Laissez Faire Leadership Guide: Definition, Qualities, Pros & Cons, Examples
“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” – Steve Jobs
The above quote by the late Steve Jobs perfectly captures the essence of laissez faire leadership. The model is rather a paradox within the leadership theories, because of its hands-off nature. The leader and subordinate roles are almost turned upside down, making it a difficult theory to grasp.
So, what does it take to lead with a laissez faire philosophy?
In this guide, we’ll explore what is the definition and history behind laissez faire leadership. We’ll analyse the essential characteristics of the framework, together with the qualities it takes to be a laissez faire leader and the subordinate under the system. Before providing you with a few examples of laissez faire leaders, we’ll outline the advantages and disadvantages of this style.
UNDERSTANDING LAISSEZ FAIRE LEADERSHIP
To understand the framework and characteristics of laissez faire leadership it is crucial to examine the concept of the leadership model. The knowledge of the history of the term and the concept can reveal why it became a popular idea within the leadership scene.
The definition of laissez faire
The Cambridge dictionary defines laissez faire as “the unwillingness to get involved in or influence other people’s activities”. Laissez faire is essentially a philosophy focusing on individual’s ability to follow his or her dreams without interference by other people.
The word laissez faire is derived from the French and it stands for “leave alone”. According to folklore, the term has roots in an industrial upheaval during Louis XIV. The story goes that King Louis XIV’s controller of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert tried to find out how the government could aid the industrialist in terms of commerce. When faced with the question, a businessman called Le Gendre replied simply by stating in French, “Let us do what we want to do” or “laissez faire”.
The idea of leaving commerce to the market became a popular theory in the 18th Century. Within economic theory, laissez faire economics was based on the idea that the natural world is self-regulation and therefore, natural regulation is better than human regulation. In essence, markets and commerce work the best when government involvement is non-existent. The economic theory of laissez faire has its basis in the concepts laid out by Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill.
For a short introduction to laissez faire economy, learn about Adam Smith.
The arguments for the approach appeared in Europe. France, as the origin of the name suggests, was the driving force of the idea. The idea flourished during the 19th century, during which the role of the individual grew in importance. The century was the century of the individual, who was free to pursue his own desired ends.
The individual should be able to pursue these desires because it would lead to the betterment of the society. For the state, the role was simply to ensure order remained and people were safe to do as they wish. The core ideas of the philosophy are:
- The individual is the basis for a society and the individual has a natural right to be free.
- The natural order will self-regulate and aim for harmony.
When the industrialization kicked off in full force in the late 19th century, the laissez faire philosophy lost some of its appeal. Nonetheless, the ideas of laissez faire kept bubbling on top of the surface and the basic tenets became recognized as a leadership theory in the early 20th century.
It’s important to note that while laissez faire economics and the laissez faire leadership are similar in traits, the two are not identical concepts. To understand the difference, let’s examine the study that defined what laissez faire leadership is about.
Kurt Lewin’s leadership study
In the early part of the 20th century, social scientists began examining different leadership and management styles. The focus was about recognizing the traits and the characteristics within a group and pick out which systems are the most effective in getting results.
Among the most influential studies in the field were Kurt Lewin’s experiments on group dynamics. Lewin was a pioneer in the field of social psychology and his experiments in the 1930s are still used by human resource experts today. Together with his colleagues, Lewin defined three classical leadership styles: authoritarian, democratic and laissez faire leadership.
Lewin’s experiments showed that authoritarian leaders were in charge of the group situation, with no input from the group in terms of decision-making. The democratic style tended to include the group in the decision-making process, with the leader acting more as an organizer.
For the laissez faire leadership style, the focus was on allowing the group to perform relatively freely. The leader’s role was a supportive one, but there was no real involvement by the leader in decision-making, setting of processes or deadlines. The style has the least managerial oversight of the three traditional styles. The emphasis is on group behavior and the ability to ensure the team can organize in an effective and coherent manner.
The above image shows well the differences in approach between the three styles. While the authoritarian style is direct, the democratic approach is participatory and the laissez faire lets the subordinates find the best way.
The three styles could be viewed through a spectrum of involvement continuum of subordinates. In the left, you have the authoritative style with no input from the group and on the right the laissez faire model with high input from the group. The democratic style would sit in the middle, as it has a rather equal input from both the leader and the subordinates.
