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Democratic Leadership – Explained by a CEO: Pros/Cons, Examples

Updated April 19, 2023 by Carl Lindberg

Democratic leadership is one of the most successful leadership styles I have used during my almost twenty years as a global leader and CEO. Democratic leadership empowers, drives creativity, improves decision-making and builds employee engagement, making it a must for the modern leader.

Democratic leadership is when an empowered team fully participates 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.

This article explains the democratic leadership style, its advantages and disadvantages, and how to implement it, along with examples of leaders and business situations. You can also try our Lewin leadership styles test to see if you are an autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire leader.

If you prefer to learn via video format, you can watch our democratic leadership video right here:

The Background of Democratic Leadership

Democratic leadership is often referred to as “the best” or “most productive” leadership style and is part of several famous leadership theories such as the Lewin styles and the Six leadership styles by Goleman (For additional background, read Democratic Leadership History and Origins.)

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 decision-making by facilitating and asking questions. This makes democratic leadership a collective style of leadership with a strong focus on people-oriented behavior compared to task-oriented behavior.

Democratic leadership is participative and empowering

A democratically led team is highly empowered, but at the end of the day, the leader is still the one making the final decision or approving the team's decision. 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 contribute and provide strong input. Some definitions of democratic leadership also involve a drive toward consensus, even if the leader has the final say and approval right.

Remember that it is not just up to the leader to establish good democratic leadership. 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.

Let us end the introductory explanation of 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. Read this article for more famous quotes: Democratic Leadership Quotes.

Characteristics of a democratic leader

These characteristics are crucial for democratic leadership to succeed: 

1. Knowing how to use the expertise of the team

A leader using democratic leadership must know that he or she does not always know best. In order to gather additional input, perspectives, and expertise, the democratic leader needs to involve other people with better knowledge in different fields and utilize that competence. This also means knowing the strengths and experience of every team member and engaging that person on the right topics.

2. Good facilitation skills

The democratic leader needs to be a good facilitator of free-flowing conversations where each team member gets an opportunity to share ideas and opinions. Great communication skills are essential here since the leader needs to provoke, stimulate and enable the discussion to go in the right direction, as well as know when it has gone off-topic. The democratic leader also needs to ensure that every team member is involved, and that discussion is not dominated by a few team members. (Usually the more extrovert ones.)

3. Showing respect and keeping an open mind

The democratic 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 and put new information on the table. To stimulate future input, the democratic leader needs to remain respectful at all times and not insult or ignore any input. Team members whose input is met with a bad attitude will be less likely to contribute in the future.

4. Quickly understand and prioritize 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 any 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, the selection and prioritization of the input received is a key aspect of democratic leadership and enables facilitating the information exchange in the right way.

5. Avoid autocratic decision-making

If you commit to using the democratic leadership style, you will not make decisions independently unless it is completely necessary. A democratic leader also ensures that team members feel involved and participates in decision-making, especially if it is affecting them. If you take decisions on your own which you sometimes should, you inform the team as soon as possible.

Try our Lewin leadership styles test and find out if you have autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire leadership tendencies.

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 infographic image.

Feel free to use the image as long as you link back to this page.

The Advantages of Democratic Leadership

The Lewin experiments of the 1930s showed that democratic leadership leads to more satisfied group members than autocratic leadership. 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[2].

The advantages of democratic leaderdship are:

  • Creativity and innovation are encouraged
  • Collaboration creates strong solutions for complex problems
  • Employee engagement is high
  • Common goals lead to high accountability
  • Awareness and participation results in strong team commitment
  • High transparency enables quality in decentralized decision-making

Read more about the Advantages of Democratic Leadership to fully reap the benefits.

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.

The disadvantages of democratic leadership are:

  • Resent may creep in
  • Collaborative decision-making is time-consuming
  • Team members can lose trust
  • There can be lulls where there is limited productivity
  • The team’s expertise may be insufficient

Read about the Disadvantages of Democratic Leadership so you know what to avoid in order to limit any negative effects of the style.

