Developed by business consultants Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the 1960s, delegative leadership is a leadership style where authority figures empower subordinates to exercise autonomy. For this reason, it is also called laissez-faire leadership. In some cases, this type of leadership can lead to increases in work quality and decision-making. In a few other cases, this type of leadership needs to be balanced out to prevent a lack of direction and cohesiveness of the team.
Understanding delegative leadership
Delegative leadership can trace its origins back to the 1960s. The style was first described by business consultants Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey, who noted rather simply that delegative leadership was the process of “handing off responsibility from a leader to a worker.”
At the time, Blanchard and Hersey characterized leadership styles in terms of the tasks and relationships between leaders and followers. They argued that delegative leadership was most effective when followers had the skills, knowledge, and experience to complete the task at hand. Crucially, followers needed to be confident shouldering the responsibility with the leader only involved in monitoring progress.
Delegative leadership is commonly used in sectors requiring creativity, research and development, design, or venture capital – though it can be applied almost anywhere so long as competent individuals are involved. Depending on the size and structure of the organization, this employee autonomy may extend to the individual, team, or departmental level.
Delegative leadership examples
Real-world examples of delegative leadership in action include:
- Warren Buffett – an astute leader and private investor who expects his employees to take responsibility for their actions and decisions. When Buffett invests in a company, he does not interfere in its operational or strategic decision-making.
- Paul Allen – Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen left the company as it transitioned to a more authoritarian leadership style in the 1980s. He then acquired stakes in several sporting franchises in the United States and rarely interferes with drafting or recruiting. That is, Allen is happy to defer to the expertise of coaches and staff.
- Andrew Mellon – a businessman and industrialist who amassed a large fortune built on interests in the chemical, energy, and shipbuilding sectors, among others. Mellon placed trust in his management teams to run their own divisions.
Strengths and weaknesses of delegative leadership
- Job satisfaction – when an employee is empowered to complete a task on their own, a sense of increased autonomy and motivation leads to higher job satisfaction.
- Work quality and management – delegative leaders recognize the unique skillset of each individual and deploy them where they will be most useful to the project. In some cases, the leader may be the least experienced person on the team and is happy to delegate and learn from subordinates with more expertise.
- Faster decision-making – since delegative leadership favors autonomous decision-making, there is no micromanagement or waiting for weeks for decisions to be approved or rejected.
- Lack of role clarity – by its very nature, delegative leadership may result in poorly defined roles and responsibilities.
- Requires motivated employees – many organizations do not incorporate delegative leadership because it requires motivated staff. For better or worse, many employees have become accustomed to being told what to do.
- Lack of cohesiveness – when a leader is not directly involved in decision-making, it can be difficult for the team to reach a consensus since each has their unique ideas or suggestions.
- Responsibility and accountability – in most delegative leadership situations, the leader takes ultimate responsibility for decision-making. Team members can make poor decisions without being held accountable for them, which may cause standards to slip. When an employee makes a great decision, on the other hand, the leader takes the credit. This can be disheartening for employees who value individual recognition.
- Delegative leadership is a leadership style where authority figures empower subordinates to exercise autonomy. It was developed by business consultants Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the 1960s.
- Delegative leadership has been employed by notable figures including Warren Buffett, Paul Allen, and Andrew Mellon.
- Delegative leadership increases job satisfaction, work quality, and decision-making efficiency. However, it does result in a lack of team cohesiveness and role clarity and requires motivated employees.
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