Laissez-faire leadership: You’d have to be crazy to be this kind of leader

Rene Steinhauer |

Call me crazy. Fourth of a seven-part series.


There is certainly no more dangerous form of leadership than laissez-faire, a leadership style where the leader takes a “hands-off” approach toward managing personnel on the team. Research has demonstrated that laissez-faire leadership has a negative association with patient safety and employee satisfaction.
This leadership style has been described as the antithesis of transformational leadership and also characterized as an absence of leadership. Research reveals a highly negative view of this leadership style when it is examined in business and the medical industry. You would have to be crazy to utilize this “ugly” form of leadership.
Just call me crazy. I use it all the time, and so do most nurse managers.
A place in nursing
There are few scientific studies of this leadership style, but multiple studies suggest that laissez-fare leadership is effective with highly skilled and motivated personnel (Khan et al., 2015; Sellgren, Ekvall, & Tomson, 2006; Zareen, 2014). Other researchers suggest that laissez-faire leadership is empowering to employees and increases motivation. However, I believe nursing is an occupation where laissez-faire leadership can be effective.
A significant problem associated with this leadership style is the way business leaders define it. It is time that a more refined definition is used to describe laissez-faire leadership. Certainly, it is neither all good nor all bad. To empower team members to achieve is most certainly an excellent idea. Nurses do not need managers to look over their shoulders every minute. In some ways, laissez-faire is the antithesis of micromanagement. Somewhere between micromanagement and relinquishing all control of employees is a fine medium where proper application of laissez-faire leadership is highly successful.
Not totally hands-off
Laissez-faire leadership is a more distant form of leadership. Unlike what is described by Bernard Bass (2006), who claims laissez-faire is the absence of leadership, this style allows team members to work with minimal supervision and empowers them to make decisions. This does not mean that team members may take any action they choose, but rather that they stay within certain guidelines and boundaries.
In nursing, this is part of our daily routine. A nurse arrives at work, is assigned certain patients, and starts accomplishing tasks associated with patient care. The expertise of the nurse allows him or her to make decisions about patient care without immediately consulting the nurse supervisor. Nurses may hold meds, administer PRN meds, and provide compassionate care and culturally sensitive interventions without ever obtaining explicit permission from the nurse manager. Recently graduated nurses do not usually fall into the same category and, while they may have a patient assignment, are expected to be closely monitored by the nurse manager and mentoring RN. If this same style of leadership were implemented for all nurses on the ward, it would be considered micromanagement.
As a disaster manager, I have found that judicious use of laissez-faire leadership is an integral part of my disaster plan. When I arrive at the scene of a disaster, my team is always overwhelmed by its scope. If we weren’t, there would be no need for us to be there. I frequently manage from 40 to more than 100 people, including physicians, nurses, and nonmedical support personnel.
One rule
In the early hours following a disaster, it is impossible for me to do everything, but I evaluate team members and start designating team leaders. I provide basic instruction that may include safety considerations and communicate how disasters have been managed in the past. But, there is one essential rule: Do the best you can with what you’ve got. Once the team is in place, I allow leaders to grow their team and accomplish their tasks. I do not abandon the teams, but I encourage leaders to come to me when they need additional personnel, resources, or advice on how to manage a specific incident or problem.
When leading an international disaster team for a nongovernmental organization (NGO), I am pulled in many directions by a range of individuals, including local officials, families of the injured, United Nations personnel, and representatives of other NGOs, as well as other members of my team. Furthermore, I need to facilitate this communication and information with NGO headquarters in the United States. To accomplish as much as possible, I have to relinquish control whenever I have the chance.
An Army captain once described my action as “attempting to do as much of nothing as possible.” I had to agree. If I can delegate a task to someone else, there is more time for me to accomplish tasks that are impossible for others to do. To be successful with this leadership style, I must have the ability to find and employ leaders. I also must have an enormous amount of trust that these individuals will do what needs to be done and have the courage to ask for assistance when required.
According to Socrates
Did you notice in the last few paragraphs that autocratic leadership (making team assignments, for example) was mixed with laissez-faire leadership (sending team members off to complete tasks with minimal direction)? Being available to team leaders for questions and letting them know I trust them to do the job well are part of the transformational leadership required for any effective disaster response. Identifying team members who have leadership potential and providing some guidance and follow-up transform them into leaders.
According to one researcher, Socrates believed that leadership is situational. Other researchers agree that the leadership style exercised must be congruent with the situation at hand. As stated in one paper, “It will be a blunder to adopt a single style in all situations.
Nursing occurs in highly dynamic environments, and nurses need to employ a dynamic leadership style. We are not business leaders whose primary worry is the profit margin. In nursing, our outcomes are not in binary code. Our outcomes are in blood, either flowing or stagnant.
Rene Steinhauer, RN, EMT-P, has served as a nurse on all seven continents—as flight nurse in Antarctica; as combat medic in Iraq; as disaster manager following the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004), Hurricane Katrina (2005), Haiti earthquake (2010), and Typhoon Haiyan, known as Yolanda in the Philippines (2013); and as chief nurse in an Ebola Treatment Unit in Liberia (2014). Steinhauer is presently working toward his MSN degree at Hawai’i Pacific University.
Bass, B.M., & Riggio, R.E. (2006). Transformational leadership (2nd ed.). Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates. 
Part l: Nursing leadership? Reminds me of a movie.
Part 2: Transformational leaders: Change agents for good
Part 3: When ‘bad’ is good: A time and place for autocratic leadership
Part 5: Trish and Cheesy: A story about transformational leadership
Part 6: The most transformational leader I've ever known
Part 7: In crucible of crisis, "Trust me" not enough
  • NGO
  • nongovernmental organization
  • nurse manager
  • nursing
  • nurse
  • transformational leadership
  • leadership
  • emergency
  • environmental health
  • public health
  • infectious diseases
  • education
  • critical care
  • adult health
  • Ambulatory care
  • Roles
  • Steinhauer_GBU4_rotator_4Q16_SFW