Therefore, laissez faire is a direct opposite to the authoritarian or autocratic leadership model. Whilst the authoritarian leader is in charge of almost everything, the laissez faire hardly has any control or power in terms of decisions making and the guidelines used within the team.
This is not to say, laissez faire leadership is an inactive leadership. As Lewin’s studies showed, the leader does provide resources and advice when needed, but he or she is not actively participating in the process.
In terms of effectiveness, the experiments showed laissez faire style didn’t necessarily lead to better productivity and in fact, the subordinates did seek more involvement from the absent leader. Lewin concluded that the free-rein style was not the preferred style. We’ll explore the dynamics of laissez faire in terms of its advantages and disadvantages later.
As the above shows, laissez faire leadership, rather paradoxically, calls for limited leadership. The leader’s role is limited and the main responsibility of organizing and getting things done falls to the group and not the leader. Nonetheless, the consequences of decisions are often on the shoulders of the leader.
THE CORE ELEMENTS OF LAISSEZ FAIR LEADERSHIP
Laissez faire leadership differs quite a bit from the traditional leadership styles. As mentioned above, the style requires quite a bit less leadership than many other styles, as the leader’s role is rather diminished.
Nonetheless, the hands-off approach doesn’t mean that the framework is non-existent or irrelevant. In fact, for laissez faire to work properly and effectively, emphasis must be placed on creating the right conditions for employees to flourish.
Let’s examine the defining framework of laissez faire leadership.
The defining framework
The leadership is broadly based on three defining elements: hands-off approach by the leader, the subordinates in charge of decision-making and leader’s accountability.
The main feature of the framework relies on the leader staying out of the way. While most leadership theories require leading in an active manner, whether or not they also include others in the decision-making process, the laissez faire leadership is about stepping back and allowing the subordinates to lead.
Under the laissez faire framework, leaders shouldn’t try to influence the decision-making or guide the group towards specific objectives. The essence of the style is to ensure the group itself will be in charge of outlining the objectives and creating the conditions for pursuing these goals.
This doesn’t mean the group decides the direction of the organization. The vision, in terms of long-term and wide-reaching goals, will be set by the leader, but the roadmap towards these goals and the processes used in everyday work will be in the hands of the subordinates.
The leader’s role is mainly to create the framework for subordinates to make decisions and reach the objectives. In essence, this means the leader will have a supporting role. Without interfering in the process, the leader must ensure the subordinates are best equipped to move the organization forward.
This generally means two things: first, providing the resources for the group to operate efficiently and second, bestowing the subordinates with educational opportunities to ensure the knowledge levels within the group are appropriate.
If the group encounters problems, the leader can help to solve them together with the team. But overall, the aim of the hands-off approach is to ensure the subordinates take the initiative and unravel the difficulties on their own.
It’s important to note that the hands-off approach shouldn’t be mixed with indifference. A good laissez faire leader doesn’t stay in the background because he or she doesn’t care, but rather because the leader wants to empower the subordinates and bring out the best of their talent.
Decision-making in the hands of the subordinates
The above element sets the scene for the second key requirement of the laissez faire framework. The power of decision-making is placed fully in the hands of the subordinates. Although the leader and the wider organization often set the key vision, the subordinates will decide the majority of the decisions.
Unlike in democratic leadership, the laissez faire leader doesn’t participate in the decision-making at all. The deliberation process and the decision are solely in the hands of the subordinates, who might choose to communicate with each other or the individuals might make decisions regarding their own work without consulting with peers.
Again, the leader’s focus is on supporting the subordinates and ensuring they are able to make decisions fast and effectively. It’s also important to provide feedback to the subordinates, as this can enhance their future decision-making and improve the skillset.
In essence, the leader could act as a mentor, allowing the subordinate to make his or her mistakes, but creating conditions for enhanced awareness to ensure each decision is a learning process for the subordinate.
Learn how to make big decisions effectively from the following video.
Accountability falls for the leader
Finally, the last essential element is about accountability in the laissez faire system. As we’ll see in the section on the disadvantages of the leadership model, it’s essential to set the accountability framework to support the effectiveness of the model.
Under most laissez faire systems, the accountability should fall on the shoulders of the leader, even though the leader is not in charge of the decision-making process. This provides a relaxed environment for the subordinates to pursue the objectives and make decisions, which might occasionally require a bit of risk-taking. The subordinate doesn’t have to worry about the stability of his or her position, but can get on with the job.
