By definition, laissez faire leadership is a non-authoritarian style of leading people, where leaders try to give the least possible guidance to their subordinates and achieve control through less obvious means. These leaders believe that people would excel if left alone to respond to their obligations and responsibilities in their own ways. Also known as delegative leadership, it sees leaders being hands-off and allowing group members to do some decision-making. This is the most probable reason why this leadership style has led to the lowest productivity among staff members.
Kurt Lewin, an early contributor to the study of social psychology, is often credited as the developer of the laissez faire leadership concept. He was a pioneer in doing some research on organizational psychology and group dynamics. These days, human resource experts still use Lewin’s research to manage and assess workplace productivity.
Together with fellow researchers Ralph K. White and Ronald Lippitt, Lewin identified the laissez faire leadership style in their study “Leadership and Group Life” in the 1930s, recognizing it as “requiring the least amount of managerial oversight.”
Though Lewin recognized such type of leadership as one of the three primary management styles, he did not prefer it as his leadership method. He simply identified laissez faire leadership as the opposite of autocratic leadership and the antithesis of centralized leadership, whereby a CEO or a military general makes most of the decisions and relies on his subordinates to carry out instructions. Lewin, et al, deduced that neither laissez faire nor autocratic leadership styles were ideal, and rather concluded that the optimal style is democratic leadership.
Laissez faire leadership is characterized by very little guidance from leaders, complete freedom for followers to make decisions, leaders providing the tools and resources needed, and group members being expected to solve problems on their own.
This style of leadership can be effective in situations where staff members are highly capable, skilled and motivated to work on their own. As such, they would be capable of accomplishing tasks with very little guidance. This autonomy can bring about the feeling of freedom among employees, which can help them feel more satisfied with their jobs. Also, this leadership style can be used in situations where subordinates have a high level of intrinsic motivation and passion for their work.
While the laissez-faire leadership style implies a completely hands-off approach, many leaders would still be available and open to group members for feedback and consultation.
Laissez faire leadership is not wise to employ when where staff members lack the experience and knowledge to make decisions and complete tasks. Not all people are good at managing their own projects, setting their own deadlines and solving problems on their own, which can cause projects to go off-track and deadlines to be missed. Also, laissez faire leaders are often seen as withdrawn and uninvolved, leading to lack of cohesiveness within their groups. Because of this, followers would sometimes do the same, expressing less concern and care for their projects. If staff members are unfamiliar with the process or task, leaders should take a more hands-on approach, and eventually, as followers gain more expertise, they may then switch back to a more delegative approach.
Businesses That Attract Laissez-Faire Leaders
Organizations that are run by laissez-faire leaders are often engaged in a highly creative business or are in the incubator phase of product development. This means that this leadership style is particularly relevant to start-ups, where innovation is crucial to their initial success. It works well in businesses, such as product design firms, advertising agencies, start-up social media companies, venture capital investment companies, research and development departments, and high-end architectural and specialized engineering firms. As you can see, these businesses would prosper under laissez-faire leaders who hire experts and allow them to freely make decisions, where the ultimate goal is perfecting products, services and systems through trial and error. However, it is important to note that not all advertising, design and social media agencies work best under these leaders.
People Who Work Best Under Laissez-Faire Leaders
Self-starters who excel at individualized tasks and do not require ongoing feedback from a leader and fellow team members often prefer working under laissez-faire management. Successful laissez-faire leadership typically have people who have strong skills, extensive education or experience, have proven records of achievement on specific projects, are self-motivated and driven to succeed on their own, and are comfortable working without close supervision.
Circumstances Where Laissez Faire Leadership is Effective
Retail buyers and merchandisers are great examples of those who often work well under laissez faire leadership. Within fast-moving markets, promotional and purchasing decisions will be based upon fluctuating factors, such as price increases, supply chain bottlenecks, consumer trends and severe weather patterns. Product managers working under laissez faire leaders are provided with the autonomy to swivel fast and make decisions quickly without waiting for some time for approval. In business terminology, this is called being “nimble”. However, this does not mean these leaders are blasé or reckless, but are keenly observant who would reward their people for any success and would hold them accountable for any mistake.
Examples of Big Projects Completed with Laissez Faire Leadership
There is a lot of large-scale endeavors led by leaders who delegated authority and decision-making responsibility to experts. These projects would not have been successful without employing laissez faire leadership.
This was one of the most ambitious projects in history led by US President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. Though it was beset by geographic challenges and accidents, its completion in 1914 was reckoned as an engineering marvel. It could not have been accomplished without delegating authority to the professionals.
Having no single individual being responsible for building this railway system, it serves as a perfect example of this type of leadership in action, which combined presidential directives, congressional cooperation and private enterprises to lay thousands of miles of track across US territories.
Interstate Highway System
US President Dwight D. Eisenhower led the construction of this state-of-the-art highway system after recognizing the importance of the transportation and automobile industries to the country’s future. Again, this would not have been possible without Eisenhower’s hands-off approach, delegating authority to contractors, civil engineers and specialized workers.
Spearheaded by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover under President Calvin Coolidge in the early 1920s, this project was completed following decade under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Though rarely associated with laissez faire leadership, Roosevelt could not have completed this project and many others without delegation of authority.