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History of the Democratic Leadership Style

Updated January 18, 2023 by Carl Lindberg

This article digs deeper into the background and history of democratic leadership. The Democratic leadership style is one of the most well-liked and effective leadership styles available. Since this text focuses on the history of democratic leadership, please refer to this article for more information on the style as such: Democratic Leadership Explained by A CEO. Here is a very short summary of this style:

Democratic leadership is when an empowered team fully participates in the decision-making process. Any team member can bring forward ideas and suggestions, 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.

Democracy is originally derived from two Greek words, namely Demos, which means public, and “Kratos” which means ruling power or governing. So, essentially, governing the public. This concept gave citizens the right to access parliamentary forums, although far from everybody was a citizen. 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 as part of the Kurt Lewin leadership styles. He worked with colleagues Ronald Lippit and Ralph White on the Lewin leadership experiments to study leadership styles. (Democratic Leadership is also part of Path-Goal Theory and the Six Leadership Styles by Goleman, which is a much more modern framework. You can find the Goleman framework in our leadership styles portal.)

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%, a key advantage.
  • When the group with the autocratic leader left, the group’s productivity dropped from 70% to 29%.
  • The autocratic leadership group also displayed aggressive behavior among 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 a 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

Read about the entire Lewin Leadership Styles framework, where you can also reach a quiz showing which of the three leadership styles is most dominant with you.

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. (Including the Situational Leadership Model, Fiedler’s Contingency Theory, Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid, etc. All are available in our portal on leadership styles.) Hence, you cannot say that democratic leadership is the best leadership style in the world and rest your argumentation on the Lewin experiments.

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

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. (Read more about the experiments and the adult version here: Lewin leadership experiments, and my rather heavy criticism of the Lewin styles.

John Gastil[1], a professor at Penn State University, adds the 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 strives for consensus in decision-making. You can read more about all kinds of leadership styles, including the six styles by Goleman and the situational leadership model, and others, right here: Leadership Styles, or become a democratic leadership wizard and unlock the full potential of your team by enrolling in my democratic leadership course.

Besides the Lewin framework and the Goleman model, democratic leadership has been included in the following models, all be it sometimes under a different name:

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