Leaning on my fifteen years of experience as a global business leader, I must say that democratic leadership should be used much more than it is. In some cultures and parts of the world, a democratic leader might even be regarded as a weak leader, believe it or not. The advantages of democratic leadership heavily outweigh any disadvantages so you should absolutely consider using this leadership style.
As usual, we start out with the nutshell format answer to the over-arching question of this article.
What is democratic leadership?
Democratic leadership is when an empowered team takes full part in the decision-making process. Ideas and suggestions can be brought forward by any team member, and there is a strive for consensus in decision making. In the end, the democratic leader approves or makes the decision. Democratic leadership is an effective leadership style but can sometimes be too slow when fast decisions are needed.
Continue reading or find out your own leadership style by trying our Leadership Styles Test on the three Lewin Leadership Styles, it will open in a new tab. For a comprehensive list of more than a dozen styles, go here: Leadership Styles.
In this article, we will let you know why you should also use the democratic leadership style. We explain the concept of the democratic leadership style, its advantages, and disadvantages as well as some examples of famous democratic leaders. The article also contains information and comments based on my practical experience as a business leader. The idea is to make it possible for you to achieve a similar experience as Captain David Marquet did with his submarine as described in the book Turn the Ship Around. (Amazon link.)
What is Democratic Leadership?
Based on democratic principles, democratic leadership occurs when ideas are freely exchanged within a team. All team members are considered equals and are encouraged to contribute to the decision-making process just as much as the leader him or herself. The Democratic leader gathers input from the whole team and involves them in the decision-making process by facilitation and asking questions. This makes the democratic leadership style a collective style of leadership. The team is highly empowered, but at the end of the day, the democratic leader is still the one making the final decision or approving the decision of the team. The team also has a part in getting democratic leadership to work by actively contributing to and participating in these discussions. This is perhaps why the democratic leadership style works better with highly skilled and experienced workers that can give strong input and contribution. Some definitions of democratic leadership also involve a drive towards consensus, even if the leader has the final say or approval right.
Democratic leadership is sometimes explained by referring to its complete opposite, which is Autocratic leadership, a style where the leader makes virtually all decisions on his or her own.
Democratic leadership is often referred to as “the best” or “most productive” leadership style. These statements have their limitations, as we shall see further down in this article.
Let us end the introductory explanation on democratic leadership with a quote. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.” This statement aptly describes democratic leadership at its core. It’s one of the most favored leadership styles. All for one and one for all is a democratic leader’s mantra.
Continue reading or find out your own leadership style by trying our Leadership Styles Test on the three Lewin Leadership Styles, it will open in a new tab.
History of Democratic leadership style
Democracy is originally derived from two Greek words, namely Demos which means public, and “Kratos” which means ruling power or governing. So, essentially, governing of the public. This concept gave citizens the right to access parliamentary forums, although far from everybody were citizens.
The concept of democracy has evolved and developed further over centuries or even millennia to this day.
When it comes to the democratic leadership style in specific, it was defined much later than democracy itself. Kurt Lewin, a behavioral psychologist from the 1930s to the 1940s, is credited with coining democratic leadership. He worked with colleagues Ronald Lippit and Ralph White to study leadership styles.
Their first study on the topic, which was undertaken in 1938, involved eleven-year-old children who were studied in two different group settings. One group was made to apply a democratic approach and the other one was to apply a more autocratic leadership. Once the different roles had been distributed, Lewin and his colleagues studied what happened.
The experiment was expanded in the second study, when a third group using what we now refer to as the Laissez-Faire leadership style was included. Furthermore, each group got to experience several leaders and leadership styles.
The two experiments combined showed the following:
- When the group using democratic leadership lost its leader, the productivity dropped from 50% to 46%
- When the group with the autocratic leader left, the group productivity dropped from 70% to 29%.
- The autocratic leadership group also displayed aggressive behavior between the group members. (I’m thinking “the Lord of the Flies” here..)
- The third group was left alone, literally without a leader. This was the Laissez-Faire group, and it displayed boredom and lack of productivity. The productivity was rated at 33%
After the Lewin experiments, three different leadership styles were defined, namely:
- Democratic leadership style, the one you are reading about now
- Autocratic leadership is essentially when a leader retains all the decision-making power. The group would experience little if any empowerment and a high degree of control and receiving orders on what to do.
