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What is Laissez-Faire Leadership? How Autonomy Can Drive Success

Laissez-faire leadership is based on trust. People who enjoy a wide degree of latitude in making decisions and working on projects autonomously are often most comfortable with laissez-faire leaders.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, people who work well in a rigid environment with clear directives and routine goals typically prefer authoritarian leaders.

What is laissez-faire leadership?

The short version of laissez-faire leadership: Do what you want as long as you get the job done right.

From a laissez-faire leader’s perspective, the key to success is to build a strong team — and then stay out of the way.

Loosely translated from its French origins, laissez-faire means “let it be” or “leave it alone.” In practice, it means leaders leave it up to their subordinates to complete responsibilities in a manner they choose, without requiring strict policies or procedures.

Although laissez-faire leadership does not fit every organization, industry or situation, some workplaces thrive under laissez-faire leaders. It’s all a matter of finding the right match. Read on to learn more:

Laissez-faire leadership definition

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines laissez-faire leadership as:

“A philosophy or practice characterized by a usually deliberate abstention from direction or interference, especially with individual freedom of choice and action.”

This self-rule style empowers individuals, groups or teams to make decisions. Critics of this hands-off leadership style contend it is risky to universally delegate decision-making responsibility to staff members. Groups and teams do not have the power to make far-reaching strategic decisions, but laissez-faire leaders allow individuals or teams to decide how they will complete their work.

What types of businesses attract laissez-faire leaders?

Organizations or departments run by laissez-faire leaders frequently are either in the incubator phase of product development or they’re engaged in highly creative businesses. This leadership style is particularly relevant to startup firms, where innovation is crucial to a company’s initial success.

Examples of businesses where laissez-faire leadership works well:

  • Advertising agencies
  • Product design firms
  • Startup social media companies
  • Research and development departments
  • Venture capital investment companies
  • High-end architectural and specialized engineering firms

These businesses tend to prosper under leaders with laissez-faire characteristics. They hire experts and allow them autonomy to make decisions. The end goal is perfecting products, systems and services through trial and error.

But not all ad agencies, social media and design firms work best under laissez-faire leaders.

During the creative phase, a laissez-faire management style may work well. Once a creative campaign or customer service program is launched, however, quality assurance processes and deadlines require attention to detail that may be better suited for autocratic leadership.

Laissez-faire vs. autocratic leadership

People who prefer working in environments with strict procedures, checks and balances work well with autocratic leaders.

Bureaucratic environments are traditionally well-suited to autocratic leadership styles. State departments of motor vehicles are good examples of agencies where standardized processes and management controls are necessary. Established manufacturing facilities offer another example of mature businesses with streamlined processes that need strict protocols and tight quality assurance procedures.

Laissez-faire leadership is the direct opposite of autocratic leadership. Instead of a single leader making all decisions for an organization, group or team, laissez-faire leaders make few decisions and allow their staff to choose appropriate workplace solutions.

Laissez-faire leaders share these characteristics. They:

  • Delegate authority to capable experts
  • Maximize the leadership qualities of staff
  • Praise accomplishments and reward successes
  • Offer constructive criticism when necessary
  • Allow staff to solve problems and manage challenges
  • Know when to step in and lead during a crisis

Who works best under laissez-faire leaders?

People who are self-starters, who excel at individualized tasks and who don’t require ongoing feedback from other team members often prefer working under laissez-faire managers.

Successful laissez-faire leaders typically work with people who:

  • Have strong skills, extensive education or experience
  • Are self-motivated and driven to succeed on their own
  • Have proven records of achievement on specific projects
  • Are comfortable working without close supervision

History of laissez-faire leadership

Kurt Lewin is often credited with developing the concept of laissez-faire leadership.

Lewin was an early contributor to the study of social psychology. He was one of the first experts to research group dynamics and organizational psychology. Human resource experts still rely on Lewin’s research to assess and manage workplace productivity.

Although Lewin recognized laissez-faire leadership as one of three primary management styles, he did not subscribe to it as his preferred leadership method. Lewin simply identified laissez-faire leadership as the opposite of autocratic leadership.

Along with researchers Ronald Lippitt and Ralph K. White, Lewin identified the laissez-faire leadership style in the 1930s study “Leadership and Group Life.” They recognized laissez-faire leadership as requiring the least amount of managerial oversight.

