Definition Of A Democratic Leader – The Science, the Pros and the Cons

The word democracy stems from the ancient Greek word “demos” meaning “people” and “cratos” meaning “power”. In a democracy, the power belongs to the people, and they are the ones who make the decisions. The same is true for organisational leadership.

In this guide, we’ll explore the definition of a democratic leader as well as the principles behind it.

What is Democratic Leadership?

Democratic leadership is a type of leadership style, which applies to any organisation – from private businesses to schools, to government agencies. It’s also referred to as shared leadership and participative leadership.

Democratic leadership consists of a leadership style that largely involves group participation in the decision making process and empowers the team to agree strategy, ideas, and problem solving together.

There have been many studies over the years that support the long term affects of a democratic leadership style. In contrast to autocratic or authoritative leadership, some of the benefits of a more participative leadership style are:

  • Better customer service;
  • Greater innovation and creativity;
  • Increased commitment levels from employees.

The History of Democratic / Participative Leadership

Kurt Lewin, a behavioural scientist, was credited with coining the term democratic leaderhsip back in the 1930s.

Lewin initated his first study at Iowa University in 1938, whereby he took two groups of 11-year old children. They participated after school in mask making sessions. One group was led using a supportive and collaborative approach (which we now call the democratic leadership style).

The other was led by a more authoritarian approach of telling and commanding the children through their activities.

During the experiment, trained observers took notes to see how each child behaved as a response to the management style on the group.

In a second study, a third group was included. This group of children were left to get on with things with little to no support from the leader – This management approach was later referred to as the laissez faire leadership style.

In summary, the research team found:

  • The democratic group showed a more team approach and were focused on a “we” and “us” perspective;
  • The democratic group showed more cooperation and superior constructiveness;
  • The Autocratic group demonstrated individuality, competition and less teamwork;
  • They were also seen to behave aggressively with each other;
  • The laissez faire group had the lowest levels of productivty and showed signs of boredom and lack of interest.

The result of these initial studies showed that a democratic leadership style seemed to be the most effective form of leadership and produced consistent levels of productivity and higher team engagement and happiness.

Lewin went on to coin the common leadership styles as:

  • Democratic leadership – Facilitate the participation of the team;
  • Autocratic leadership – Tell the team what to do and make all the decisions yourself;
  • Laissez faire leadership – Step back and let the team get on with it.

Supporting Studies

Various studies support the largely positive effects that democratic leadership styles can bring:

These are just a few examples.

Others include the findings from the Hawthorne Studies. In it, workers were found to be equally productive when working in poor conditions. One of the contributing factors was that the group were being led democratically, as opposed to the control group who had been led by a more authoritarian style.

These findings infer that there is somewhat of a positive correlation between a democratic style of leadership and improved productivity and engagement levels amongst subordinates.

From an objective point of view, when people feel listened to, they generally feel more valued and appreciated.

When they feel valued, they more than likely become increasingly involved in their group’s decision making and problem solving.

Additionally this participative leadership style helps people feel happier in their role. Daniel Pink in his book, “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us,” highlights that one of the big factors that helps improve employee engagement is indeed autonomy.

One way of providing autonomy is to first listen to ideas and ensure the team work together to achieve them.

Authoritarian & Democratic Leadership Styles

At that time, and as a result of these studies, the democratic leadership style started to take a front seat as the best style to use.

The reality is that there are pros and cons to each leadership style.

Some situations require a more authoritarian style, whereas others need a more collaborative approach to decision making and the decision making process.

For instance, we’ve defined in greater detail in a previous article, when to use the authoritarian approach, but often, this style is good for:

  • Situations when an answer is needed now and there is no time to wait. This could be business critical, or even safety critical incidents;
  • In critical environments that need structure and control, like pharmaceutical and high quality manufacturing environments;
  • When someone is new to a task or skill and need complete direction.

Alternatively, democratic leadership is perfect when:

  • You have subject matter experts in the group and they have the skill and knowledge to contribute to the team decisions. They could even be smarter in this field than you;
  • When the team is engaged enough to support each others’ opinions and ideas;
  • When you want to instil a culture of creativity and innovation – This is what Apple and Microsoft did so well to turn their ailing business models around;
  • When it’s not time-critical to make a decision;
  • When managing MillennialsA study from Gallup identifies that Millennials want to work with bosses who value them as people. Democratic leadership is the best approach for this.

Characteristics of Democratic Leadership

During the democratic leadership process, members of a group tend to work in an open way and exchange ideas. The leader still needs to provide a necessary level of guidance and control to their subordinates to ensure decisions are made and the team are on point.