In this sense, the laissez faire leadership doesn’t differ that much from other leadership positions, as the accountability is with the leader and not the group. Nonetheless, you shouldn’t assume the subordinates are completely free of accountability. The leadership framework should establish a clear set of rewards and punishments to ensure subordinates are focused on achieving the best results, not taking the most risks.
The leader’s accountability is also evident in the fact that they are often in charge of bringing the group together in the first place. It is the leader’s role to combine a team of high-skilled experts to achieve the specific objectives of the organization. Therefore, if things don’t work well, it can mean the leader hasn’t been able to create the right framework, together with the right people for achieving goals.
Since the accountability remains with the leader, it also provides more incentives for the leader to ensure subordinates have the best environment to make the right decisions. Furthermore, it guarantees the leader’s investment in the group and removes any possibility of becoming distanced or indifferent regarding how the team fulfils the organization’s vision.
QUALITIES OF A LAISSEZ FAIRE LEADER AND SUBORDINATES
The laissez faire framework requires quite a bit from the leader, but perhaps more importantly also from the subordinates. When it comes to analyzing the characteristics required to use the specific model to your benefit, it’s crucial to focus on both the leader and the subordinates.
In this section, we’ll first examine what qualities a laissez faire leader should improve and focus on, before turning into the subordinate’s characteristics. Finally, we’ll examine the requirements of a modern laissez faire leader.
The key characteristics of a laissez faire leader
It can be easy to assume that the role of a laissez faire leader is effortless and straightforward. But being able to hand out the reins to other people and to provide the subordinates with enough support can be challenging.
Here are four key qualities and skills a laissez faire leader should possess and train further.
The biggest role of a laissez faire leader is the provision of support and resources for the subordinates. Therefore, the leader must be able to be resourceful and find the best ways to provide assistance without interfering with the process.
If the leader is able to show resourcefulness, then he or she can show the subordinates the power of ‘using what you have’ and turn the resources you have at your disposal for your benefit.
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, developmental psychologist, suggested specific ways to nurture your resourcefulness in the context of teaching students. But Price Mitchell’s advice also applies to any type of leadership, especially when you are leading a group of autonomous subordinates. Price-Mitchell’s advice to leaders, and others, is to:
- Set an example with your resourcefulness – Reading and teaching about resourceful people and treat the skill as a continuing journey to development.
- Focus on your problem solving skills – Use the four step guide to overcoming obstacles: understand the issue, draw up a plan, go through with your plan, and analyze what happened afterwards.
- Take advantage of technology – Technology is essential for improving your resourcefulness, as the ability to connect with others is easier.
- Reflect on problem-solving processes – Continue assessing the way you approach problems and how you solve them. Pick out the positives and the negatives of your approach.
- Enhance your ability to be independent and to collaborate – Price-Mitchell doesn’t see independence and collaboration as opposites, but as two necessary aspects of being resourceful. You and the team must be able to solve problems alone, but also be able to work as part of the team.
- Be positively skeptical – Sometimes a dose of skepticism is needed in order to make the most of your resources. Don’t think in terms of the worst will happen, but understand the different ways things could go wrong and how you can be able to overcome them.
- Observe others – You can provide better support and improve your own problem solving by observing how others go about resolving tasks. Examine people’s behaviors and learn from their mistakes and accomplishments.
Being able to relax doesn’t mean you must need to be indifferent or avoid work. It’s crucial to understand that relaxation does not equal laziness. You simply need to be able to put your mind off from work-related things at times, especially as you won’t be in charge of the processes and the majority of the decisions.
If you are constantly stressed over how the team performs, you won’t be able to support them to the best of your ability and provide them with the freedom to pursue the goals.
In order to defer stress and remain more relaxed you should focus your attention to:
- Showing more self-compassion – View your mistakes through a lens of kindness, instead of critiquing yourself harshly.
- Keep your eye on the big picture – You can achieve a goal in a number of different ways and you shouldn’t focus too much on the how, but the what. This is especially important with laissez faire leaders, because you shouldn’t be stressed over the processes subordinates have chosen to use, but instead remember that achieving the goal is the only thing that matters.
- Create routines – Limit the amount of mundane decisions you have to make and instead create routines to cut down the workload.