- Laissez-faire leadership, where the leader is either completely hands-off or a group is completely lacking a leader
Find out which one of these you are likely using: Leadership Styles Test on the three Lewin Leadership Styles, you might get surprised!
As you can probably tell from the results of the experiments shown above, their studies revealed that democratic leadership was the most preferred leadership style among those three leadership styles, at least from the perspective of the group. Autocratic leadership looks surprisingly productive though. Please note that there is a vast array of additional leadership styles available, and the aforementioned study did not take them into account. In fact, some of them were not even defined back then. Hence, you cannot say that democratic leadership is the best leadership style in the world and rest your argumentation on the Lewin experiments.
Furthermore, the experiment was run on eleven-year-olds. What would have happened if adults were to participate in the same experiment? The results need to be judged with the circumstances of the experiments in mind, that’s why it is too simplistic to state that democratic leadership is the best based on the Lewin experiments.
John Gastil, a professor at Penn State University, adds distribution of responsibility among team members as well as empowering them to the definition of democratic leadership.
Daniel Goleman goes even further and adds a consensus element to his explanation of the democratic leadership style. Although not required, consensus is a target and the democratic leader strive for consensus in decision making. You can read more about all kinds of leadership styles, including the six styles by Goleman here: Leadership Styles. Goleman wrote a great book called Primal Leadership where he explains these styles.
(Personal productivity is of course also important for every leader. Read what I use to remain productive here if you want: Productivity tools for Managers and Leaders.)
Characteristics of democratic leadership
In order to succeed with the democratic leadership style, the following characteristics are important. In order to strengthen your knowledge within these areas and enable yourself as a democratic leader, I suggest you look at University of Michigan`s online class on Coursera: Leading People and Teams.
1. Knows to use the expertise of the team
A leader using the democratic leadership styles knows that he or she does not always know best. Therefore, it is crucial to involve other people with better knowledge in different fields and utilize that competence.
2. Being a good facilitator
The democratic leader should be a facilitator of free-flowing conversations where each team member gets an opportunity to share ideas and opinions. Great communication skills are essential here. (Tip: 17 tips for improved communication.)
3. Being respectful with an open mind
Furthermore, the leader needs to be a person with an open mind; there are some ideas the leader may disagree with, but these should still be extracted from the team. These ideas might provide additional useful angles and perspectives as well as put new information on the table.
4. The capacity to understand and prioritize among ideas and information
If you are a democratic leader, you also need to have the ability to sort through and identify useful ideas from the flood of ideas emerging during the participative process. Some ideas will be great, and some might be so irrelevant they become a nuisance if time is spent on evaluating them further. Hence, selection and prioritization of the input received is a key aspect of democratic leadership.
5. No need for autocratic decision-making
A democratic leader also ensures that team members feel involved in decisions affecting them. If you commit to using the democratic leadership style, you will not make decisions on your own unless it is completely necessary.
Keep in mind that it is not entirely up to the leader to get good democratic leadership established. The team needs to be willing to participate and be part of idea generation and decision-making – not all team members actually want to do this.
What are the Pros and Cons of Democratic Leadership?
You can read an extensive and more detailed list of the Advantages and Disadvantages of democratic leadership below this image that provides an overview of the topic.
The Advantages of Democratic Leadership
As mentioned above, Lewin et al showed that democratic leadership leads to more satisfied group members than the autocratic leadership style. Newer research shows that the difference isn’t that big and that it depends on several other parameters than just which of the styles are being applied, such as group size for instance. Let us look at some of the advantages of democratic leadership.
1. Creativity and innovation are encouraged.
Democratic leaders value the process of generating new ideas. They appreciate that each team member has unique experiences and skills which add value to the creative process. Since they deliberately encourage idea sharing, a climate of innovation spreads in the organization. People think of how to increase productivity, make a process a bit easier, how to reduce errors, how to solve customer needs better, new products to build, etc. For hints and ideas on how to make a deeper impact, read how leaders can influence organizational culture.
2. Collaboration creates strong solutions for complex problems.
There are times when decisions need to be made quickly. Oftentimes, autocratic leadership is preferred in those particular cases. However, when time isn’t scarce, which is in an absolute majority of the cases in the business world at least, the democratic team can come together and find the best solutions to complex problems. By utilizing multiple perspectives, experiences, attitudes, and ideas, the team can most often find robust ideas with limited downsides by working together. Thanks to the transparency of democratic leadership, the group clearly understands the issue and the leader guides them towards consensus on the best way to tackle it. The University of Michigan offers a very relevant class available online on Coursera: Building High-Performing Teams. Check it out to improve your competency in this area.
