What is Leadership?

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Arizona



Although laissez-faire style is the least frequently observed by colleagues and subordinates (Bass & Avolio, 1989), many still reveal it in varying amounts. As presidents, Ronald Reagan was one of the highest and Lyndon Johnson one of the lowest in respect to laissez-faire leadership. At the same time, Jimmy Carter displayed such leadership only for some issues. Johnson and Carter immersed themselves in the details of what their administrations had to do. Yet, although Carter ordinarily was involved in great detail, particularly in the creation of his programs, he was much less active in implementing voluntary wage and price guidelines, a macroeconomic strategy that a president can initiate by himself. Carter’s absence of much leadership in this regard contrasted with Johnson’s, for Johnson was much more willing than was Carter to use his presidential powers of persuasion and bargaining on business and labor. Carter was more restricted in his efforts. Johnson would have earned a low rating for laissez-faire leadership on this issue, whereas Carter would have earned a higher one. At the same time, for most issues, Ronald Reagan, as president, was much more laissez-faire in style than was Carter or Johnson. His subordinates had free rein to proceed as they thought best. The many scandals that surfaced during and after his administration could be attributed in part to his "hands-off" style with poor choices for subordinates.

Active versus Passive Leadership

Active or passive leadership was one of the two dimensions on which Barber (1985) described U.S. presidents. Theodore Roosevelt was a continuing bundle of energetic activity; Calvin Coolidge slept 11 hours a day.

Some investigators have studied laissez-faire leadership attitudes and behavior, defining matters in terms of the passivity of leaders; others have examined the motivation and success in becoming active as a leader or manager. Although activity and passivity are two sides of the same coin and the conclusions about them are similar, the theories, models, and methods of the two types of leadership behavior have been considerably different. Bradford and Lippitt (1945) saw laissez-faire leadership as being descriptive of leaders who avoid attempting to influence their subordinates and who shirk their supervisory duties. Such leaders have no confidence in their ability to supervise. They bury themselves in paperwork, stay away from subordinates. They may condone "license." They leave too much responsibility with subordinates, set no clear goals, and do not help their group to make decisions. They tend to let things drift. To some degree, the perceived activity or passivity of the leaders may be affected by the needs of the subordinates.

Laissez-faire leadership should not be confused with democratic, relations-oriented, participative, or considerate leadership behavior. Nor should it be confused with delegation or management by exception. Delegation implies the leader’s active direction of a subordinate to take responsibility for some role or task. The active delegative leader remains concerned and will follow up to see if the role has been enacted or the task has been successfully completed. The leader who practices management by exception allows the subordinate to continue on paths that the subordinate and the leader agreed on until problems arise or standards are not met, at which time the leader intervenes to make corrections. More active leaders monitor their subordinates’ performance, searching for discrepancies from accepted standards; more passive leaders wait for the discrepancies to be called to their attention (Hater & Bass, 1988).

Research Beginnings

Democratic and authoritarian leadership was compared with laissez-faire leadership by adults who were instructed how to lead boys’ clubs (Lewin, Lippitt, & White, 1939; Lippitt, 1940a). Laissez-faire leaders gave group members complete freedom of action, provided them with materials, refrained from participating except to answer questions when asked, and did not make evaluative remarks. This behavior was in contrast to that of autocratic leaders, who displayed a much greater frequency of order giving, disrupting commands, praise and approval, and nonconstructive criticism. It also contrasted with the behavior of democratic leaders, who gave suggestions and stimulated subordinates to guide themselves. Under laissez-faire conditions, the groups were less well organized, less efficient, and less satisfying to members than under democratic conditions. The work was of poorer quality and less work was done, and, there was more play, frustration, disorganization, discouragement, and aggression under laissez-faire than under democratic leadership. When groups of boys were required to carry out various projects under a high degree of laissez-faire leadership, they felt a lack of organization to get things done and did not know where they stood. When an autocratic leader was followed by a laissez-faire leader, the group exhibited an initial outburst of aggressive, uncontrolled behavior. This form of behavior subsided during the second and third meetings. Similar outbursts were not observed after the transition from laissez-faire to other forms of leadership. Although it did not stimulate as much aggression as did the autocratic condition, laissez-faire leadership was disliked because it was accompanied by less sense of accomplishment, less clarity about what to do, and less sense of group unity. The investigators (Lippitt & White, 1943; White & Lippitt, 1960) concluded that laissez-faire leadership resulted in less concentration on work and a poorer quality of work than did democratic and autocratic leadership. There was less general satisfaction than from the democratic style, but still somewhat more satisfaction than from the autocratic style that was employed in their study.