There are other traits to a democratic leadership style. They are:

  • While the leader keeps the final say, group members are encouraged to share ideas;
  • The leader facilitates and encourages creativity to overcome challenges;
  • Team members are encouraged to make decisions – which is evident in typically more engaged employees;
  • The team communicate regularly and are more trusting of one another. This can promote good working relationships and skill sharing opportunities too.

Here are some good characteristics of democratic leaders:

  • Honesty – They are open and share ideas and responsibility amongst the team;
  • Emotional intelligence – They listen intently and can facilitate the group well enough to see signs of frustration, stress and conflict;
  • Creativity – Democratic leaders are open to new ideas and ways of thinking and they facilitate their team members to provide ideas and solutions;
  • Fairness – Under this decision making process, all team members are treated fairly and transparently. No idea is a bad idea; no one has a higher rank during discussions;
  • Courage to let go of control – This is one of the most underrated characteristics of democratic leadership. The leader must have the courage to let go and ask the team for their ideas without imposing their own and micro managing them.

The Principles of Democratic Leadership

The democratic leadership style has a number of principles, which define it from other leadership styles.

Democratic leadership works when the team are included in a type of shared leadership. The main principles are:

  1. They emphasise and encourage the free flow of ideas through teamwork;
  2. Despite allowing shared participation in decision-making, leaders may select who is a member of a committee or group that is responsible for making decisions. This can help maintain efficiency and keep on track of goals and objectives;
  3. The leader installs a culture of open and candid conversations and mutual respect;
  4. Everyone involved in the organisation knows the vision and objectives. This enables the group members to work to the same goals;
  5. Every member of the team is a leader. This means that everyone is trained and coached to make decisions in their own right and has the empowerment to make things happen. This is a similar approach to Intent-based Leadership, which served L. David Marquet well on his Sante Fe Submarine;
  6. Group members have a good relationship and are encouraged to collaborate. This may take time to embed, as teams often go through a growth stage, but democratic leaders understand this, workign with the team to develop relationships as they develop. This in turn, helps build strong empowerment and democracy;
  7. Actions and resources are clear and agreed, so there is no ambiguity at the end of group discussions. This allows the group to know accountability and the agreed decisions.

Democratic Leaders

There are plenty of organisational leaders that have successfully adopted group decision making and democratic leadership to make positive change happen.

When conducted correctly, you can see the impact this leadership style can have on people, customer value and organisations, both in the sporting context and within industry.

Bill Shankly – Liverpool Football Club

If you’re familiar with English football, you’ll more than likely have heard of Bill Shankly. During his tenure between 1959 to 1974, he helped Liverpool win the First Division 3 times, the FA Cup twice and the UEFA Cup.

He was an advocate of democracy and in the spirit of democratic leadership, Shankly created Liverpool FC’s beloved and renowned “boot room.”

This was a meeting area where the backroom staff could discuss strategy and the way forward for the club. The provision was that all ideas are welcome with no fear of being judged or ridiculed.

In fact, he supported the notion that everyone take part and any opinion given would be heard no matter who it came from.

This democratic leadership system ensured that decisions were made with as many perspectives in mind as possible, allowing him to lead an open and engaged team of people, who achieved success together.

Bill George – CEO of Medtronic

Bill George’s path to CEO at Medtronic was a perfect match.

Bill worked for Honeywell and Litten Industries, so he is no stranger to strong healthcare management practices.

But while many may argue that autocratic procedures are necessary in businesses with tight manufacturing controls—and they would be right— Bill learned from the failings of a bureaucratic and more autocratic culture of Honeywell and Litten, and implemented a democratic leadership framework that allowed people to work together to come up with new ideas and opportunities.

This allowed Medtronic to propel forward during his leadership from 1991 – 2001.

Bill helped create a democratic management culture at Medtronic, because he realised that it was more important for people to feel empowered than for him to control everything.

He started by looking within himself and realising how unfulfilled he felt with his work before turning the company upside down-creating an organisational structure where ideas could be shared freely among employees. This led to rapid growth and new innovative solutions during his time there.

Richard Branson

Richard Branson is one of the most successful entrepreneurs around today. His leadership style and values are built around looking after his employees and leading them in an open and democratic way.

He says, “I want employees to feel part of the company and that they’re being listened to. I don’t think you can have a successful business with people who are not happy.”

As a result of his participative leadership style, Branson has grown his business to international proportions. He has been able to keep his employees happy and productive-which in turn leads them to produce excellent work for the company, as well as increasing their levels of job satisfaction.