To limit the drawbacks of democratic leadership, you can alternate it with other styles, especially the six leadership styles by Goleman, which also contain the coaching leadership style and the visionary leadership style, for instance. I also suggest you take my democratic leadership course which explains how to properly implement democratic leadership in seven steps, outlining the way I have successfully used this style in my role as a CEO. On top of that, it also includes some concrete and real examples you can learn from and a step-by-step guide on becoming a great democratic leader.

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. Democratic leadership works well in larger and varied organizations since it is not an extreme style, whereas Laissez-Faire and autocratic leadership can be devastating if applied to an entire organization due to their extreme characteristics.

For effective use of Democratic Leadership, ensure that:

- Consensus remains an aim, not a requirement

- Decisions taken by the leader single-handedly are explained to the team

- Other leadership styles are frequently used as alternatives to democratic leadership

You can read more about how to do this in "How can democratic leadership be effective".

To deploy democratic leadership effectively in your organization or team, use these seven steps.

7 tips on effective implementation of democratic leadership

Use these steps to implement democratic leadership effectively in your team:

  1. 1
    Start by including your closest team
  2. 2
    Provide transparency and ensure open communication
  3. 3
    Create enablers for idea-sharing and creativity
  4. 4
    Utilize joint target setting processes
  5. 5
    Ensure inclusion, particularly regarding the big picture
  6. 6
    Strive for consensus, do not require it
  7. 7
    Ensure commitment and respect for execution of decisions and plans

These seven steps are not easy to execute and there are plenty of considerations and actions to achieve them. I explain this more thoroughly in "7 steps to effectively implement democratic leadership". Try our Lewin leadership styles test to see if you are an autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire leader, or check out my book: Leadership Styles Classics: Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire (Amazon)

When 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 are generally a suitable target group for democratic leadership.

Democratic leadership is extra beneficial in these areas[3]:

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 the key to success. The inclusion and participation brought by 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 contributing can make it quicker to get new project-based teams up and running.

2. Knowledge worker environments

Democratic leadership can be extra valuable 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, customers, or other stakeholders.

The service industry and the education industry are two other examples that benefit from democratic leadership. Read this article for additional and more thorough examples of democratic leadership or read about my personal examples of democratic leadership from my CEO career.

Famous Examples of Democratic Leaders?

Here is a list of famous examples of democratic leaders:

  • Dwight Eisenhower, The 34th U.S. President
  • Steve Jobs, Co-founder of Apple
  • Larry Page, Co-founder of Google
  • Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter

Read more about these Famous examples of democratic leadership and feel inspired.

Other words for democratic leadership

Democratic leadership is sometimes also referred to as[4]:

Democratic leadership - quotes

In order to provide you with some inspiration connected to democratic leadership, here is a famous quote:

“Honest disagreement is a good sign of progress”.

Mahatma Gandhi

You can find more quotes right here: Democratic Leadership Quotes.

Democratic vs. Transformational Leadership

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. You can read about a democratic compared to transformational leadership for instance.

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.

Read more about the Lewin leadership styles and my criticism of the Lewin styles if you are interested.

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, much like produce-or-perish management. (You can find the produce-or-perish, a.k.a. the authority-obedience style in our leadership styles portal.) It rests on a strong leader calling the shots basically, with some similarities to the Great Man Theory of Leadership. 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.

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 a 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 well 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.

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.

Try our Lewin leadership styles test (new tab) to see if you are an autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire leader.

Democratic Leadership Articles and further reading

If you are serious about becoming a democratic leader, I urge you to take our democratic leadership course. You can put yourself on a stronger career trajectory and reach new performance levels by learning from this democratic leadership course.

I would also like to recommend my book Leadership Styles Classics: Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire (Amazon)

Democratic leadership is part of two leadership styles framework: The Six Leadership Styles by Goleman and the Kurt Lewin Leadership Styles. Try our Lewin leadership styles test (new tab) to see if you are an autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire leader.

You can learn more on how to use democratic leadership here: How can Democratic Leadership be effective?
For additional inspiration from real-life situations, including some elements of democratic leadership in the workplace, read our article on Democratic Leadership Examples.
For additional historic background, read about the Lewin leadership styles experiments and some criticism of the Lewin leadership styles.

Most importantly, I suggest you visit our huge repository with all kinds of leadership styles where you can learn more about how to excel as a leader.

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