3. Employee engagement is high.
The participative nature of democratic leadership creates a more positive work environment where team members are included. They work together to achieve the organization’s goals and feel that their opinions matter. This builds trust and respect among the team members, which in turn makes the work environment even better.
4. Common goals lead to high accountability
A democratic leader involves people in setting the goals and targets of the organization. In the end, this means people will feel that this is their goal and their targets rather than the leaders. This strong feeling of accountability in combination with the high empowerment in democratic leadership normally leads to higher productivity than in Laissez-Faire leadership for instance. Continue reading below and I will elaborate on a personal experience where participation and democratic leadership in strategy creation had an enormous impact on employee engagement as well as productivity.
The Disadvantages of Democratic Leadership
Democratic leadership may seem like the perfect leadership style for any business serious about growth. However, like any other leadership style, it has some flaws.
1. Resent may creep in.
A positive work environment is created when all team members are respected and valued. However, it is possible that some team members’ ideas and opinions may consistently be better or get more attention than the ideas of others. This may lead to others believing that their ideas are not valued – the opposite of what democratic leadership should be. A democratic leader should know how to incorporate the ideas of as many team members as possible so that it does not seem that preference is being given to a select group of team members over others.
2. Collaborative decision-making is time-consuming.
Leaders often need to make quick decisions. Having to defer decisions to the team may cause unnecessary delays which either increase the problem or worsen the consequences. A strong democratic leader will know when to use collaborative decision making and when to use a quicker approach which involves discussion with selected individuals or no discussion at all.
3. Team members can lose trust.
After some time in an environment of democratic leadership, team members start to expect a participative leadership approach and perhaps even see it as mandatory. Therefore, they become confused if and when the leader makes quick decisions without their input. This can lead to uncertainty about when they’ll be included in decisions and a sense of feeling left out. A democratic leader needs to effectively communicate the reasons for quick decisions so that discord doesn’t permeate throughout the team.
4. There can be lulls where there is limited productivity.
Valuing the input of all team members is great. However, waiting for consensus in order so that the team can move forward creates periods where people are not sure what to do. This waiting time could lead to a reduction of productivity. Team leaders should understand how to simplify the decision-making process and reduce moments of low productivity. Furthermore, striving towards consensus does not mean that consensus is always a requirement.
5. The team’s expertise may be insufficient.
The input of team members can be more valuable when they are skilled and experienced. Democratic leaders with an inexperienced team may get more ideas with limited viability or too many flaws. This can make the decision-making process longer so the leader should be mindful of this when setting up the decision-making team. (For these teams, use some coaching leadership as well, do develop your people.)
Now that you are familiar with the pros and cons, consider trying our Leadership Styles Test on the three Lewin Leadership Styles, to see what kind of style you are likely using.
How Can Democratic Leadership Be Used Effectively?
One of the nice things about democratic leadership is that it isn’t extreme, in fact, it is kind of building on compromise already. Whereas Laissez-Faire and autocratic leadership can be devastating if applied to an entire organization, and rather should be used for portions of an organization, democratic leadership can actually work well on a wider basis since it isn’t belonging to any of the extremes on the authority scale. The extremes would be Laissez-Faire where team members have complete authority and Autocratic leadership where team members have close to zero authority.
In order to deploy democratic leadership effectively in your organization or team, consider the following few pointers.
7 tips on effective deployment of democratic leadership
Besides these 7 tips below, I really suggest you check out my list of recommended leadership books since many of them contain great advice related to democratic leadership,
1. Start by using your closest team
The core of democratic leadership is participation, so why don’t you start with gathering your team and discussing it with them? Make sure all of you get a general orientation of the democratic leadership style and what it can do for you, and let the discussion start. This will generate ideas, support, inclusion, participation which is a great start to deploying democratic leadership. In the end, this will also generate accountability within the team – they were part of it from the start so they will also be part of any success or failure of this endeavor in the future. Develop your empathy as a leader before doing this, it will make things much easier for you. Also, consider using elements of Affiliative Leadership to strengthen your bonds.