He is famously quoted for saying: “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” His philosophy has allowed his business to thrive. AS of 2021, he currently owns around 60 businesses, of which 49 directly equate to the Virgin brand.

Apple’s Democratic Leadership styles

The Apple brand is known for its sleek, high-end products and ground-breaking technology.

However, it took many years of effort before the company began to take off. Steve Job’s was once an authoritarian leader, which helped kickstart its assent. Years later, when they started losing market share, Jobs had to reinvent himself.

He learned how to trust his team members and improve communication and decision making, by implementing a democratic leadership style. At which point, Apple found their second wind and began to grow again.

Today Tim Cook has taken over the CEO role. He has a natural participatory management style, and actively seeks ideas and collective collaboration, in order to maintain growth. Through his leadership, Apple’s worth has risen from $400 million when he took over, to over $2 trillion in 9 years.

The Pros and Cons of Democratic leadership

Naturally, there are advantages and disadvantages to every leadership style. The democratic alternative is no different.

Advantages of Democratic Leadership

Collaboration and group decision making provide the opportunity for a team to grow and for each individual to innovate and engage in their roles, which in turn create the following benefits:

  • More ideas and creative solutions;
  • Group member commitment;
  • Higher productivity;
  • Happier and more fulfilled employees;
  • Builds team relationships;
  • Team members are clear about the goals and objectives.

The Disadvantages of Democratic Leadership

There are some caveats to look out for when being a democratic leader. This is normally built around the time needed to facilitate group decision making.

  • Procrastination – It’s not always easy to make decisions in a group setting. This can cause wasted time and missed opportunity. It’s important for the leader to step in to avoid this and ensure meetings are efficient;
  • Discouraged Team Members – sometimes, if decisions can’t be made quickly or team members are feeling that their ideas are not being chosen, it can create an element of disharmony in the team;
  • Poor decision making by unskilled groups – The less skilled the team, the chances are that poorer decisions may be made.

It can take a lot of energy and effort to keep the team on point during brainstorming sessions. Some times it’s easier than others, but asking everyone to be creative but still focus on gaining agreement and achieving the goals, needs strong leaderhip.

Democratic Leadership Examples

So, when do you use a democratic leadership style and how does it work? The reality is that you can use it at any given opportunity where the team can organise themselves. This means that, rather than dictating to your team, step back and ask their ideas and solutions.

Here are some examples to help get you started.

  • Discussing and overcoming a repeating problem;
  • Discussing ideas to improve processes;
  • Agreeing a staff rota and working hours;
  • Defining team goals and objectives;
  • Creating a team mission statement;
  • Creating new products and solutions;
  • Creating a new strategy;
  • Day-to-day task management – Who’s doing what today.

The more empowered teams are, the more engagement you’ll largely get. The critical skill a leader needs here, is facilitation skills to help challenge and steer the team, so outcomes are agreed and everyone knows what to do.

One of the main characteristics of democratic leadership is to do less directing and more listening, so the team organise and align themselves under your guidance.

5 Steps to Facilitating a Decision Making Process

Here’s how the simple 5 step process of facilitating a democratic decision making process goes:

  1. Group Discussion – This is a group discussion, facilitated by the leader. It is the leader’s responsibility to ensure that the matter is discussed and a decision is eventually reached at the end of the session;
  2. Gather the information – The group review and discuss all the appropriate information, which they’ll use to make a decision. It’s important to use data to help drive informed decision making;
  3. Share Ideas and Process Information – The leader helps summarise the information with the group and then facilitates discussions to share ideas and discuss the concepts.;
  4. Make a decision – After considering all of the information and ideas presented, the group decides on the best course of action. This is normally agreed through a consensus and group agreement. Owners and actions are also agreed, too;
  5. Implement the decision – Each employee implements the decision and actions to ensure the tasks or new approach is followed through.

Additional Questions:

What’s the difference between participative leadership or democratic leadership?

Participative leadership is just another term for democratic leadership style. It’s often referred as participative because the leadership style of a democratic leader is based on the participation of the followers.

You mentioned Laissez faire leadership. Is this style any good at all?

It is largely fraught with disadvantages, because the leader abdicates all responsibility and ownership. These include little accountability, lack of control, boredom and lack of engagement amongst group members.

It can be effective in teams that are highly skilled, driven and self managed, though. And when it is used in this scenario, it often allows people to take full ownership and autonomy in their roles, thus increasing creativity, engagement and ownership.