I have seen quite a few leaders demonstrating the democratic leadership style in my career. Some of them have truly bought into it and worked for the strong empowerment of the team members and actively seeking and processing input and ideas from others. Communication has always been a great part of it, so make sure to improve your communication skills if you can.
Sadly, there have been one or two examples of leaders using democratic leadership for the show as well. They have essentially asked for ideas and input, but you can tell that they had already made up their mind before any participative process started. In some cases, it was obvious since you found out afterward that the job of executing their decision had already been started.
If you are unfamiliar with this leadership style, then read the main democratic leadership article first and then continue reading my stories.
Management team meeting on a big project
One leader set up a participative process on project X. As the discussion moved forward, more and more people exclaimed their opposition to the idea. Many arguments against it were presented, and many risks to going through with the project. Several of the people, this was a management team meeting, by the way, asked why this project was even suggested or brought up since few people understood the purpose of it at all. At this point, about two hours into it, our leader simply stated that it didn’t matter since the decision to execute project X had already been taken anyway. I can promise you that this statement resulted in a rather anti-climactic mood in the meeting. So, why did the leader do this? Here are a few possible reasons:
- Perhaps the leader hoped and thought that the group would be in favor of project X – thus, we would have felt it was our decision and wish, which would have resulted in higher dedication to the execution of it.
- He truly wanted to hear our thoughts but made a mistake – he should have been honest about it from the get-go instead of having the team members think they could influence this
- The decision wasn’t actually taken in the beginning, but the leader got sick of the reactions of the team members and turned autocratic instead – lack of self-control or patience
Project X turned out to be a mistake, and much of it was undone a few years later.
In other cases, the democratic leadership style has worked great for some of my previous leaders. Gathering the team to handle certain issues has resulted in an overflow of ideas on solutions and methods, a more precise problem description, and better risk mitigation. When going into execution mode, the group has believed in the necessity of the actions and has felt part of putting them together. This has led to a sense of accountability in execution – after all, you can’t blame the boss or say “I told you so” if you were part of generating both decisions and actions, can you?
How I currently use democratic leadership
The democratic leadership style is also one of my personal favorites, and I teach you how to use it like a pro in our democratic leadership course. However, I honestly cannot separate democratic leadership totally from transformational leadership or servant leadership in some of my daily situations. There are many roads to reaching high decision participation, after all. (Here’s my article comparing two of them: transformational leadership vs. democratic leadership styles.)
That said, I always try to involve the team in the following cases:
- When the matter requires additional perspectives and expertise
- When they are affected by the decision to be made
- When they are required to execute actions resulting from the decision
In most cases, the whole team is involved. In some cases, a subsection of the team is involved. To put this into context, I am the leader of a global company with a senior management team. This means my decisions are not about whether to call customer X or if aisle A should be re-stocked. The items on our agenda would be items like:
- Succession planning and organizational changes
- Company financials – budgets, forecasts, etc.
- Development of new products and services
- Deployment of strategic projects
- Major marketing decisions
- Global campaigns
If I fail to involve people in the above decisions, I will very soon be perceived as an autocratic leader. I mean, if I decide to make a global product campaign without consulting the four vice presidents of our sales regions, I would be seen as a micro-managing autocrat.
Including them gives me access to a wide array of perspectives and decades of years of experience combined. They often bring up items and aspects I did not know about and would never have thought of. In the end, after making a decision together, people feel empowered and accountable for transforming the decision into execution, leading to faster and better deployment than if they had been given orders to execute without questions.
Democratic leadership in an experienced and skilled team beats autocratic leadership any day of the week! Learn how to do this in my democratic leadership course where I show the methods I have used to develop teams into high-performing, creative and successful teams multiple times. Suppose you are not ready for the course just yet. In that case, you can obtain additional inspiration from real-life situations, including some elements of democratic leadership in the workplace, by reading our article on Democratic Leadership Examples.
Try our Lewin leadership styles test (new tab) to see if you are an autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire leader.