- Have short breaks to do interesting things – You need the occasional break to refuel yourself and gain back focus. When you take a break, spend it on doing something you find truly interesting to reignite the passion.
- Don’t just focus on the what, but also on where and when – You should always create a timeline for your tasks to provide your routine more structure and to ensure you avoid skipping tasks or pushing them for later.
- Start thinking through the model of if-then – You can create a more positive mind set by talking in terms of if X then Y. For example, you could say “If I finish the task by three, then I can leave home earlier.”
- View work through progress – The focus should be in progress and continuous development, not aiming for perfection. This also means regularly analyzing the progress you and the team have made, without focusing on any setbacks or negatives.
The laissez faire leadership style requires plenty of confidence from the leader. Stepping aside and allowing the team to make the decisions is not as easy as it might sound. As mentioned above, it can be rather stressful and you can’t be a controlling personality as a laissez faire leader.
You need to have full confidence in your team to ensure you stay relaxed and to create a flourishing environment for your subordinates. If they sense your confidence, then it breeds confidence in them to achieve the best possible results.
Thomas Edwards, entrepreneur and social skills strategist, listed five steps to improved confidence as a leader in an article for Entrepreneur. Edwards recommends you:
- Have a clear plan, but also allow room for spontaneity.
- Focus on active listening and don’t speak before you’ve actually understood what is the context you are replying in.
- Focus on your appearance, as confidence can often come from such external factors such as what you are wearing.
- Don’t overlook the importance of health, especially in terms of physical wellbeing.
- Add confidence to your outlook by smiling!
#4 Good at creating teams
Finally, a laissez faire leader must be good at creating teams, which can be a difficult thing to do. Picking the right team is not only about finding the most talented group of people, but also ensuring the people complement each other’s talent and can form a great unit.
There are two key aspects to picking a great team: finding the talent and inspiring the talent to join. If the leader is able to do both, then it’s much easier to allow the group to lead and to stay in the background providing the support they need to excel.
Finding right talent is about understanding the kind of talent you need. This means the leader must be able to analyze the vision for the organization to pick out the skills needed to complete the main objectives.
For example, does the organization focus on product development and therefore emphasize creativity or is the objective more about increasing sales, whereas skills like the ability to understand new markets might be more beneficial?
The other aspect is all about inspiring the talent to join, but also to understand the vision and freedom. If the leader is unable to excite the person, not only will the team fail, but it also makes the laissez faire leadership framework much harder to implement.
The Brian Tracy video below offers essential tips to help you inspire and motivate a team. It’s a great watch for any leader.
The key characteristics of a subordinate
Since the leader’s role is rather limited in laissez faire, the requirements for subordinates tend to be high. Therefore, when it comes to implementing the leadership style, the focus shouldn’t be just on the leader’s characteristics, but also the personality and skillset of the subordinates. Essentially, the subordinates need to showcase three qualities: the ability to self-monitor, the ability to solve problems, and enhanced knowledge.
The subordinates naturally need to be good at self-monitoring, since the leader will provide them the freedom to perform. The ability to work without any guidance can be difficult, especially for new employees. Therefore, it’s important to improve your ability to keep yourself checked, so to speak, in order to flourish under a laissez faire leadership.
The below video is great for understanding how to use self-monitoring to your advantage. It explains how successful people can use it and form better connections with other people.
Self-monitoring essentially is about understanding what you do in terms of achieving tasks, for instance. You should monitor your own focus on creating the processes for solving problems, how you go about solving them and analyzing the outcomes.
The second key trait that subordinates need to focus on under the laissez faire framework is the ability to solve problems. Since the leader won’t provide much assistance in overcoming obstacles, other than in terms of resources, the subordinates must be creative and able to think outside of the box. If you aren’t able to face obstacles and think about different ways to solve them, then you are unlikely going to faire well under the leadership model.
The below model is definitely a great guide to improving your ability to solve an issue ahead of you:
Source: University of Kent
Finally, a subordinate under the laissez faire system must be bright and knowledgeable in a number of different topics. The enhanced responsibility to solve problems and create processes for achieving goals requires the employee to have an understanding of the organization, the industry and the different requirements of the tasks.
The leader should focus on ensuring the subordinate has as many opportunities to develop his or her skillset as possible. Nonetheless, the subordinate has to have the internal passion to learn more and to focus on self-growth.
The focus should not be only on improving one’s understanding of the professional skills required in the role, but to also enhance the subordinate’s leadership skills. This can guarantee a continuum of leaders for the organization.