2. High transparency and open communication
Inform your team and organization regularly on current developments, priorities, achievements, etc. Use multiple formats for this, and ensure you have some opportunity for people to ask questions and encourage them to do so. When those questions come, make sure to answer them properly. (Do not get stuck in the old hierarchical and bureaucratical Downward Communication. Instead, learn and use the tips in this article: 17 tips for improved communication.)
If you use the phrase “never excuse, never explain”, then reconsider. In democratic leadership, it is important that you take the time to explain things to people, even if it is regarding your own decisions. Explaining things to people properly will make them feel valued, creates an opportunity for you to gather more information and ideas through feedback, and make them feel part of what you are trying to achieve together.
People that are regularly updated on how the company is doing and having their leader explain what is going on and what the concerns are will make them feel respected and part of the overall picture – both will motivate them to higher productivity.
Consider how you run your meetings in your organization. Find ways of getting everybody to communicate and avoid having a few people dominating the meetings. In discussions, complete the circle around the table and make sure everyone talks. People will get used to this in the end. (Read about Why leaders should always speak last for inspiration.)
In order to improve communication, refer to our article on Leadership Communication.
Encourage all other leaders to do the same throughout the organization.
3. Put enablers for idea sharing and creativity in place
Consider different tools for stimulating creativity throughout your organization. These can be simple or complex, you and your team will set the bar. Here are some examples:
- Re-introduce the old suggestion box – perhaps in the shape of an inbox in this digital age
- Have recurring brainstorming meetings on certain topics. The purpose of the meeting is to generate new ideas, not find reasons why they will not work
- Provide incentives for patents or great ideas
- Set up cross-functional forum for multi-disciplinary idea generation. You will be amazed at what can come out of a session with people from sales, manufacturing, R&D, finance, service, and sourcing for instance.
- Remove the drama – an idea does not have to be the next big product for the company. All ideas count, even the ones making it easier to book a conference room in your office building
4. Deploy joint target and goal setting processes
Avoid autocratic leadership when setting budgets, targets, and personal goals as much as possible. This is an area where it might be difficult to reach consensus and even to gather ideas on how to raise the bar. Some things you can do to achieve this:
- Have people start out with suggesting their own targets
- Involve a larger group. If the sales manager is in the room, he or she might make it obvious why production need to increase their targets
- Ask what it would take to reach a higher target, then find ways together to enable that and remove any barriers and obstacles
- Work on targets and goals both ways. If a subordinate of yours are over committing, discuss whether the targets should be reduced. It would not be good to only try to push numbers up – after all, the targets should be the right ones, not the highest ones
- Discuss what reaching a higher target would result in for the team and the organization
If you manage to get targets set jointly, the empowerment will be high, and the accountability will be great. In autocratic leadership, you can always blame your leader for setting an outrageous and unreachable target. It is an entirely different thing to blame someone if you took an active part in creating said target yourself. This will work like magic in terms of getting a willingness for execution and a hard drive to meeting the target.
Just make sure people get the support they need from other people in the organization.
If you really want to take your team to the next level with truly great performance, you really should read the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, it`s was a true eye-opener for me personally.
5. Inclusion in general, and in the big picture in particular
Make sure people feel included. You will come a long way by deploying tips number one, two, and three above, but do not forget the big picture, be it your long-term vision or strategy. There are different levels of involvement possible here, you and your team need to find out where to draw the line.
- A certain group can participate in creating the vision or strategy goal
- A larger group can participate in determining how to achieve the vision or goal
- An even larger group can participate in executing the “how”
There are pros and cons with most approaches on how to do this of course. It is difficult to involve one thousand employees in number one, vision creation, right? Not necessarily. Involve them to create the background information, submitting ideas, suggestions on what they think is the most important to achieve, etc. You can use surveys to gather input and reactions as well as deploy an affiliative leadership style. Doing this can grow engagement rates as well as ensuring the people feel part of the bigger picture.
Regardless of how you do this, it is my opinion that the efficiency and outcome of tip number three will be better the more you communicate and include people in tip one and two. Don’t go too far though, remember that time also costs. Do not try to have 50 people agree on what your strategy is going to be. This is for a smaller group, just don’t forget the others when it comes to two-way communication aspects. (Again, check out our 17 tips on communication for leaders.)
Refer to Visionary Leadership or Transformational leadership for some interesting input on vision and change. For a direct comparison, read our article here: transformational leadership vs democratic leadership.
