Laissez-faire leadership has gotten a bad reputation. Lazy, uninterested and uninspiring are some of the words often associated with this leadership style. The reality is that laissez-faire leadership isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be, as long as it is an intentional choice. It works well in some settings and when the leader understands how to use the strengths of the leadership style to his or her advantage.
During my career as a global business leader I have encountered a few laissez-faire leaders. They are out there, no doubt. In this article, we will explain the concept of laissez-faire leadership, its pros and cons, how to use it, some reflections from my career and last but not least – some famous examples of Laissez-faire leaders.
What is Laissez-Faire leadership?
Laissez-faire leadership, also called delegative leadership, is the most laid-back leadership style where team members are essentially given free rein to complete tasks in whatever way they please. The laissez-faire leader is hands off and delegates as many tasks as possible to team members. It’s a leadership style that depends heavily on the leader’s trust in each team member’s ability to execute. This definition still makes it seem that Laissez-faire is a leadership is used on purpose, but that does not have to be the case. According to a study concerning Laissez-faire and trust, there are some worse definitions of the Laissez-Faire leadership style. How about “the absence of leadership” or “lack of presence” or even “zero leadership”. (“Laissez-faire leaders and organizations: How does laissez-faire leader erode the trust in organizations?” refer to Bass & Avolio on the first definition.)
In laissez-faire leadership, only minimal guidance is provided by the leader and the team members make all the decisions.
Kurt Lewin and his team are credited with having conceptualized delegative leadership in 1939. Their research revealed that people are least productive under laissez-faire leadership. Let me repeat that: Their research also showed that people are least productive under laissez-faire leadership. However, the experiments they executed were on groups of children. Perhaps more can be expected from an adult group led laissez-faire style. The Lewin research involved three leadership styles, namely Laissez-faire, democratic leadership and autocratic leadership. So, the conclusions above on productivity is in comparison among these three styles only.
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 controller of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, tried to determine how the government could strengthen commerce by assisting industrialists. He consulted with businessman Le Gendre who simply said, “Laissez-faire” which was interpreted in that context to mean “Let us do what we want to do.” It should be noted, however, that laissez-faire economics is different from laissez-faire leadership but the fundamental premise of each is that people do what they want.
What are the characteristics of laissez-faire leadership?
The following characteristics do not necessarily say anything about the intention behind them. In some cases, it might be deliberate, but according to the more “zero leadership” type definition of Laissez-Faire, it can also be unintentional behavior on the leader’s part.
1. Power is transferred to the team members
Team members are deemed experts in their fields and the leader trusts them to carry out their roles correctly. However, the leader is still the head of the team and accepts full responsibility for the team’s decisions and actions. In other words, the leader still shoulders the responsibility although team members act independently. Not all leaders can handle being this trusting.
2. The leaders are responsible for providing what the team needs
All leaders are expected to provide resources for their teams. However, a laissez-faire leader’s role is relegated almost exclusively to that function. The leader doesn’t pretend to know what the team needs and the team isn’t forced to make-do with whatever is provided. Instead, the team tells the leader exactly what they need and the leader either uses his or her resourcefulness to find ways to use what the organization already has or quickly identifies where the resources can be procured. Again, in the unintentional version of Laissez-Faire leadership, I doubt the leader will truly handle the resources needs.
3. Decision making is left to the team.
Team members essentially lead themselves. There is no deferral to the leader for decisions to be made. Therefore, decisions are often made quickly and depend solely on the team member’s level of expertise. Team members are expected to solve problems on their own.
What are the pros and cons of Laissez-Faire leadership?
As with all leadership styles, also the laissez-fair style has its advantages and disadvantages – as if being the least productive leadership isn’t enough. (See above.)
The Advantages of Laissez-Faire Leadership Style
1. A highly experienced team with strong skills can thrive
People who know what they’re doing and have industry experience often love the freedom the laissez-faire leader provides. There is no doubt that these people can do what they need to within deadlines without the leader’s guidance. In fact, any input from the leader can be deemed a hindrance rather than a blessing.
2. Team members have creative freedom
Lack of restrictions creates an environment in which team members can showcase their skills. Furthermore, being tasked with making challenging decisions and finding solutions to problems quickly helps each team member hone his or her skills.
3. The retention rate of experts can increase
Most experts prefer the freedom to make their own decisions. If they are in a restrictive work environment, they may search for opportunities to leave, thus increasing the turnover rate. The opposite applies: the freedom a laissez-faire work environment provides increases the possibility of experts remaining loyal to the organization.
The Disadvantages of Laissez-Faire Leadership Style
1. Teams that need consistent guidance fall apart
Autonomy works best with teams that are highly experienced and intrinsically motivated. Young team members with little or no experience need mentorship, guidance and support. Without a strong and present leader, this inexperienced team falls apart. This can of course be quite damaging, both for the team as well as it’s surroundings.
