Transformational Leadership vs Democratic Leadership


I sometimes get the question of how transformational leadership compares to democratic leadership. It is not the clearest cut comparison since they are part of entirely different leadership style frameworks. This article attempts to show you the differences and similarities between transformational leadership and democratic leadership. They have more things in common than you might think.

In general, my conclusion is simple.

What is the difference between transformational leadership and democratic leadership?

The difference between transformational leadership and democratic leadership is that transformational leadership is intended explicitly for changing or transforming an organization. Except for this crucial difference, there are many similarities between these two leadership styles.

Keep on reading for a more detailed explanation and overview. To set the stage properly, please read through these two short segments describing each of the leadership styles in brief.

Transformational leadership, a short introduction

The following is an extract from our main article on transformational leadership.

Transformational leadership creates substantial change for team members as well as organizations. Expectations, aspirations, perceptions, and values are transformed into something better. Transformational leadership develops the team members and motivates and inspires them to reach extraordinary success.

This change improvement journey, or transformation, is facilitated by an ideal embodied by the transformational leader who is a strong moral example in working towards the team’s benefit and a positive change in organizational culture. The transformational leader actively promotes challenging the status quo and opportunities for growth and improvement in team members and in general.

Team members are very loyal to their transformational leader, who they trust, admire, and respect. This belief in the leader, coupled with the leader’s aim towards improvement for the team, results in very motivated team members willing to perform out of the ordinary.

According to the initial theory of transformational leadership, it is one side of a coin. The other side, i.e., the opposite, being transactional leadership. For a deeper understanding, I suggest you read our in-depth article on transformational leadership, which describes the style, its pros and cons, how to implement it, and many other things. It is a great leadership style and is well worth knowing more about.

Democratic leadership, a short introduction

The following is extracted from our main article on democratic leadership.

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 just as much as the leader. The Democratic leader gathers input from the whole team and involves them in the decision-making process by facilitation and asking questions. This focus on participation 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 conclusion. The team also participates 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 vital 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, Autocratic leadership, a style where the leader makes virtually all decisions on his or her own.

Democratic leadership is known for its high productivity and strong employee engagement. I suggest you read our article describing it in more detail, its strengths and weaknesses, how to use it, and some stories from my career as a CEO. You find all this and more here: democratic leadership.

Transformation leadership vs. Democratic Leadership: Common characteristics

Both styles require excellent communication skills on the part of the leader. These communication skills are used to facilitate team discussions and collect and gather information through dialogue with the organization’s members. Furthermore, both styles require the leader to process this information and sift through it to find the most essential things, resulting in proper prioritization moving forward.

Additionally, both leadership styles depend a lot on the expertise, experience, and skills of the team members. Both transformational and democratic leadership are team-first type leadership styles where the leader does not focus on his or her persona but rather on the team’s well-being.

There are strong similarities when it comes to the view of the future as well. Both leadership styles emphasize shared vision and shared goals for the teams as a cornerstone of successful leadership.

This focus on shared visions, listening, and a lot of communication and participation lead to strong loyalty and high employee engagement in teams led by democratic leaders or transformational leaders.

When it comes to disadvantages, both transformational and democratic leadership share a disadvantage regarding time consumption. The high level of communication, transparency, and participation that both styles are known for taking a lot of time. Hence, a leader using any of these styles has a good deal of his or her calendar filled with information sessions, group meetings, feedback sessions, workshops, etc.

Transformational leadership vs. Democratic Leadership: Differences

If you were to compare with other styles such as laissez-faire, transactional leadership, bureaucratic leadership, coaching leadership, or any of the other of the many leadership styles out there, you would find a lot more differences and fewer similarities.

From an overall perspective, I dare say that transformational and democratic leadership are more similar than many other styles and frameworks.

Despite that, there are some essential differences that we need to explore.

Transformational leadership is meant for and described for situations with substantial change, i.e., a transformation of some kind. Furthermore, it is seen as the opposite of transactional leadership, which is used for more rigid and repetitive organizations where the status quo might even be a goal in itself to a degree.

Change is not the key focus of democratic leadership. This participative leadership style is suitable for most situations and most environments applicable to most organizations. Democratic leadership suits changing settings and static environments equally.

At the end of the day, both styles belong to different frameworks or sets.

Transformational leadership is part of the Full Range Leadership Model, together with Transactional leadership and laissez-faire. The idea is that you pick the style most fitting to the situation and the organization you are leading. Transformational leadership should be used when substantial change requiring a longer and more thorough transformation is required.

Democratic leadership belongs to two different leadership frameworks: the Kurt Lewin framework and the six leadership styles based on Emotional intelligence by Daniel Goleman et al.

In the Kurt Lewin case, democratic leadership is grouped with Autocratic leadership and Laissez-Faire leadership. This framework suggests an including democratic approach, an authoritarian/autocratic approach, or simply leaving people to themselves in the laissez-faire style. These are more behaviors rather than leadership styles, and a leader pretty much belongs to one of the three types. However, some level of opportunity to adapt is insinuated in some sources. Democratic leadership is built around participation and is seen as the most productive of the three. (We have a leadership styles test that indicates whether you are a democratic, autocratic or laissez-faire leader available here: Kurt Lewin leadership styles test.)

In the second framework, i.e., the one based on Emotional Intelligence, six leadership styles should be used depending on the circumstances. Democratic leadership, sometimes referred to as participative leadership, is one of these six styles.
The other five styles are coaching leadership, commanding/directive/coercive leadership, affiliative leadership, visionary leadership, and pacesetting leadership. The idea is to use as many of these styles as possible, but to a different extent and in different proportions depending on the situation, the team, and the organization’s setting. Here, democratic leadership should be used to create engagement, accountability, and empowerment, allowing the leader to tap into the team’s experience and knowledge.

I would say that transformational leadership compares well to using large amounts of democratic leadership, affiliative leadership, and visionary leadership at the same time if using the Emotional Intelligence framework.

If you were to translate the Full Range Leadership Model to the Lewin model, the Transformational leadership style would be similar to the democratic leadership style, the transactional leadership style would have a resemblance to the autocratic or authoritarian leadership style and laissez-faire would simply be laissez-faire.

We have an extensive article describing all kinds of different leadership styles and frameworks here: Leadership Styles and Frameworks.

To conclude, there are more similarities between transformational and democratic leadership than there are differences.

What are the differences between transformational leadership and democratic leadership?

The critical difference between democratic and transformational leadership is that the latter is intended explicitly for situations of significant change. To handle this, transformational leadership combines democratic leadership with streaks of affiliative and visionary leadership to get the job done with strong employee engagement, a common vision, and shared goals as tools to get there.

You can read more about each of the styles mentioned above by clicking these links. They all lead to in-depth articles here at Leadershipahoy.

Full Range Leadership Model: Transformational Leadership, transactional leadership, laissez-faire leadership.

Emotional Intelligence styles: Affiliative leadership, coaching leadership, pacesetting leadership, democratic leadership, directive leadership, visionary leadership.

Lewin leadership styles: Democratic leadership, autocratic leadership, laissez-faire leadership.

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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