once) and the duration or the intensity becomes too great, either can take you down.
A Better Way
Let me be clear: I’m not saying there shouldn’t be trust in organizations. There should be trust; it’s necessary. An organizational culture that has shades of family is, in fact, a good thing—not just for delivering results either. It’s because it’s the right thing to do. I want my workplace to be one where I trust others, and they trust me; where I care for others, they care about me, and we get work done effectively.
I’m simply convinced that you can do this without tying others to you so closely that they don’t feel the freedom to critique or leave.
This is what it means to be a mature, healthy enterprise leader. Employees, clients, and stakeholders know you care about them—and care about them as more than simply people who can deliver outputs, as more than simply people who can help them reach their objectives. They also know that you’ll put them in spots that are hard for them; you’ll hold them accountable for mistakes.
They know you desire for them to flourish, not as members of their family but as people and professionals.
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