How can democratic leadership be effective? – CEO Reflections #17


I have often used the highly effective Democratic leadership style during my career as a CEO. Democratic leadership is particularly effective in experienced and skilled teams and can result in genuinely empowered teams. This CEO tip is about ensuring that your democratic leadership is effective.

How can democratic leadership be effective?

Democratic leadership can be very effective if it is used as a participation tool that builds innovation, empowerment, and accountability while avoiding too much emphasis on reaching consensus, which leads to inefficient use of time and constant compromising.

Keep reading to understand this in detail, or check out our in-depth article on the democratic leadership style, one of the most effective ways of leading today.

Introduction to Democratic leadership?

To implement effective Democratic leadership, you need to embrace the basics of the Democratic leadership style while ensuring that you do not go overboard with it. Above all, you need to limit or eliminate the drawbacks of the leadership style while still fully utilizing its advantages.

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We need to get acquainted with the democratic leadership style first. Here is a short and brief explanation of Democratic leadership from our in-depth article What is Democratic Leadership?.

Democratic leadership is when an empowered team takes full part 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.

Based on democratic principles, democratic leadership occurs when ideas are freely exchanged within a team. Team members are considered equals and are encouraged to contribute to the decision-making process together with the leader. The Democratic leader gathers input from the whole team and involves them in the decision-making process by facilitating 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 team’s decision. The team also enables democratic leadership by actively contributing to and participating in these discussions. This is why the democratic leadership style works better with highly skilled and experienced workers that can give vital input and contribute accordingly. Some definitions of democratic leadership also involve a drive towards consensus, even if the leader has the final say or approval.

Let us spend a moment on the advantages and disadvantages of this leadership style as well as part of this introduction.

Democratic leadership encourages creativity and innovation, and robust solutions to complex problems are reached through collaboration. The participation and involvement among team members, who even participate in setting goals for the team, lead to high accountability and strong employee engagement.

As with all leadership styles, there are also disadvantages of the democratic leadership style. The participative approach can result in low productivity due to extended decision-making processes. Team members might lose trust, and resentment may creep in if the leader has to go against the team occasionally. The worst weakness of democratic leadership is that it puts high demands on the skill and experience of the group, as junior teams with little talent will not be able to contribute to the decision-making process in a valuable fashion.

Let us get back to how democratic leadership can be effective now that we have gone through the introduction.

How can Democratic Leadership be effective?

Democratic leadership can be effective by utilizing its strengths and avoiding its pitfalls and weaknesses.

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Do not depend on reaching Consensus

Participation in decision-making is a core element of democratic leadership. Some sources describe democratic leadership as consensus-seeking, and I agree. You seek consensus by finding out the opinions and viewpoints of the entire team and adjusting your solution to avoid any major issues or risks highlighted by the team during this process. Once a strong solution is available and properly thought-through, it is nice if the entire team agrees. This is seeking consensus, which should never be confused with needing consensus. In the end, the leader needs to make the decision. The democratic team needs to understand this, and the empowerment is not always in making the decision but instead in influencing and shaping it. In the end, it is the leader who either confirms the team’s decision or solely decides after carefully considering the input from the group.

The leader needs to be very careful to explain why a particular decision was made to avoid mistrust and resentment. This shows that the leader is cognizant of acting against the will of some of the team members. By acknowledging this, the leader shows respect for the process, and the team will not walk away wondering if their opinions even mattered.

Be careful with making decisions without the team

Democratic leaders need to make fast decisions independently, but they should be avoided when possible. Decisions that do not affect the team and decisions that must be made very fast are examples of when participation cannot be secured.

The leader can avoid any fallout by simply informing the team about the decision taken and why the team could not be involved in it. If the leader has reasons that make sense, which is mostly the case, the team will likely accept the situation and move forward.

This avoids the pitfall of the decision-making process being too time-consuming.

Alternate democratic leadership with other leadership styles

When there is no time to be democratic, the leader needs to use another style, such as directive leadership. When the leader is working with one person on their personal development, again, it is not time to be democratic, but rather to be coaching. When goals and milestones must be met, and the team disagrees on the importance, the leader might need to use some pacesetting leadership.

You get the point. Do not entirely depend on a single leadership style since it will not fit all situations. Construction workers use several tools and not just a hammer, so why shouldn’t leaders use different tools for different situations?

Carefully calibrate democratic leadership in low skilled and inexperience teams

Do not go utterly democratic with a low-skilled and inexperienced team. I will give you a quick example of a franchise fast food joint. There is no need to sit the team down and discuss if the recipes are good enough. First of all, you are not supposed to change them, and secondly, the team likely lacks the skill to create a better recipe. Put your democratic leadership approach where it makes sense, and again, use multiple leadership styles. In this example, you can use democratic leadership to plan work rotation, discuss the upcoming family day, what kind of newspapers to have in the break room, new ideas on cleaning the place up quickly so people can get home faster, etc. You can be a democratic leader; you just need to pick the right topics. In a senior team, such as a management team, the participative issues could be the strategy, budgeting, and the product portfolio.

Conclusion on How Democratic Leadership can be effective?

I use democratic leadership frequently, and I have used it in low-skilled environments as well. It builds engagement, and people feel like they matter. The key is to use it when it makes sense and not all the time. Frequently switch your leadership style to fit the team, the surroundings, the topic, and the general situation. I strongly suggest you read our article on the six leadership styles by Goleman. I have used that framework successfully for years in my job as a CEO. You could use it too!

Carl Lindberg

Carl is a global business leader that has led 1-2000 people and had financial responsibility of 200-500 MUSD. During his career, he has led employees in twenty different countries and has lived in three continents.

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