2. The leader is viewed as uncaring and absent
The team’s perception of their leader can largely impact their performance. Most teams want to know that their leader cares and is present to understand the challenges they face. Some people begin to lose trust in the leader and the organization if they hardly ever see or hear from the leader. Some prefer free-rein and will still get the job done. As you probably guess, the laissez-faire style is better for the latter.
3. Productivity decreases
A team doesn’t need a leader who stands over them with a whip to get things done. However, there still needs to be someone who holds each team member accountable. A laissez-faire leader accepts all responsibility and is, therefore, held accountable for the team’s decisions. There’s no real motivation to be productive and on target if no one except the leader is being held accountable. The leader needs to be aware of this and ensure that accountability measures are implemented.
4. Team members are confused about their roles
It’s difficult to determine who is responsible for the team’s direction when each person is free to make his or her own decision. Team members don’t know who to look to for direction and can be confused about where and how they fit in the organization.
How can you be an effective laissez-faire leader?
Laissez-faire leadership can work in creative environments such as digital marketing agencies and similar. However, you have to display these characteristics in order for the leadership style to work well. I am writing this with mixed feelings since the definition of Laissez-Faire leaves room for intention and lack of intention. In the later case, it seems illogical to explain how to effectively apply “zero leadership”. Basically, how to most effectively be completely ineffective. So, let us assume that laissez-faire is an active choice for a moment, as we go through the following points.
1. Bring the right talent together
A laissez-faire leader should have a keen eye for spotting the right talent and use them to build a team with people who complement each other. This is often difficult to do and, therefore, requires immense skill. You should understand the organization’s goals and the type of talent needed to make those goals possible. The team should be talented, experienced, able to work together and committed to helping the organization achieve its goals. This allows the leader to take a step back and perform the role of ensuring the team has exactly what it needs to get the job done.
Furthermore, it can take a lot of time to find the right people, and also to try them out so you know for sure that they are the right ones. Getting a stable team consisting of the right individuals can sometimes take years.
2. Know how to efficiently procure and utilize resources
A big part of the laissez-faire leader’s role is being able to provide the team with exactly what they need. Therefore, the leader has to be very resourceful. Some tips to enhance resourcefulness include:
- Networking – It helps to build a large network of influential people. Being able to pick up the phone and call someone who can help find the necessary resources can make a big difference. Since you won’t be highly involved in the day-to-day functioning of the team, you should use that time to attend networking events and build a wide network.
- Problem Solving – Strong problem-solving skills are necessary to determine how best to provide the team with what it needs.
- Negotiation – Getting the right resources sometimes requires negotiating the best terms. A laissez-faire leader with strong negotiation skills has an edge.
3. Don’t be a micromanager
You should be able to relax and allow your team the creative freedom they need. Sure, the blame rests on your shoulders if anything goes awry. That’s one of the downsides of being a laissez-faire leader. However, if you can’t relax and allow your team to do what they need to do, laissez-faire leadership may not be right for you.
My experience of Laissez-Faire leadership
I have never deployed this leadership style myself, either willingly or unwillingly. I have always felt way too inspired in my leadership roles to simply sit back and stop caring essentially – because that is what Laissez-Faire is about to me. I can´t imagine why someone would purposefully select to deploy a Laissez-Faire leadership style when there are so many others that can give great benefit when used with intent.
Although several definitions of Laissez-Faire exist and have been presented above, I tend to lean towards the more unintentional definition, i.e. “zero leadership” and kind of ignoring your responsibility as a leader and simply sit back and let things play out. The reason for this is that I simply cannot understand how someone would want to do be a laissez-faire leader on purpose. What is your contribution then? A leader who doesn’t lead?
Don’t get me wrong, there are numerous reasons to not micromanage, to empower your team,, to ensure the team members are strong enough to handle things themselves, but there are other ways of reaching this and still actively contribute as a leader. Perhaps coaching leadership or servant leadership could be deployed for instance? Even if I trust my team members decisions more than my own, I could still be useful for vision, inspiration, instilling a team spirit, encouraging the team members to talk to each other etc. – none of which I see in the laissez-fair leadership style.
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:
- Intentional case example – the manager had concerns and problems elsewhere so he simply “let me be” and had me call him when needed, which rarely if ever happened.
- Unintentional case example – a leader who could rapidly shift between leadership styles depending on his mood or what he felt like. One month he could be a charismatic leader, use autocratic leadership for a few months, and then simply mentally or even physically drop out like he didn´t care (laissez-faire), only to resurface as a visionary leader a few months later. I never understood any patterns in this behavior to be honest.
Laissez-faire 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 these cases by the way. If this type of leadership had been deployed for a junior team, 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.
Who are some examples of laissez-faire leaders?
Warren Buffet (1930 – present) – CEO of Berkshire Hathaway
Highly revered financial guru Warren Buffet 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) – 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 with his administration and trusted his team to expertly carry out their duties.