Laissez-faire is the antithesis of centralized leadership, whereby a CEO — or military general — makes most of the decisions and relies on subordinates to carry out instructions. Lewin and his research partners deduced that neither laissez-faire nor autocratic leadership styles were ideal. Instead, they concluded that democratic leadership was the optimal style.

Laissez-faire economics

Laissez-faire economics and laissez-faire leadership share free-market traits, but they are not identical.

Within the field of economics, the term laissez-faire came into vogue in the 1980s during the Reagan administration with the rise of libertarian theories. Laissez-faire economic policies are frequently associated with Alan Greenspan, U.S. Federal Reserve chairman from 1987 to 2006. But it was Greenspan’s mentor, economist Milton Friedman, who popularized the term laissez-faire. Both men espoused macroeconomic theories that reduce government’s role in regulating private industry, international trade and monetary policy.

Because of their hands-off philosophy, people often misinterpret laissez-faire leaders as absent from the decision-making process. Although some absentee owners may take such an approach, most laissez-faire leaders are more involved in policy decisions than people realize.

Examples of laissez-faire leadership

People don’t often associate laissez-faire leadership with government. However, there are many historic examples of large-scale endeavors led by political leaders that required delegating authority and decision-making to experts. Most of these examples entailed massive infrastructure projects that would not have been successful without some form of laissez-faire leadership.

Examples of large-scale projects led by a laissez-faire leadership style:

  • Transcontinental Railroad: No single individual was responsible for building the North American railway system, but it serves as an example of laissez-faire leadership in action. The combination of presidential directives, congressional cooperation and private enterprise coming together during the second half of the 19th century to lay thousands of miles of track from coast to coast and across U.S. territories remains unprecedented.
  • Panama Canal: Led by President Theodore Roosevelt, the Panama Canal was one of the most ambitious projects in history when construction began in 1904. Although it was beset by accidents and geographic challenges, completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 was an engineering marvel. It could not have been accomplished without Roosevelt’s willingness to delegate authority to experts.
  • Hoover Dam: The Hoover Dam involved three U.S. presidents and was built by hundreds of leaders. Initiated in the early 1920s by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover under President Calvin Coolidge, the project was finished the following decade under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although he is rarely associated with laissez-faire leadership, Roosevelt could not have completed the many infrastructure projects built during his presidency had he not delegated authority to others.
  • Interstate Highway System: Recognizing the importance of the automobile and trucking industries to America’s future, President Dwight D. Eisenhower led the charge to build a state-of-the-art highway system. The massive public works project provided jobs for tens of thousands of Americans and would not have been possible without Eisenhower’s hands-off approach. His decision to delegate authority to civil engineers, contractors and specialized workers is a prime example of laissez-faire leadership.

Laissez-faire leadership case study: Intel

When Intel was launched in the late 1960s, the leadership style of Robert Noyce helped inspire other Fairchild employees to join him. Initially, Noyce’s laissez-faire management style appealed to the brilliant engineers who founded Intel, including Andrew Grove and Gordon Moore, who coined Moore’s Law of exponential growth.

As Intel and the semiconductor industry matured, Noyce’s laissez-faire management style was no longer optimal for a company increasingly dependent on perfecting quality assurance processes and scaling costs. Eventually, Noyce was succeeded by Grove, whose management style was more refined and autocratic — better-suited for Intel’s long-term survival.

Today, similar transformations are occurring among social media companies that thrived under the dynamic, personal leadership styles of their founders. As innovative startups mature, from the incubator stage to full-fledged companies with narrow profit margins, their leaders must adapt. For such companies, this means changing from a laissez-faire management style to other forms of leadership, such as autocratic or democratic.

Famous laissez-faire leaders

Here are some famous leaders who adopted the laissez-faire management style or blended it with other leadership styles, such as autocratic, transformative and servant:

