Autocratic Leadership vs. Laissez-Faire Leadership


There are more differences than similarities between these two leadership styles, as we shall see in this article. By reading this, you will understand when to use one of them in favor of the other. Perhaps most importantly, you will learn why you should avoid using them at all.

Autocratic leadership, laissez-faire leadership, and democratic leadership are the three leadership styles by Kurt Lewin. These styles were part of the Kurt Lewin experiments in the 1930s. Some of the experiment’s conclusions were that autocratic leadership often led to bullying and laissez-faire leadership led to the lowest productivity. The third style, democratic leadership, was by far the best leadership style.

Consider doing our test which indicates which of these three leadership styles that you use: Lewin Leadership Styles Test.

Autocratic vs. Laissez-Faire Leadership: a short introduction to autocratic leadership

This segment is an excerpt from our in-depth article on autocratic leadership.

Autocratic leadership, or authoritarian leadership, is as old as humanity itself. Ever since the first people started forming groups, there have been autocratic leaders. Someone essentially took charge, and it was probably often the strongest one of the bunch, i.e., an alpha male type person. The future of the group depended on the skill set and decisions made by this leader. A good group with a good leader survived, whereas the weak ones with poor leadership succumbed.

The definition of autocratic leadership can be found in the word “autocratic” which has Greek origins. Autocratic comes from the Greek root words “auto”, which means self, and “kratos” which means power. Therefore, autocracy is all about self-power. In other words, one person has absolute power. This person is responsible for making all the decisions.

Autocratic leadership is based on the following:

  • Central authority is strong, and decisions are taken without asking others
  • Followers are to a certain level motivated by fear and with awards, threats, and punishment
  • A strong, confident autocratic leader that is trusted by the followers

The advantages of autocratic leadership are High clarity, Fast decision-making, and Suitability for Crisis Management. Typically, these point towards situations when it is essential to have fast decision making, which is easily achieved by having one single person in complete power. Autocratic leadership also gives strong target focus and the powerful guidance allows for inexperienced people to become productive relatively quickly since they are told exactly what to do.
The disadvantages include poor empowerment, too much dependency on one person, and that person’s skills. Furthermore, it often leads to too much control and micromanagement and a lack of trust. Such complete control can be very detrimental for productivity since so many things need to wait for the one powerful leader’s direct decisions. Sadly, intimidation is also widespread in autocratic leadership, which often leads to toxic climates.

Autocratic vs. Laissez-Faire Leadership: short introduction to laissez-faire leadership

The following information has been taken from our extensive article on Laissez-Faire Leadership.

Originally, Laissez-faire is a French word that means “leave alone”. It has been linked to a pivotal point in King Louis XIV’s reign. His finance controller, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, tried to determine how the government could strengthen commerce by assisting industrialists. He consulted with businessman Le Gendre who said, “Laissez-faire” which was interpreted in that context to mean “Let us do what we want to do.”

Laissez-faire leadership is virtually hands-off or delegative leadership. The laissez-faire leader gives the team members complete freedom when it comes to tasks and decisions. A complete lack of leadership results in the same end effect and Laissez-Faire leadership is sometimes referred to as “the absence of leadership”.

Although it might not seem like it, there are some advantages to laissez-faire leadership. Truly skilled experts can thrive in the substantial creative freedom in the vacuum of a more hands-on leader.

On the disadvantage side, we have some profound cons: Teams can fall apart entirely, the leader is seen as uncaring, productivity drops, confusion about purpose and roles. These disadvantages can wreak havoc with an organization, and it can take a long time to get things back on track afterward.

What are the differences between autocratic and laissez-faire leadership?

There are many differences between autocratic and laissez-faire leadership. The most extreme difference is that the leader has complete control in autocratic leadership, while close to no control in laissez-faire leadership. In fact, these leadership styles are often seen as polar opposites due to this major difference.

There are so many differences, so a bullet list is the easiest way to describe this.

Here are the differences between autocratic leadership and laissez-faire leadership:

  • An autocratic leader makes all the decisions. A laissez-faire leader makes as few decisions as possible.
  • An autocratic leader is in control and micromanages the team. A Laissez-Faire leader is in the background, sometimes even completely absent.
  • An autocratic leader can result in high productivity, especially with low skilled team members, whereas a laissez-faire leader gives low productivity. The only exception is for highly skilled teams, where it can be the opposite.
  • Autocratic leadership means complete clarity. Laissez-fair leadership gives low clarity and lots of uncertainties.
  • Autocratic leadership gives a strong focus on what the leader wants. Laissez-Faire leadership gives weak focus since all team members essentially focus on what they want themselves, even if their goals are contradicting.
  • Autocratic leadership can build on intimidation. Laissez-faire leadership builds on staying away.

Consider doing our test which indicates which leadership style that you use: Lewin Leadership Styles Test.

What are the commonalities between autocratic and laissez-faire leadership?

There are very limited commonalities between autocratic and laissez-faire leadership. One common factor is that they are both included in the leadership styles framework by Kurt Lewin and the famous Lewin experiments in the 1930s.

They are also known as behavioral leadership styles, i.e., they are not used temporarily or depending on the situation, but preferably used because the leader is an autocratic leader or a laissez-faire leader in terms of persona, characteristics, skills, etc.

That is pretty much it. Personally, I see another commonality: use these styles very rarely or perhaps never use them at all. I really mean this. Use them very carefully and always try to use other leadership styles instead.

Autocratic leadership versus laissez-faire leadership: Conclusions

As mentioned above, I suggest you do not use these styles.
Autocratic leadership likely leads to a toxic climate. Autocratic leadership is so dependent on the leader that little can be achieved in the leader’s absence. Autocratic, or authoritarian, leadership only works for very simple and small companies these days.
Laissez-faire leadership is essentially a lack of leadership. If you are a leader or want to become one, you want to impact your team positively. You would want to use joint efforts to achieve something you couldn’t have done independently. Why become a leader if that means leading as little as possible?

Consider doing our test which indicates which leadership style that you use: Lewin Leadership Styles Test.

You would be much better off using the Six Leadership styles framework by Daniel Goleman. That framework takes situations and circumstances into consideration, resulting in a much more flexible and fluid leadership. You can be directive or commanding in a crisis. You can be coaching and letting others make decisions in other situations. You also get the advantages of the democratic leadership style, since that one is also part of the Goleman six leadership styles. The three others, affiliative leadership, visionary leadership, and pacesetting leadership give you additional options and tools to use in your leadership.

I have used the Goleman framework very successfully in my career as a senior leader in an international setting, and I am sure you can do it to. Start by reading our article on the Goleman Six Leadership Styles and continue reading about each of those leadership styles.

Carl Lindberg

Carl is a global business leader that has led 1-2000 people and had financial responsibility of 200-500 MUSD. During his career, he has led employees in twenty different countries and has lived in three continents.

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