Requirements of contemporary laissez faire leaders
What does laissez faire leadership look like in the modern organization? There are essentially three key requirements for the leader, combining the essence of the above talents and characteristics of the framework.
First, the leader must be observant of the group and the individual performances. Although the leader won’t have any input in terms of the decisions, it doesn’t mean he or she shouldn’t be constantly aware of what is going on. The leader should be observant and only provide support and advice in the event that the subordinate asks for it or if things are looking disastrous. Staying on top of what is going on will allow the leader to understand the talents and skills of the group. This in turn will help him or her to provide better resources for the subordinates.
The leader also needs to track the group’s performance and help solve problems as they arise. As the leader will stay in touch with the group performance, they are better equipped to aiding with problem solving. Again, the leader’s role isn’t to get involved without some sort of initiation by the group or an individual member.
Finally, the leader has to be able to provide enough constructive feedback, congratulate people on successfully accomplishing tasks and encouraging accountability and responsible behavior. All the mentioned actions are aimed at empowering people and inspiring them to perform to the best of their ability.
Learn how to provide effective feedback to your employees or your boss.
The leader’s feedback should not be aimed at critiquing the processes the person chose, but to help him or her understand the strengths and weaknesses of the approach. It’s important to provide honest feedback, which aims for improvement of skills.
Furthermore, there must be a clear framework for rewarding the subordinates. It’s crucial for the leader to congratulate to subordinate after a job well done, as it can help inspire and motivate the person. The reward doesn’t need to be anything substantial, but it should be organization-wide to ensure everyone acknowledges the accomplishments of each other.
Finally, while the buck stops at the leader’s corner, he or she should still try to encourage subordinates to take responsibility and be accountable for their actions. The laissez faire framework only works well if each person is prepared to take action and lead the group to better results.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF LAISSEZ FAIRE LEADERSHIP
Since laissez faire leadership is such a unique style to lead, the benefits and downsides also tend to be distinctive. The leader’s unique role and the increased focus on subordinates’ actions create a number of challenges for the team to overcome.
Advantages of laissez faire leadership
Laissez faire has a number of advantages, which mainly relate to the environment it creates by allowing subordinates to take control of their own decisions. The leadership style has the ability to create a more creative and motivating environment where employees can flourish and improve their skillset.
As the power of decision-making and process setting is in the hands of the subordinates, the subordinate is able to focus on achieving objectives as he or she feels like. Studies have shown that people have different ways to learn and to complete tasks. Under a system, which clearly defines how things must be done, a person who doesn’t fit the system’s style won’t necessarily achieve the best results. On the other hand, if you are able to choose how you reach the set objectives, you can use the methods and processes that best fit your style.
For example, some people might rather do background research before starting to write a report, while others might find it easier to start writing and learn more as they go. In a strict system, the employee might not be able to choose his or her approach, which could mean the result isn’t as good.
The ability to freely approach the workload can act as further motivation. The increased responsibility can act as a motivational tool. Not only can you be more motivated to finish the tasks efficiently and with high quality, but you can also be more interested in improving your overall skillset.
The above is especially true if the laissez fair leadership model in place establishes a solid rewards framework. If the subordinates can expect glory at the end of a job well done, then the extra motivation of the gains will improve the subordinate’s approach to work. The freedom to choose your approach and the awaiting rewards will help focus on the task and enhance performance.
The above will be beneficial to subordinates’ sense of satisfaction. When you are able to showcase your skillset, use the processes that feel the most natural to you and be rewarded after achieving objectives, you’ll feel inspired to continue and to better yourself with the next task.
As mentioned above, the style is especially suited for subordinates with a high-level of passion and the free-reign approach can boost the passion levels further. Job satisfaction under laissez faire leadership can be better than other frameworks, such as autocratic leadership, which can improve retention rates.
Furthermore, the leadership model doesn’t just improve a single subordinate’s approach to work, but the experiences form an improved environment where the talent flows to the right positions. What this means is that subordinates are able to focus on the aspects they are most talented in. Instead of having to do what they are told, they can perform the tasks they are more skilled to do. This creates an environment of high expertise, as subordinates always perform tasks that best fit their skillset.
Such an environment can boost organization’s innovation, but also improve the company’s bottom line. This is down to the task being completed more efficiently and to a higher standard. The organization can create a more efficient and high-expertise environment, allowing the most skilled people to flourish.
