I decided to provide you with a few laissez-faire leadership examples I have experienced during my CEO career. I hope these examples of laissez-faire leadership discourage you from using this leadership style. In the end, I also provide you with a couple of historical examples of laissez-faire leaders for inspiration.
Introduction to Laissez-Faire Leadership
Before we get to the examples, I want to give you a quick overview of this leadership style, which is a summary of our main article on laissez-faire leadership.
Laissez-faire leadership is a hands-off leadership approach where team members make all the decisions. Laissez-faire leadership leads to low productivity and a perception of a disengaged leader but can work in skilled, capable, and self-motivated teams.
Laissez-faire leadership has these characteristics:
- Power is transferred to the team members
- The leader remains responsible for providing resources
- All decision-making is left to the team
Laissez-faire leadership has the following advantages:
- A highly skilled and experienced team can truly thrive
- Team members have creative freedom
- The retention rate of experts can increase
Laissez-faire leadership has the following disadvantages:
- Teams that need consistent guidance fall apart
- The leader is viewed as uncaring and absent
- Productivity decreases
- Team members are confused about their roles
You can read much more about this leadership style in my book Leadership Styles Classics: Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire (Amazon) or go to our main article on laissez-faire leadership, or check out our leadership styles test (new tab) to see if you are a laissez-faire leader yourself.
Laissez-Faire Leadership Examples from my CEO career
I have experienced laissez-faire treatment from my managers once or twice over the years. I think it was intentional in some cases and unintentional in others, both examples are my own thoughts and perception:
Example of Laissez-Faire Leadership (Intentional)
When I was the head of an autonomous part of the organization (a global company with a separate brand), my manager simply let me be. He told me straight out that he had more pressing and concerning issues elsewhere and that he trusted me to get things done properly.
Although this laissez-faire leadership example made me feel trusted and confident, it also made me feel that my part of the organization was less important and that he took little interest in me and my development.
I managed to work well and deliver some great results under this laissez-faire leader, but that seemed to strengthen his laissez-faire leadership of me even further. I had somehow proved him right. By the way, this leader had a much more hands-on leadership approach with my peers, which signaled his stronger interest, as well as concern, in those areas.
Despite my good results, a different approach than laissez-faire could have resulted in even better results for the entire organization, here are some examples:
- A more affiliative leadership approach would have made me more loyal, and felt more important to my manager and my peers. Who does not want to feel important?
- Additional coaching leadership could have helped me grow, and in turn, helped me grow my own team further. He could have used me to coach my peers as well to an extent.
- More visionary leadership could have helped me to prepare myself and the organization I headed even better for the future.
Visionary, coaching, and affiliative leadership are all part of the six leadership styles by Goleman which you can find in our leadership styles portal.
My relationship with my peers is very typical of laissez-faire leadership. Since I was literally left to do my own thing, I saw fewer and fewer opportunities in collaborating with other parts of the organization. I did not really get access to the overall picture, team problems, and many other aspects that I could have actively helped to figure out.
Example of Laissez-Faire Leadership (Unntentional)
In another position, where I was the head of a Division, my leader was simply absent. I was surprised by his lack of interest and did not know this was an example of Laissez-Faire leadership at the time, to be honest. I was left alone to figure things out and managed to do so, but at my experience level, I could have used some help which would have saved me from some trial and error learning.
This manager kept most of the team in the loop on overall matters, and we did contribute as a team, but anything beyond that hardly interested him. After a while, I realized the other members of the team felt the same way. My assumption, after some years have passed, is that he simply trusted us all. But there are many ways to show trust without causing the perception of being uninterested. He could have engaged more in one-to-one meetings, provided advice on more subject matters, facilitate information spread between divisions, and fished out any cross-functional problems that hampered our performance.
By not paying close attention, he felt to identify several critical synergy opportunities that could have propelled the company further much faster. Although many of the opportunities remained and were taken care of later, the loss in time meant a loss in money as well.
Conclusions on my own Examples of Laissez-faire leadership
The Laissez-faire leadership style works pretty ok to lead me since I have always had strong drive and ethics, meaning I won’t derail if unsupervised and I will also still provide results. I get things done despite no one really pushing or motivating me, at least so far. Despite that it works “ok” for me, I have never felt good about laissez-faire leadership since it has always left me uninspired. If my leader doesn’t really care about my area, why should I? If other things are constantly more important – what kind of a signal does that send?
I have been in very senior positions in all the above cases by the way. If this type of leadership had been deployed for a more junior team member, I think the outcome would have been less pretty. This is how it should be of course; a senior leader should be able to push through and do most things without too much leadership from above in the hierarchy, but laissez-faire leadership is not the way to go. I think you should still provide vision, coaching, and other leadership aspects, which you do in transformational leadership, and by using the six leadership styles by Goleman. You can read about all of those, servant leadership, and many others in our leadership styles portal.
Famous examples of laissez-faire leaders
Here are some famous laissez-faire leaders as examples of well-known users of this leadership style.
Highly revered financial guru Warren Buffet, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, is one of the most popular laissez-faire leaders. He hires talented financial professionals who can creatively apply his principles to produce good returns for Berkshire Hathaway’s clients. He doesn’t need to be involved in the day-to-day operations and he trusts his experienced and talented team to understand their roles and produce results.
Ronald Reagan, 1911-2004, is the 40th United States President. Ronald Reagan is one of the few U.S. presidents who practiced laissez-faire leadership. He had a hands-off approach to his administration and trusted his team to expertly carry out their duties.
Further Reading on Laissez-Faire Leadership
For starters, I would like to recommend my book Leadership Styles Classics: Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire (Amazon)
You might also be interested in reading this comparison between laissez-faire vs. autocratic leadership, or our main article on Laissez-Faire leadership as well. You can also try our leadership styles test (new tab) to see if you are a laissez-faire leader yourself.