Ronald Reagan’s Effects

Given the negative impact of laissez-faire leadership, how does one explain the effects of President Ronald Reagan’s generally laissez-faire leadership style, which was based on his stated belief that he was properly delegating when he sat back and let his subordinates proceed as they thought best. Reagan was able to leave office in 1988 with one of the highest popularity ratings (64-68 percent) of any U.S. president in a public opinion poll. One explanation may be his choice of subordinates. If his subordinates, such as David Stockman, were highly competent, then great achievements were possible. If he had sleazy or incompetent subordinates like Edwin Meese, then the results were disastrous. The disaster was compounded when the subordinate cabinet officer, such as Samuel Pierce of the Housing and Urban Development Department, was an extremely laissez-faire executive himself (Waldman, Cohn, & Thomas, 1989). The astute management of the new helped make it possible to credit Reagan with the successes of his subordinates and to distance him from their failures. He remained the "Teflon president" immune to the many scandals that marred his administration. Furthermore, although Reagan exemplified the laissez-faire leader in much of his behavior, he also was a mass of contradictions in his orientation and style. He was described as the "least informed of the presidents I have known," by former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, yet he was highly charismatic. He derided the plight of the disadvantaged as a group, yet often exhibited compassion for an unfortunate individual.

Although it is obviously impossible to evaluate Reagan’s overall success and effectiveness as a president at the time of this writing, from this vantage point, his presidency appears to have been a highly mixed bag. Popular tax reform was matched with a mounting gap in the distribution of income between the rich and the poor. Diplomatic victories were matched by the transformation of the United States from the largest creditor nation to the largest debtor nation. The perceptions of Reagan’s building of U.S. military strength and power were matched by the country’s relative economic decline in competition with Japan and Western Europe. Although his administration exerted leadership in developing improved relations with and solutions to problems in Canada, Angola, and the Middle East, it often followed, rather than led the way to, improved outcomes in the Philippines, Latin America, and the Soviet Union for which it was quick to take credit. An archproponent of a balanced budget, Reagan nevertheless instituted policies that resulted in a budget deficit that was larger than the deficits created by all his predecessors combined. The good feelings that the American majority had for him when he left office were coupled with the worsening problems of land despoliation, drugs, child care, and care of the elderly, homelessness, health costs and insurance, education, acid rain, bankruptcies of savings banks, and nuclear waste. Many of these problems were left to be addressed seriously by his successors. To conclude, Ronald Reagan’s laissez-faire style did not seem to hurt his overall popularity, but it, no doubt, resulted in considerable ineffectiveness, especially when he had to depend on irresponsible, incompetent, or laissez-faire subordinates and when he made statements or deals without appropriate consultation with more knowledgeable colleagues.

Subordinates’ Autonomy and Laissez-faire Leadership

Subordinates’ favor autonomy. Laissez-faire leadership provides it but is dissatisfying to subordinates. Is there a contradiction? Freedom is a mixed blessing. If it means anarchy; the absence of control of oneself or others; the absence of needed organizational sanctions; the concentration of organizational control at the bottom so that individual goals take precedence over organizational goals; and an internally unregulated, leaderless, competitive market-place for resources in which each member is trying to maximize his or her own self-interests, it is likely to generate organizational ineffectiveness (Miner, 1973; Price, 1968; Tannenbaum, 1968).

(Bass and Stodgill, Handbook of Leadership, Chapter 25.)



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Send questions about this website to Denise Davies at ddavies@ag.arizona.edu.   For course information or questions not included in these pages contact Dr. James Knight. Copyright (c) 1998 Department of Agricultural Education, The University of Arizona.  Website version 1.2, last updated on Thursday, August 16, 2001.