By Eddie Pipkin

I was having lunch with a colleague last week, and I asked him how he would describe the leadership style of his new boss.  He looked thoughtful for a moment, then he smiled and said, “Laissez faire.”  Ah, there’s nothing like a little French to make a “hands off” approach sound like refined management philosophy.  I had (what felt to me like) a sudden burst of wit:  “You know the base component of ‘laissez faire’ is ‘lazy,’” I said.  No one’s gong to be booking me in a comedy club anytime soon, but it is true that ministry leadership means striking a delicate balance between empowering people and ignoring them.  One of those approaches results in a unified strategy that maximizes talent.  The other results in frustration and lethargy.

For reference, “laissez faire” is defined in the online dictionary as “a policy or attitude of letting things take their own course, without interfering.”  As a term, it rose to prominence in economics, describing a policy in which governments let markets be markets, but in management terms, it is used to describe a leadership style that is the polar opposite of an “authoritarian” style of leadership.  Authoritarian leadership, as well all know, is a popular leadership style in ministry settings.  Ministry is often led by ordained clergy, whose authority derives from a biblical mandate, reinforcing the special (sacrosanct?) status of the leader.  The very structure of local churches leans heavily into the special status of God-ordained and theologically trained leaders to guide the flock, so the preferences of pastors hold greater weight in decision making than those of secular business leaders.  We’ve written in previous blogs about the need to counter-balance this natural tendency to practice the authoritarian style (and I’ll acknowledge here that this terminology is more problematic as a framing tool after the past few years of political turmoil in America).  But whatever you call it, the top-down, micromanagement model is not the path to healthy, creative, nimble team performance.

Bravo to those leaders who are not making their teams miserable by dictating every outcome and sticking their (well-meaning) noses into every detail of every daily decision.  An altogether different problem arises, however, when leaders step back so far as to be figuratively in the next zip code, disengaged and content with the status quo.

The best leadership approach is a hybrid in which teams are coached and encouraged, course-corrected when necessary, and prodded always to dig deeper and grow in pursuit of a clearly defined vision.

In a strong organization, team members are free to do the jobs for which they are gifted, with clear direction from the leader, but without the micromanagement.

The question for leaders is when and how to get involved and when to step back, and the answers to that question varies with context: it is based on the personalities involved and the dictates of the season of ministry.  Team members have different strengths and weaknesses; success depends greatly on correct alignment between mission and team member.  Some team members thrive in a hands-off world; some need direct attention and careful management.  Meanwhile, some ministry seasons allow for more flexibility and experimentation; some require clear-cut decisions in a narrow timeline.  There are projects that lend themselves to long-range thinking and creative experimentation.  There are projects that have to be done with heartless haste.

Thoughtful leaders balance the characteristics of the authoritarian and laissez faire approaches.  In an article on the authoritarian leadership style published by St. Thomas University Online, the authors describe the authoritarian approach in its most positive light, highlighting the aspects which make this style most effective:

  • Delegating Authority. Using one’s position as leader to empower team members, handing over responsibility for projects and events to those who are gifted to lead them, then letting them lead without interference (although with coaching and guidance).
  • Cultivating the Strengths of Team Members. Taking the time to understand exactly what the talents and abilities of our team members are, then setting individuals up for success by aligning their assignments with their skill sets.
  • Praising Accomplishments and Rewarding Successes. Encouraging growth by actively offering praise on a regular basis – which proves the leader is paying attention and cheerleading for those to whom assignments have been delegated.  Offering tangible acknowledgements of a job well done.
  • Critiquing When Appropriate. Giving precise feedback when it’s needed and will be useful, without indulging negativity.  Creating a system for offering such feedback in a safe manner, rather than randomly or in a way that invites public humiliation.  Some conversations should be a critique-free zone.
  • Giving Teams Space to Run the Show. Turning team members loose to do what they have a passion to do.  Giving them responsibility for delivering results, including the possibility of failure.  Taking an active interest without grabbing the steering wheel.
  • Course Correcting When Necessary. Taking an active interest without grabbing the steering wheel unless it’s an emergency!  Sometimes we do have to step in and become directly involved in resolving a problem or averting disaster.  The key, of course, is in not exercising these kinds of leadership heroics too often or too reflexively.

Each of these bullet point headings should be followed by a parenthetical, “(as appropriate).”  The key is to balance their implementation with a clear-eyed assessment of what is required, without getting carried away.  When is negative criticism appropriate?  There’s the rub.  We should err on the side of minimalism.  On the other hand, we shouldn’t delegate authority willy-nilly – that’s a careful process.  As always, we are best at finding the correct balance for the unique needs of our organization when we have strong communication, clear goals, and a discipline of thoughtful self-analysis.

Signs of a laissez faire leader who is overdoing it on the “hands off” methodology are a lack of communication, an absence of clear goals, and a refusal to routinely evaluate one’s own leadership tactics.  This should be a proactive process for leaders.  Reactive leadership is laissez faire leadership.  The danger of reactive leadership is that things can appear to be okay, even as the organization slowly atrophies.  This is the eventual result of “don’t rock the boat” thinking – as long as there is no visible conflict, we’re doing fine.  Why stir up the apparently peaceful waters?  But such organizations can find themselves drifting without direction or with teams that appear placid on the surface but are unhappy and dysfunctional below the waterline.

Although the bullet points listed above are taken from a meditation on healthy authoritarian leadership, I think they are better understood in the promising middle ground between the authoritarian and laissez faire models: a proactive approach that is anchored in introspection on the leader’s part.

Perhaps we call this the Thoughtful Authoritarian or the Energetic Laissez Faire approach.

It’s a middle ground that takes on the best aspects of both styles, and in doing so, it makes us better leaders while maximizing the potential of our teams.

How would you describe your own leadership style?  Do you take time to consider your approach to leadership and how it is affecting the performance (and happiness) of your team and he overall health of the organization you lead?  What specific leadership skills would you like to learn more about?  Which ones do you think your team would be most interested in you learning more about?  Lead well and with courage!