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The line between lateral and laissez faire

Laissez faire....sounds sophisticated and fancy when you say it. It's a French word that means letting things take their own course without interference. I suppose the reason we use such decorative phraseology is because there is no real English equivalent for it. I only even know how to spell laissez faire because it was a primary topic in my doctoral dissertation. My research findings aligned with most other leadership studies--laissez faire is bad for teams and bad for businesses. Not always in all circumstances, but it's generally much better to have a transformational style (one that provides support and inspiration, helping people see the connection between their everyday work and a shared value). Laissez faire only works if your team is completely autonomous, and if that's the case, they aren't a team and likely don't have a leader, so the point is pretty moot.

We know that leaders who sit back and let their teams just take their own rudderless course are not usually successful, but it's sometimes hard to flush that knowledge with the new wave of organizational psychology. The going theories of today promote a flattening of power hierarchies so that all team members to contribute, make decisions, formulate new ideas, and take ownership of the work the team does. When everyone has power, everyone is empowered to do their best and really engage with their jobs, and that's when the team's performance really takes off. We only thrive when we evolve, we only evolve when we innovate, we only innovate when we collaborate, and we only collaborate when we share power.

On the surface though, it might seem like shared leadership means pulling back and letting the team take the wheel, but doing that is the embodiment of the laissez faire approach. So unless we want to get caught between the rock of laissez faire and the hard place of holding onto power, we need to target a middle ground.

The goal of lateral leadership isn't for leaders to do less, it's actually for them to do more, but with the wisdom to know where to put that effort.

Leaders should primarily strive to support the team, personally understanding each member's unique passions, values, dreams, and needs. Lateral leaders swiftly and clearly enforce boundaries in the team, promptly stamping out any microaggressive conduct or behaviors that tarnish the valued culture of the group, ensuring all members are sharing responsibility and accountability for their work. The best lateral leaders are always looking for stretch assignments to help employees grow, encouraging everyone to take on new roles and new projects to develop themselves.

Most importantly, lateral leaders focus on inspiring, encouraging, and bringing out the best in every team member, every day, by helping them see that their work really matters.

Leaders should not put energy toward controlling and having power over others, and should never emphasize the negative consequences and punishment

of employees not doing their jobs. If you resort to this tactic, you get your team focused on fear, and off of their valued contribution, which is hugely counterproductive to the energy of your team. Sharing leadership doesn't mean leaders get to take a vacation, in fact, it involves constant diligence to keep your finger on the pulse of what propels your team. A leader's job (their only job) is to build and sustain a culture of enthusiasm, safety, and inspired collaboration. Build that, and the team will build the value that propels the whole organization forward.


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