6. Strive for, but don’t require consensus
If you are a democratic leader, consensus is a good thing. Try to establish it when possible, but do not spend too long doing so. In the end, sometimes a delayed decision can be costly and problematic. It is good if everyone agrees, but in the end, the democratic leader will need to make decisions every now and then. Just remember to be transparent. Let the team know how you think and why you took the decision you took. (Consider the book Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions to learn more about decision making in practice.)
7. Ensure respect and commitment to execution
Do not settle for anything else than true commitment to decisions in your top team. Even if there is a disagreement and lack of consensus in the team, once the decision has been taken, everybody needs to be committed to the decision and execute as required. In democratic leadership, you get your voice heard. The price of this is that everyone else also get their voices heard and this will result in decisions that are sometimes unfavorable to a specific team member.
Where is democratic leadership extra beneficial?
Some businesses can benefit additionally by deploying a democratic leadership style. Highly skilled workers that require little to no supervision is generally a good target group for democratic leadership. Here are a few examples.
1. Creative businesses
In companies where research and development are important and companies where designs and artistic work are important, it can be beneficial with democratic leadership. These types of workers need to be uninhibited and be allowed to freely think of possible new innovations rather than being forced to adhere to a specific route or set of strict rules. This could be technology companies, certain manufacturing companies, marketing, advertising, and other types of businesses where creativity is a key to success. The inclusion and participation that comes with democratic leadership are extra useful since development in these businesses is often project-based. Working with project members that are used to being empowered and used to contribute can make it quicker to get new project-based teams up and running.
2. Knowledge worker environments
Democratic leadership can be extra useful in businesses with knowledge workers where everyone needs to participate in leading the company in some way. Consultant companies, for instance, require relatively few individuals with high competency to deliver on customer projects. Having an open and empowered atmosphere is crucial since the formal boss might not know much about a specific customer project. Democratic leadership also facilitates the influx of information and ideas from all directions, be it the consultants themselves, their colleagues, the customer, or other stakeholders
The service industry and the education industry are two other examples that benefit from democratic leadership.
Democratic leadership: practical experience from my career
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 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 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.
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 were presented, and many risks with 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 doesn’t matter since the decision to execute project X had already been taken anyway. This statement resulted in a rather anti-climactic mood in the meeting, I can promise you. 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 although 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 try to always 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 in executing 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 isle A should be re-stocked. The items on our agenda would more 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 would 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, of course, 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 they also feel accountable for transforming the decision into execution which leads to faster and better deployment than if they had been given orders to execute without questions asked.
Democratic leadership in an experienced and skilled team beats autocratic leadership any day of the week!
Process improvement example
Let me take an example that is of a bit more tactical nature from earlier in my career. This is long ago, so there is a risk that I without knowing it add a flavor of how I would go about this today after accumulating a lot more experience. It could still use as a good example though so here it goes.
I set out to optimize a cross-functional delivery process in the company I worked for. To do this, I gathered the key stakeholders, essentially the people doing different parts, and in some cases controlling the resources involved in execution. We sat down together, and I described the current process and why there was a need to optimize it. Then I turned to the group and asked, “What and where do you see the problems in this process?” which got a good discussion and mapping of bottlenecks started. The next portion was “How can we do to improve the process?” which is not necessarily just solving the problems coming out of the first question – it can be various other things as well. So, what happened during and after this meeting?
- We got a good overview of the challenges
- We got good ideas on how to improve
- We jointly decided on how to proceed
- People felt empowered to contribute
- They felt more accountable since they had gotten empowered
As always, people are different. Some simply fought for resolving “their problems” whereas a few had a larger perspective and wanted to improve the overall process and feared sub-optimizing.
My role in this: Facilitating the discussion, ensuring participation of all parties, asking questions, listing items, asking and helping with consequence assessment, and guiding the decision-making process. I happen to personally enjoy this type of role very much by the way. If you like what you do, you normally get better at it too.
When democratic leadership has failed..
Naturally, I have some examples of when I failed with using democratic leadership. This has happened rather few times though I must say. These occasions would mostly fit into one of the following areas:
- The consequences of the decision were too big, so people did not want to be part of deciding. This has often been about letting people go.
