Laissez-faire is a French word that translates into English as “leave alone“. This implies letting things thing happen without any interference. Therefore, a laissez-faire leader would be someone with a “hands-off” approach to managing and leading followers or subordinates.
A primary reason why some leaders adopt a laissez-faire leadership style is that they have complete trust in their ability of those under them. You won’t find laissez-faire leaders micromanaging or getting too involved in the activities of their subordinates. Instead, they help them achieve their goals by encouraging the use of skills, available resources, and innovation. Some of the most prominent and successful laissez-faire leaders include Warren Buffett, Queen Victoria, Theodore Roosevelt, and Andrew Mellon.
Here, I look to provide you with an understanding of the laissez-faire leadership style and what can make it so effective using the available literature on the subject, examples, and case studies.
What Is the Laissez-Faire Leadership Style?
Laissez-faire leadership grants full freedom to subordinates or followers to function how they want and with what they want; a laissez-faire leader leaves followers with as many roles and choices as possible. Laissez-faire management, like the financial system, is characterized by a will to let people operate without interference. This style may or may not work for you. The best leaders used a battery of leadership styles that are useful for different situations. I will give you some tips on how to make the Laissez-faire leadership style work if you choose to give it a shot.
Adopting this leadership style means giving the team full power and freedom. With laissez faire leadership, you provide your team with the requisite tools and resources to perform their duties, but how they carry out their duties will be up to them. In order words, they will be free to make their choices.
While it is not acceptable in every scenario, laissez-faire leadership can be an effective way to lead, provided the circumstances favor such an approach to leadership. One example of this is the construction of the Panama Canal.
Initiated in 1904, the construction of the Panama Canal was one of the most groundbreaking projects of the early 20th century. The project was headed by the then U.S President Theodore Roosevelt. The construction of the Panama Canal in 1914 was an engineering feat worth celebrating because the project was complete successfully despite being plagued by accidents and geographical hurdles.
However, the Panama Canal would have never materialized if President Roosevelt did not have the willingness to delegate responsibilities and decision-making to those having the necessary skills and experience for the job.
The Characteristics of a Laissez-Faire Leader
Although “laissez-faire” is the traditional term for this style and suggests a fully hands-off attitude, many leaders remain accessible to and free for followers or subordinates seeking guidance and feedback. Laissez-faire leadership, unlike conventional authoritarian leadership, is not rigid. Instead, this leadership approach is distinguished by the following characteristics:
1. Effective Delegation
Leaders using this approach are able to delegate each job or assignment to the most skilled worker. This is critical because proper delegation is critical to the productivity of the workplace.
2. Freedom of Choice
As long as workers perform tasks effectively, those who work under laissez-faire leadership are free to decide how they want to get the job done.
3. Sufficient Resources and Tools
Although each worker is free to decide the procedures to use to complete the work, laissez-faire leaders generally have the willingness and ability to provide each person with all the materials and resources required to complete each activity optimally.
4. Constructive Criticism
Despite the fact that workers are free to make their own choices, laissez-faire leaders are prepared to offer constructive feedback when required.
5. Taking Control As Needed
Although workers are given full freedom and are free to make their own choices, laissez-faire leaders can step in and take control of matters if there is an urgent need for it.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Being a Laissez-Faire Leader
While a laissez-faire leadership style is effective in many situations, it generally requires having full faith in the abilities and “commitment to the cause” of the followers or subordinates. Leaders need to feel assured that, without being micromanaged, those under them can utilize their expertise and experience to get the job done. This is the reason a laissez-faire leadership style has both its advantages and disadvantages. Some of them are briefly discussed below.
The Benefits of Being a Laissez-Faire Leader
The following are some key benefits of being a laissez-Faire Leader:
Encourage Personal Growth—Since leaders have a hands-off approach to management, workers have an opportunity and incentive to be hands-on. Therefore, this style of leadership creates an atmosphere that makes learning and development easier and faster.
Encourage Innovation—Inventiveness and innovation can be stimulated by the independence granted to workers.
Allow for Faster Decision-Making—The absence of micromanagement means that those under laissez-faire leadership are encouraged to make their own choices. They can make decisions quickly without having to wait a long time for approval.
The Drawbacks of Laissez-Faire Leadership
The laissez-faire approach relies too strongly on the group’s skills. Therefore, it is not very reliable in situations where the followers lack the expertise or experience needed to perform tasks and make decisions. Perhaps, this is the reason a 2007 study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology finds it laissez-faire as a destructive leadership style. The following are some of the main reasons to forgo a laissez-faire leadership style:
No Clarity of Role—The laissez-faire approach contributes to loosely established responsibilities within the team in certain situations. Because team members get little or no instruction, they might not even be sure about their position within the team and what they are expected to do with their time.
Poor Involvement with the Group—Laissez-faire leaders are frequently seen as unengaged and detached, which can contribute to the group’s lack of cohesion.
Low Accountability—Some leaders use this approach as a way to escape accountability for the shortcomings of the group. The leader will then hold group members responsible for not completing assignments or meeting standards when objectives are not achieved.
As seen above, the laissez-faire leadership style has both advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, you will need to weigh the pros of this leadership style against its cons to determine whether adopting this approach to leadership is a good option for you. One suggestion would be having a more hands-on approach to leadership when group members are unaware of their roles or responsibilities. As group members gain more experience and become aware of their work, you may adopt a more delegated approach, such as a laissez-faire leadership style.
Founder and CEO of Best Practice Institute, partner to Newsweek on America’s Most Loved Workplaces, and the author of more than 10 books on best practices in leadership and management, including Change Champion’s Field Guide, In Great Company, and Best Practices in Talent Management. Thought leaders and executives voted him as one of Global Gurus Top 10 Organizational Culture thinkers worldwide.