EM|Pre-Int|6. Lewin’s theory: laissez-faire style


By now, you already know a lot about leadership style theories, different styles and the particularities of the bosses using each of the styles. Let’s think about what kind of boss would be the best for you. What leadership style do you think they should have?

Choose the correct characteristics for each category

Answer the questions

1. What else would you add to each group?

2. In your opinion, what leadership style does the boss you want to work with have?

3. If you were a boss, would you be like your ideal boss?

One of the leadership style theories is Lewin’s theory. According to this theory, there are 3 leadership styles. Autocratic and democratic styles were discussed in the previous lesson. In this lesson, you are going to learn about the third one — the laissez-faire style. If you need to get a short introduction to the theory, watch the video from the very beginning. If you want to start with the laissez-faire style right away, follow the instruction.

Watch the video (0:42–1:50) and choose the correct options

A brief history of the term «laissez-faire» goes like this: it means «let do» or «let them do it». It’s a French term that was originally about how to handle the economy. At its root, it’s about the government not interfering with the economy. Just let it go how it’s going to go — don’t interfere. People in leadership studies took the sentiment and imported the term to describe the hands-off leadership style. These leaders back off and give followers lots of room and space and autonomy to make their own decisions and solve their own problems. Ronald Reagan, the president, was often mentioned as a classic laissez-faire leader. He once said directly, in fact, «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.» In other words, let them do it, and because of this, some critics call this style a zero leadership style. In other words, some people say it’s not really leadership at all, but I think there’s more to this as we will see.

Let’s find out the particularities of the laissez-faire style.

Watch the video (3:24–4:34) and choose the characteristics that weren’t mentioned by the speaker

Compared to autocratic leaders and democratic styles, the laissez-faire leader will give some overall directions and deadlines, and goals, and resources, but they will then encourage you to do it on your own. They will have fewer meetings, they are less likely to check in on you for progress updates, and they’re not going to observe you or watch you very much. It’s a philosophy of non-interference. So, when they do interact with you, they are more likely to listen and give some general advice and not as likely to micromanage you. They’re not going to tell you how to do it. And this is because they have a lot of trust in their people. If you come to them for advice, in fact, they might tell you what they would do personally, but ultimately, they expect that you’ll take that conversation and go make your own decisions. And it can be a very empowering style in this way: followers feel freedom, agency and responsibility for their project, and that’s really the whole key. Laissez-faire leaders believe that their followers are at their best and are most motivated by autonomy. Followers will do great if you just let them do it.

Think to which styles the crossed out characteristics belong. Click below to check yourself.

Autocratic managers:

  • take responsibility for the final result;
  • persuade their team that they know better what to do.

Democratic managers:

  • brainstorm ideas with the team;
  • give a lot of advice on how to do the tasks correctly;
  • respect their team and get respect from them.


Like other styles, the laissez-faire style has its pros and cons. It might work in certain situations, but prove ineffective in others.

Effective or not?

First, share your ideas on the laissez-faire style by answering the questions. Then, watch the video to check if you are right.

Answer the questions

Watch the video (4:35–7:56) and mark the sentences as True or False

So let’s begin to look at whether or not this is effective. Many followers prefer this style compared to working with autocratic leaders. In Lewin’s study, 70% of participants preferred the laissez-faire style of leadership; only 30% percent preferred autocratic leaders. And in practice, some successful leaders use this style. Warren Buffett is currently the fourth wealthiest person in the world, he runs Berkshire Hathaway, and he’s a laissez-faire leader. And he’s famous for only scheduling about three or four meetings per month, so he’s not watching people very closely. But he can do this because he has a key feature in common with most effective laissez-faire leaders, and it’s a feature that Ronald Reagan mentioned: the best-case scenario is that these leaders surround themselves with the very best people they can possibly find. If you’re only dealing with followers who are the smartest, most educated, self-motivated and competent people, then you really don’t need to supervise them very closely. They know how to do it, they’re excited to do it, so giving them space to do their work makes sense. But this style is not generally effective. There are lots of studies that say this amount of freedom can cause stress for followers. In fact, in Lewin’s original study some participants preferred working under autocratic leaders. These participants said about their laissez-faire leaders, «He had too few things for us to do» and «He let us figure things out too much». The ambiguity and lack of clarity can be stressful for some followers, but still, head-to-head, 70% of Lewin’s participants preferred laissez-faire leaders over autocratic leaders. In the video on the democratic leadership style, I mentioned the 2019 study on leadership styles of headmasters over the teachers they supervised. The authors note that all three styles were effective in dealing with discipline issues. And when they ranked them, the democratic leadership style was the best, next was laissez-faire and the last was the autocratic style. But they were still all effective to some degree. So, yes, leadership and the laissez-faire style can be effective, but it may not be the most effective in most situations. Let’s clarify a few misunderstandings about this style: in the real world, no effective leaders are completely hands-off. That’s really not leadership. No leader can avoid accountability: the leader is still on the hook for results, so laissez-faire leaders still expect results from their followers, at minimum, they establish goals, milestones and provide resources to help their followers move forward. What makes them different from the other styles is they leave almost all of the day-to-day execution up to their followers. Another point of clarification is that this style sometimes has a bad reputation because people make a huge mistake, and they think it means «lazy» which it doesn’t. «Lazy» is a common word that means a person is unwilling to work hard. The words just sound similar, but «laissez-faire, again», which is French, has an entirely different motivation: it’s about providing autonomy to your followers, so they can work on their own.

Now you know about all the three leadership styles from Lewin’s theory. It’s time to find out what your leadership style is. Let’s take a test. If you are not a leader yet, choose the answer that feels closer to you.

Choose the answers that are true for yourself

Answer the questions

1. Do you agree with the results of the test? If not, what is your leadership style, in your opinion?

2. Why do you think you have this leadership style (because of your personality, the type of company your work for, etc.)?

3. What qualities prove that you have this particular leadership style?

4. Would you like to change your leadership style? Why (not)?

5. To what extent do you agree with Lewin’s leadership theory? Explain your answer.


Read the task and choose the most appropriate leadership style for each situation. Explain your choice

1. interfere

2. hands-off

3. back off

4. room for

5. overall

6. observe

7. hold a meeting

8. ambiguity

9. milestone

Allow your browser access to your microphone, press the button «Record» and record the speech you have prepared


Choose the correct options

Now you can talk about leadership styles like a pro and you even know what style you have. Hopefully, this knowledge will be useful for you at your workplace.

Урок Homework Курс
  • A suitable boss
  • What is the laissez-faire style?
  • The laissez-faire style in detail
  • Pros and cons
  • What’s your leadership style?
  • Choosing the right style
  • Assess your progress