  • Andrew Mellon embodies the 20th-century laissez-faire American leader. Mellon was a brilliant innovator, as comfortable in banking and commerce as he was in politics and philanthropy. Mellon is credited with helping build America’s manufacturing industries, including behemoth U.S. aluminum, steel and oil refineries. Mellon epitomizes the laissez-faire leader because he not only believed in selecting talented experts to run businesses, but also opposed government intervention in the form of regulations and tariffs.
  • Ronald Reagan was known for allowing his subordinates to complete their responsibilities in the manner they saw fit, without autocratically looking over their shoulders. Most of Reagan’s high-level leadership selections were experienced captains of industry from Wall Street, engineering and aerospace contractors. During his two terms as U.S. president, Reagan delegated unprecedented authority to his chief of staff, Cabinet secretaries and others — sometimes to his peril. However, Reagan earned a reputation as a strong but hands-off leader.
  • Warren Buffett may be the most surprising name among successful laissez-faire leaders. Buffett is known for taking a hands-off approach toward leadership of the many companies he owns, or in which he invests after actively canvassing the industries he favors. Once he makes an investment decision, though, Buffett trusts his managers to know how to achieve the performance he expects.
  • Lou Holtz, former head football coach for Notre Dame University, represents a blend of leadership styles. This is uncommon for gridiron coaches, who typically exhibit dominant authoritarian traits. Although he was one of collegiate football’s most successful coaches, Holtz emphasized principles over winning. Because of his devotion to personal responsibility, his coaching style was part laissez-faire, part autocratic. Holtz expected all his college players — from redshirt freshmen to senior quarterbacks — to behave as mature leaders.
  • John F. Kennedy is rarely considered a laissez-faire leader, especially among U.S. presidents. However, Kennedy’s space exploration program would have failed had he not entrusted the Apollo project to experts. Kennedy inspired an entire nation with his “moon shot” speech. His executive style persuaded Congress to commit financial resources toward putting a man on the moon within 10 years. Kennedy’s laissez-faire management style motivated NASA to accomplish the goal.
  • Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric for more than two decades, adopted many leadership styles. He epitomized the autocratic leader with his quest for 99.99 percent quality control tolerances in all manufacturing facilities. Yet Welch mentored executives by giving them wide latitude to run their operations without interference. Welch earned a reputation as a hard-driving perfectionist who paid close attention to GE’s expansion. However, he succeeded at increasing GE’s value 4,000-fold by delegating authority to experts — once he made the decisions to acquire subsidiaries or launch new operations.
  • Donna Karan, founder of DKNY jeans and apparel, enjoys a reputation as an attentive but hands-off leader who follows fashion trends while keeping her eyes on profits. The Center for Association Leadership noted in a 2013 article that Karan trusts managers to make good decisions while monitoring their performance and offering ongoing feedback. Karan reportedly believes firmly in autonomy, which leads to strong job satisfaction and increased productivity.
  • Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, epitomizes the laissez-faire leader who is challenged by new ideas but maintains a hands-off managerial style. Allen’s decision to leave Microsoft early in its history demonstrates a trait often found among laissez-faire leaders, who tend to dislike the mundane but vital processes that accompany all successful enterprises. Allen has funded dozens of successful ventures. They range from the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers to the Living Computer Museum and the Allen Institute for Brain Science.
  • Sebastián Piňera, president of Chile from 2010 to 2014, led the rescue operations of 33 miners trapped 2,300 feet underground in a collapsed mine. As documented in a 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review, Piñera’s decisiveness is an example of laissez-faire leadership at its finest. Piñera made decisions common to laissez-faire leaders. He immediately recognized that past assumptions did not apply to the 2010 mine collapse. He was open to suggestions and sought advice from engineers and mechanics, deep-sea operators, doctors and psychologists. Piñera selected key players and approved their rescue plans. Then he gave them latitude to save the day using unconventional methods.

Quotes about laissez-faire leadership

Here are some quotations from leaders who embody the laissez-faire model while managing people effectively through a combination of leadership styles.

  • Warren Buffett: “Pick out associates whose behavior is better than yours and you’ll drift in that direction.”
  • Andrew Mellon: “Strong men have sound ideas and the force to make these ideas effective.”
  • Donna Karan: “I design from instinct. It’s the only way I know how to live. What feels good. What feels right. What is needed. Give me a problem and I will approach it creatively, from my gut.”
  • Ronald Reagan: “Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.”
  • Lou Holtz: “It’s a fine thing to have ability, but the ability to discover ability in others is the true test.”
  • Paul Allen: “While I sign off on trades or free agents, I’ve rarely overruled my basketball people’s decisions. But I’m not shy about steering the discussion or pushing deeper if something doesn’t make sense to me.”
  • Jack Welch: “If you pick the right people and give them the opportunity to spread their wings, and put compensation as a carrier behind it, you almost don’t have to manage them.”

Laissez-faire leadership style requirements

Laissez-faire leadership entails giving managers and staff wide latitude in carrying out their responsibilities.