Disadvantages of laissez faire leadership
Although the above advantages can be rather easy to obtain in the right type of setting, there are notable disadvantages to the leadership framework. For starters, the lack of structure can hinder the ability to achieve goals. Although certain types of people might bloom under lack of oversight, different personalities might find it much harder.
The freedom to create your own structures can be detrimental with low-skilled or inexperienced subordinates. The lack of guidance can mean people focus on the wrong things or they don’t achieve the objectives on time.
In addition, the enhanced freedom can be viewed negatively, as it might be experienced not as freedom to perform to your best ability, but a framework with lack of support and guidance. To some subordinates, the freedom might come across as being left to your own devices with no help in ensuring you achieve the objectives.
Therefore, the employee might feel less motivated and the performance can worsen not improve as a result. In fact, Lewin’s original research found that the group under laissez faire leadership to be the least productive of the three styles and the subjects of the study found it hard to work independently without guidance. The motivation to perform simply diminished under the leadership style.
The lack of structure can further lead to a loss of accountability. This can happen in two separate ways. First, if the consequences of failure are harsh, meaning that the subordinate would suffer a stark punishment in the event of failure, the subordinate might start avoiding responsibility altogether.
This could mean trying to pass on tasks for others or only doing the minimum. Instead of trying a new creative approach, which might yield better results, the subordinate might opt for a traditional and tested method that provides results but not as positive as might otherwise be found.
On the other hand, if proper accountability structures are not set, people might be taking risks that lead to bad results, solely because they won’t be accountable for the decision. If there is a big failure within the organization due to subordinate performance, the subordinate might not be the one to suffer but rather the leader will take the fall. This might not remove the problem, as the employee won’t have to answer to bad performance.
Although the leader should provide support for the group, the role isn’t proactive but rather reactive. Therefore, the guidance might come only after problems arise. The focus on improving skillsets and enhancing performance is not as strong as under other leadership styles, such as participative leadership.
The leader’s position within the team can also create resentment within the group. As the role is to remain in the background, the subordinates might feel like they aren’t appropriately supported or that they need to perform the role of the leader. If you add into the mix that the leader might earn more money than the subordinates, the lack of involvement can be rather difficult to take. The resentment can reduce motivation or interest in serving the company.
Overall, the leadership framework can create confusion within an organization. Since each employee is free to largely set their own structures, there can be problems in creating an overall cohesive structure. Without a proper structure in place, along with things such as a framework for making decisions and timelines for achieving objectives, it might be difficult to reach the desired results.
Furthermore, the organization might suffer from clear vision, which can further hinder efficiency and ability to thrive. Objectives might be too ambiguous and schedule for achieving them too flexible. In short, the organization can fall short of reaching its full potential due to lack of coherent leadership.
EXAMPLES OF FAMOUS LAISSEZ FAIRE LEADERS
Laissez faire leader examples stretch all the way back to King Louis of France. In terms of laissez faire economics, a number of political leaders have used the idea of free markets. Perhaps the most notable examples of the use of laissez faire economics have been Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US.
But as we’ve mentioned above, application of laissez faire economic policies doesn’t necessarily imply you are a laissez faire leader. Nonetheless, there have been examples of leaders who’ve not taken the centre stage, but rather left the subordinates the role of making decisions and leading the way.
The Victorian period in Britain took place from 1837 to 1901 and laissez faire leadership style was a notable aspect of the era. The philosophy of the individual being in charge was part of the social fabric, not just at a macro-level, but also in the micro-level of the society.
In part, the leadership of Queen Victoria enabled laissez faire style economics and leadership to flourish across society. The Queen allowed experts to take charge and perform to the best of their abilities in a variety of industries, from military to commerce. The businesses of the time didn’t interfere with the government and the government under Queen Victoria didn’t impose strict rules on business.
Queen Victoria’s laissez faire approach can partly be explained by the characteristics surrounding her coronation. She became the Queen in 1837, when she was only 18 years old. Therefore, she relied on other people’s advice and expertise during the early part of her reign. Her closest advisors were Benjamin Disraeli and her husband Prince Albert.
As she matured and gained more expertise in leadership, she did become more involved. Nonetheless, her reign involved including other people closely to decision-making and creating conditions where entrepreneurs were able to excel.