- The decision turned out to be less important than I anticipated. The team simply didn’t care which way we would go
- The team completely failed to contribute to the decision-making process, and I had to move slightly in the autocratic, or rather pacesetting and directive direction to get people moving. This has often been the case when the outcome of the decision would have raised the requirements or targets for the team members themselves. Even if they believe in reaching the targets, there is substantial reluctance in doing so.
Famous Examples of Democratic Leaders?
Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969)- The 34th President of the U.S.
Eisenhower was the Supreme Command of NATO before he served two terms as the U.S. President. His military role came at a pivotal time in world history- World War II. One would have expected him to adopt an autocratic leadership style since that’s the common style of the military. However, Eisenhower knew that his team had to take on a more participative role if they were to succeed. He involved several people in the decision-making process and consult many trusted advisors.
Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011) – Co-founder of Apple
Steve Jobs displayed at least two leadership styles when he led Apple. He began as an autocratic leader while he was building the company from the ground up. However, he was ousted from the company in 1985. The company began to decline, and he was asked to return in 1997. A more democratic approach became customary for him during this second phase of leadership although he still had autocratic tendencies. Jobs understood how to adapt his leadership style to suit the needs of the company at various stages of growth.
Larry Page (1973- present) – Cofounder of Google and Former CEO of Alphabet Inc.
Page believes in leadership that makes a difference. He values innovation and allowing his team to have creative freedom. Efficient communication and management strategies are things he highly values. In fact, many would describe him as a transformational leader. He may just be a little bit of both. (Here’s our comparison by the way: transformational leadership vs democratic leadership.)
Jack Dorsey (1976 – present) – Twitter CEO
Dorsey believes in developing and empowering team members while holding them accountable. He also believes in being open about weaknesses and doing whatever possible to correct them. His leadership has helped Twitter become one of the most popular social media platforms.
The ugly siblings of democratic leadership
Since the Lewin definition of democratic leadership was done in a framework of three styles connected to each other, I figured it would make sense to give you, the reader, a short overview of the other styles of the set, namely autocratic and laissez-faire leadership. The following descriptions are based on excerpts from our articles on these topics.
Consider trying our Leadership Styles Test, to see what type of leader you might be.
Autocratic leadership – the polar opposite of democratic leadership
The autocratic leader is the one retaining virtually all decision-making power. The autocratic leadership style can pretty much be regarded as the opposite of the democratic leadership style above. It rests on a strong leader calling the shots basically. This can lead to low engagement since there is little empowerment and little trust in general. Depending on the situation, the autocratic leadership style can be surprisingly effective, especially when time is scarce and quick decisive decisions are required – again the opposite of the participative element of the democratic leadership style.
The autocratic leadership style is often divided into three different types.
Directing: detailed instructions are given, and execution is expected to the letter. This is followed by close control and constant monitoring. No questions asked.
Permissive: Although the autocratic leader makes all the decisions, the followers are left with authority on how to execute the decisions. This retains some creativity and utilizes the competency and experience of the followers to a higher degree.
Paternalistic: This version of autocratic leadership focuses on the well-being of the followers. The leader acts as a “father” who knows what is best for the “children”, i.e. the followers. Some input and discussion might be allowed in decision making, but the leader disregards if he or she wants to.
Although the autocratic leadership style is generally disliked it has a place and that’s in times of crisis when difficult decisions need to be taken fast. The autocratic leadership style can also be useful in organizations where motivation is lacking; the autocratic leader can push through for results anyway. Studies have found that specific types of personalities actually prefer being led by an autocratic leader.
Examples of autocratic leaders: Martha Stewart, Howell Raines, and Leona Helmsley.
For a full and more complete description of this leadership style, click here: Autocratic Leadership Style. We also have a comparison article here: Autocratic leadership vs. laissez-faire leadership. You can also try our leadership styles test which indicates if you are an autocratic, laissez-faire, or democratic leader.
Laissez-faire Leadership – leaderless of hands-off leadership
This leadership style is sometimes referred to as the delegative leadership style. Laissez-faire is essentially a hands-off approach where the leader stays back and lets the team do the work on their own. Minimal guidance is provided to the team and they are expected to make decisions and execute using that guidance. Laissez-faire leadership can be intentional, i.e. the leader backs off and lets the team loose so to speak. It can also be unintentional, literally resulting in an absence of leadership. Laissez-faire can work well in a team where the high level of empowerment meets the right talent. In fact, a good team can do well under a laissez-faire regime.
