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What Is Laissez-Faire Leadership?

August 17, 2020 Leadership Skills

Leadership styles vary widely in terms of how involved the leader is. On one hand, you have approaches like bureaucratic leadership, which impose many rules and regulations on its followers. On the other end of the spectrum are styles like laissez-faire leadership, which we’ll learn more about in this post. 

What is Laissez-Faire Leadership?

The Definition 

Laissez-faire leadership takes a hands-off approach to leadership and gives others the freedom to make decisions. While leaders still provide their teams with the resources and tools they need to succeed, they remain largely uninvolved in the day-to-day work. 

This is a leadership style you’ll commonly find in creative settings, such as advertising agencies or startups, due to its encouragement of independent thinking. 


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The Characteristics 

Laissez-faire leadership is very distinctive. Below are a few of the most common characteristics of this leadership style: 

  • The ability to effectively delegate work
  • A high level of trust in team members
  • An understanding of when to step in and when to give space
  • A focus on the big picture instead of the day-to-day 
  • The capacity to reward good work and create incentives

What Are The Pros and Cons of Laissez-Faire Leadership?

Unfortunately, laissez-faire leadership tends to have a reputation for producing underwhelming outcomes. However, we believe there can be benefits to this leadership style if approached in the right way. Below we outlined all the pros and cons of laissez-faire leadership to give you a better sense for how this leadership style can be utilized: 

Pros

  • Empowers individuals to practice their leadership skills
  • Can lead to increased creativity and innovation
  • Less fear of failure 
  • Encourages trust between team members and leader
  • Instill a sense of independence

Cons

  • Can result in low productivity 
  • Conflict amongst team members is common 
  • May lead to confusion about roles and responsibilities
  • Won’t be effective with an unskilled or unmotivated team 

How To Apply Laissez-Faire Leadership

While laissez-faire leadership isn’t the right fit for every organization, there are situations where it can be incredibly effective. To make sure this leadership style is approached in a thoughtful way, we shared recommendations to help you avoid the most common pitfalls faced by laissez-faire leaders: 

Have the right team 

A laissez-faire approach to leadership is only possible if you have a highly motivated, independent, and skilled team. To understand why, let’s imagine that you’re managing a team of entry-level employees who are only a few months into their jobs. These are individuals who – at this point in their careers – will require a lot of guidance, development, and hand holding to succeed. If you chose to apply the laissez-faire approach to this team, you would be setting everyone up for failure. 

Even if you have the right team for laissez-faire leadership, there’s always more you can do to help members succeed in their roles. As the leader, you can connect them to training opportunities, mentors, and resources to make sure your employees always have the opportunity to grow. 

Be observant  

Being a laissez-faire leader doesn’t mean handing off all the work to your team then walking away. On the contrary, this type of leadership style requires high levels of observation. Even if you’re not involved, you should always be taking note of your team’s performance, how everyone is getting along, and any challenges they’re facing. Performance reviews are a great opportunity to review and reinforce these observations. 

While you may not take action on most of what you observe, you’re at least always aware of what’s happening so that – when necessary – you can step in and have the context you need to offer up a solution. 

Address problems early and often 

There’s a misconception that, as a laissez-faire leader, you can’t have any involvement in the team. This couldn’t be further from the truth! In fact, part of being a good laissez-faire leader means knowing when to step in at the appropriate moment. For instance, if you notice that there’s inner-team conflict, it’s in everyone’s best interest for you to step in and facilitate the disagreement. Or if someone isn’t meeting the performance expectations and is creating tension, it’s your role to take that person aside and provide constructive criticism that will help them get back on the right path. 

The laissez-faire leadership style isn’t for everyone, but it can be successfully applied with the right team and in the right context. Follow our recommendations to make sure you get the most out of this approach to leadership. 

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your own leadership style can help you better identify which approach is best for your current role. Check out our ebook, 10 Leadership Styles You Should Know, to learn more about different approaches to leadership and when and how to apply them.