People who work for laissez-faire leaders are responsible for completing tasks and identifying issues. Moreover, they are expected to anticipate near-term problems and spot upcoming opportunities. Laissez-faire leaders usually allow staff to capitalize on opportunities without having to check in with their superiors.

To succeed, laissez-faire leaders need to:

  • Closely monitor group performance
  • Employ highly skilled, well-educated staff
  • Treat people as motivated self-starters
  • Use the laissez-faire style only with experienced staff
  • Give consistent feedback to team members

Laissez-faire management style explained

Within organizations — from private companies and nonprofit entities to government agencies — laissez-faire leadership starts at the top of the organizational hierarchy.

For example, a CEO or executive director with laissez-faire leadership characteristics typically hires or appoints senior executives and department heads with considerable experience in their respective fields. Those individuals are expected to know how to run their departments. They are entrusted to do so with minimal supervision.

When is laissez-faire leadership effective?

Expert merchandizing managers and retail buyers are good examples of people who often work well under a laissez-faire leadership structure.

Within fast-moving markets, purchasing and promotional decisions are based on fluctuating factors — from consumer trends and supply-chain bottlenecks to price increases and severe weather patterns. Product managers who work under laissez-faire leaders are given autonomy to pivot fast and make quick decisions without waiting weeks for an approval process to begin.

In business parlance, this is called being nimble. It does not mean laissez-faire leaders are reckless or blasé. On the contrary, successful laissez-faire leaders are observant. They reward people for their successes and hold them accountable for their mistakes.

Advantages and disadvantages of laissez-faire leadership

One criticism of the laissez-faire leadership style is that it tends to favor success-oriented people rather than those who solve society’s most pressing problems.

In other words, laissez-faire leadership tends to serve the needs of the people who most benefit from it. This can be counterintuitive to the objectives of corporate responsibility. Other management models, like servant leadership, focus on good corporate citizenship. The objective is to serve the needs of customers, communities and disenfranchised groups.

However, if you look at laissez-faire leadership as a management style rather than as an economic philosophy, it can be used effectively to initiate positive change in the same way that transformative and servant leadership styles do.

For example, a laissez-faire leader who oversees the R&D division for a pharmaceutical company or biotech firm may surround herself with highly qualified experts charged with developing new drugs to treat or cure cancer. A team led by a laissez-faire leader does not make the manager’s objectives any less worthy than a similar group led by a democratic or autocratic leader.

Laissez-faire leadership pros

Laissez-faire leadership styles tend to work best near the top of organizational hierarchies, where executives build teams of experts such as directors and give them wide latitude to run their departments. Teams focused on research and development, conceptual or creative projects require autonomy. A laissez-faire leadership style delegates decision-making to managers and senior staff with expertise in their fields.

A positive laissez-faire leadership style:

  • Allows experts to function productively and challenges them to take personal responsibility for their achievements and failures
  • Motivates people to perform optimally and gives them latitude to make correct decisions that might not be supported in a more structured environment
  • Reinforces successful performance and leads to a higher retention of experts who thrive in creative environments that support autonomous decision-making

Laissez-faire leadership cons

When laissez-faire leadership is used inappropriately in organizations, projects or settings, it can create more problems than it resolves. If groups or team members lack sufficient skills, experience or motivation to complete projects, the organization suffers.

A mismatched laissez-faire leadership style:

  • Results in a lack of accountability for organizations, groups or teams and failure to achieve goals
  • Demonstrates a failure to properly advise, coach or educate people, which leads to low performance
  • Leads to ineffective time management by teams, resulting in ambiguous objectives and missed deadlines

Benefits of laissez-faire leadership

Managers who adopt a laissez-faire leadership style expect accountability from people who report to them. Whether the laissez-faire leader is a CEO, department director or group manager, he or she expects positive results.

Some people prefer working under autocratic managers because they don’t want to be held responsible for failures. For these people, a laissez-faire leadership style is a mismatch.

Future laissez-faire leaders

To be successful in an age of daily productivity metrics reporting, laissez-faire leaders need to establish milestones for staff. This means today’s laissez-faire leaders can no longer be completely hands off.

Contemporary laissez-faire leaders must:

  • Observe group and individual performance
  • Track results and stay on top of issues and problems
  • Give credit where credit is due and encourage individual responsibility

In summary, today’s laissez-faire leaders must delegate authority without losing sight of group objectives and individual performances.

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