While Queen Victoria embodied the laissez faire leadership in terms of creating the conditions for businesses, American banker and businessman Andrew William Mellon shows what a laissez faire leadership looks inside an organization. Throughout his career, he focused on finding the best talent to run his business adventures.
Mellon is often considered among the leading creators of the American manufacturing industries, such as oil, steel and aluminium. He was able to build up these industries because he chose talent to top positions and gave people the freedom to get things done. He didn’t feel the need to be individually in charge of everything and forcing opinions on others.
Interestingly, the business guru also opposed government intervention, such as tariffs on exports and imports. In fact, he served in the US Government as a Secretary of the Treasury and launched an ambitious plan to reduce the federal debt from the First World War. While his plans worked at the start, the Great Depression led to his downfall eventually.
Despite the issues surrounding his time in office, Mellon’s leadership clearly promoted the laissez faire ideals. He showed both the advantages of the leadership style in creating successful businesses and allowing talent to flourish, but also the downsides of laissez fare of less support.
Mellon’s understanding and belief in the laissez faire ideology shows in the following quote from him:
“Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.”
Donna Karan / DKNY
In the more recent business history, Donna Karan comes through as an example of the laissez faire leadership mentality. The internationally famous fashion designer has built a popular and profitable fashion brand by allowing people to take charge.
Karan is considered an attentive leader, but a leader who leads without getting too involved. She allows flexibility to her managers and employees, but also pays close attention to the profits of the company. If there is a problem, then Karan will help to correct it.
The Center for Association Leadership wrote in their 2013 article that Karan displays high levels of trust and provides her employees with constant feedback. She favors autonomy because she believes it’ll help bring out the best in people.
“I’m not as obsessive-compulsive about certain things; I give a lot of latitude to people and support people. I know that I can’t do it myself and that you’re only as good as the people you have behind you,” Karan said.
Due to her ability to spot the right talent and the trust she has for her employees, Karan hasn’t spent a lot of time creating her own designs in recent years. Nonetheless, her fashion empire has grown from clothing and accessories to men, women and children, to home design and fragrances. Her true laissez faire qualities shine through in her approach to success.
In a Wall Street Journal article Karan said,
“I still get a thrill out of seeing my name on a store or on a billboard – but not because it’s mine. The name represents so much more than me. It’s the ‘we’, all the hardworking people of our company, that I see in it.”
Finally, Microsoft co-found Paul Allen shows all the characteristics of a laissez faire leader. He has shown the typical laissez faire framework through his hands-off approach to leading people. He likes to challenge and be challenged with new ideas, leaving the best and most innovative people to do the required job.
But interestingly, Allen’s laissez faire is also evident in how he suffers with the mundane aspects of running a business. Allen decided to leave Microsoft rather early on, after convincing Gates to drop out of university to create the famous company.
He didn’t get on well with the everyday part of running the business and having to make the tough decisions. According to reports, the three company founders Gates, Allen and Steve Palmer, used to have intense shouting matches on what to do.
Allen’s style was much more about aiding people to find their passion, rather than leading them later on. He once said,
“Something that is characteristic of me is the breadth of my interests. I’m trying to show people that they can activate their own passions, and find their own path.”
Since Microsoft, Allen has ventured into a number of different industries and helped start up a generous amount of business enterprises. Allen’s enterprise experience ranges from the NFL team Seattle Seahawks to the Allen Institute for Brain Science. He prefers to stay in the background, to provide the resources and allow other people to take care of the aspects of running a business they are good at.
Laissez faire leadership is a bit of an oxymoron within the leadership framework, as it requires rather invisible leading. The leader is supposed to allow the subordinates to take charge, while his or her role is to be in the background and offer the resources and support needed to establish the objectives.
The model puts a different type of pressure on the leader, but it also requires a set of specific skills from the subordinates. The leadership style can easily go wrong and end up creating a non-efficient structure. Subordinates can find themselves lost in a situation where leadership isn’t just about being hands off, but it’s completely missing. While the laissez faire leader shouldn’t take charge, it doesn’t mean they should hide in the shadows either.
Nonetheless, the style is popular because of its focus on empowering people to achieve greatness and work towards improving their own skills while also boosting the organization. With the right type of team, the hands off approach can be extremely fruitful and motivate the subordinates to work harder. But as the above should have shown you, the framework requires the right building blocks to succeed.