Teams with highly specialized experts can do rather good under laissez-faire leadership since it gives them substantial freedom to make their own decisions. A high degree of specialization could lead to silo thinking if not the overall leader is there to remind the team of the importance of cooperation etc.
A laissez-faire leader can be perceived as uncaring, uninterested, and absent which can confuse the team members regarding direction and clarity on roles. An uninterested leader often results in lower accountability amongst the team members which in turn leads to decreased productivity. (Find out what gear I use to maximize productivity here by the way: Productivity tools for leaders.)
Warren Buffet and Ronald Reagan are considered examples of laissez-faire leaders. If you have further interest in laissez-faire leadership you can read more about its origin, pros, cons, and examples in our article on the laissez-faire leadership style. The article also contains some real-life examples of the leadership style that I have experienced over my fifteen-year long leadership career.
We also have a comparison article here: Autocratic leadership vs. laissez-faire leadership.
You can also try our leadership styles test which indicates if you are an autocratic, laissez-fair,e or democratic leader.
Other words for democratic leadership
Democratic leadership is sometimes also referred to as:
- Participative leadership
- Shared leadership
- Integrative leadership
- Channeled leadership
Books on Democratic Leadership
If you are interested in Democratic leadership, I suggest the following books, all links go to Amazon.
Turn the Ship Around! is a book by Captain David Marquet telling the story of how he and his colleagues transformed one of the worst-performing submarines and submarine crews into one of the best of their kind.
Patric Lencioni has written a book on the essentials of team building and ensuring high participation through trust, conflict, commitment, and accountability. It`s a must-read if you want to improve on your democratic leadership. You can find it here: The Five Dysfunctions of a team.
Democratic leadership – quotes
Let us top off this article with a few quotes related to Democratic Leadership. Take a look at this infographic.
Related leadership styles
Before going into some practical examples of democratic leadership that I have personally experienced, let us spend some time looking at similar and related leadership styles. The core of democratic leadership is really to include the team in decision-making, and there are multiple styles that do this. To deepen our understanding of democratic leadership, it makes sense to scratch the surface on these styles as well. The following descriptions are based on excerpts from the articles on each style.
A transformational leader inspires people and leads by example. He or she believes the team members can transform and evolve to become better as individuals and reach higher levels of performance and productivity. For an in-depth comparison, refer to our separate article: transformational leadership vs. democratic leadership.
The leader and the teamwork together to find the need for change and create a vision for the future which they then start working towards together. Empowering and giving authority to individuals in the organization is one segment of transformational leadership and this often leads to positive attitudes and higher productivity.
The working together part and empowerment part has strong connections to democratic leadership.
The wanted outcome of transformational leadership is to reach really high engagement and use that to reach increased levels of motivation and productivity. The leadership style also seeks to improve and increase the ethical aspects of team behavior. The ultimate goal of the transformational leader is to inspire and develop the team members to achieve fantastic levels of success and achievement. (Check out our article on How to create a leadership development plan.)
Transformational leadership is associated with positive results and high engagement among employees.
Nelson Mandela is often mentioned as a transformational leader who painted a strong vision and inspired a lot of people to believe that change was possible. Mandela’s strong focus on forgiveness has an ethical aspect that is also in line with the transformational leadership style. Another example is Mahatma Gandhi who managed to instill great change while retaining strong ethics. Sir Richard Branson and Marissa Mayer are also examples of transformational leaders.
For ideas on providing your team members with a vision, please have a look at our articles on Transformational leadership and Visionary Leadership. You might also want to get some inspiration from reading about the Charismatic Leadership Style.
In the Servant Leadership Style, the leader is selfless and focuses completely on improving the organization and its people. Servant leaders are good at listening and have a lot of empathy – assets that are used to develop others. This leadership style often leads to high employee engagement and highly motivated employees, much thanks to a high degree of empowerment and that the leader is willing to relinquish a lot of the authority to others. It can go too far though if the focus on the employees is so high that the future of the organization is set to a second priority.
The listening attitude and the high level of empowerment compare well with the democratic leadership style.
Mother Teresa is a well-known example of a servant leader due to a high level of self/sacrifice and dedication to caring for others. The 14th Dalai Lama, Lhamo Thondup, is another leader who has helped his followers and made it his mission to serve humanity.
We have a full article on the Servant Leadership Style if you want more in-depth information.
 and “A Handbook of Leadership Styles”, Cambridge Scholars Publishing