If you’ve been wondering what democratic leadership is, this article is for you.

“Great leaders are born, not made.”

Somewhere in the 1800s, this led to the ‘great man’ theory of leadership, wherein certain natural traits were tested and found in leaders, by birth. However, with time, it was determined that certain traits were acquired over time as experience honed them. Thus, the adage changed.

“Good leaders are made, not born.”

This led to the birth of the behavioural theory of leadership. The behavioural theory of leadership states that while there are certain natural traits that define a leader, ultimately, it is the traits that are defined by the talents and experiences they acquire over life. This, in turn, defines their style of leadership.

One such behavioural style of leadership is democratic leadership. In this complete and comprehensive guide, we strive to tell you all about democratic leadership, the characteristics of a democratic leader, the pros and cons of it, and some examples.

But before we dive into what democratic leadership is, let’s start out by understanding the different types of leadership styles.

What are the different types of leadership styles?

It is important to understand other types of leadership styles to establish what is democratic leadership and how different it is from others.

1. Autocratic leadership

The oldest of the different types of leadership styles, autocratic leadership is one where the boss is the nexus and there is no concept of guidance or leadership. There is a clear demarcation of hierarchy with little to no flexibility. Here, the decisions are taken by the leader and communicated to the employees, who have to implement them soon. Needless to say, this style of leadership is quite redundant now.

2. Transformational leadership

This type of leadership encourages the team members to perform more than the expected by initiating changes on various levels. Transformational leadership style believes in empowering the participants, leader and team alike, by constantly challenging each other and setting new goals, thus leading to high levels of performance and productivity.

3. Laissez-faire leadership

This is in sharp contrast to autocratic leadership. Laissez-faire leadership is where the authority is transferred to the employees. This type of leadership style works purely on the principle of delegation, wherein the employees work with no intervention or interference. However, excess of independence also is not good. Thus, this type of leadership style has been found to be the least effective one, in the absence of proper guidance.

4. Transactional leadership

This type of leadership, as the name suggests, is based on transactions, wherein rewards and incentives are decided as bait for good work done. It is materialistic, but it works. It is advantageous in the way it defines the roles and responsibilities and weighs them clearly against a reward, thus leaving no room for ambiguity.

5. Servant leadership

This type of leadership was coined by Robert K Greenleaf in his 1971 essay, wherein he stated that a servant leader shares power rather than exuding it, and puts the need to serve others first, to ultimately increase the performance and productivity. Servant leaders are those who believe in training and guiding employees for their own benefit as well as the overall benefit of the enterprise. They are the leaders who aim to serve and do not believe in controlling.

We wrote a guide to understanding and implementing servant leadership recently. You can read it here.

6. Democratic leadership

Democratic leadership is one where decision-making is the most important role. In most of the aforementioned types of leadership styles, decision-making power lies with the leader. However, in a democratic leadership style, the leader delegates the responsibility to a team member and encourages everyone to participate in the process, thus making every task truly a team effort. It is also known as participative leadership for it emphasises on the importance of participation.

What is democratic leadership?

Also known as shared leadership or participative leadership, democratic leadership style is one where everyone in the team is given an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process.

In a democratic leadership style, discussions are encouraged and ideas flow freely. Here, the leader, instead of taking the ultimate decision, choose the people who would be entrusted with that power, take a backseat and observe with a keen eye, along with providing guidance where the need be.

As a result, democratic leadership style or participative leadership style has been proven to be more productive and conducive.

John Gastil, in his 1994 article ‘A Definition and Illustration of Democratic Leadership,’ came up with this democratic leadership definition:

“Distributing responsibility among the membership, empowering group members, and aiding the group’s decision-making process.”

What is the history of democratic leadership?

Democratic leadership style dates back to the 1930s, when Kurt Lewin, the famous researcher of behavioural science, helped identify this style of leadership in various enterprises. Thus, in his study ‘Leadership and Group of Life,’ Kurt and team define three primary types of leadership styles: autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire.

Democratic leadership was different from the rest in a way that unlike autocratic leadership it expected subordinates to have detailed knowledge of the task, and unlike laissez-faire, it ensured that the leaders themselves were involved in decision-making rather than plainly delegating it to the subordinates.

Simply put, democratic leaders involve and evolve.

What are the characteristics of democratic leadership?

There are two utmost important democratic leadership traits: decision-making and participation. These differentiate it from all the other types of leadership styles and further pave the way for other characteristics of democratic leadership.

democratic leadership characteristics

What makes this management style so unique? The following democratic leadership traits:

Employee engagement

Democratic management style encourages employee engagement and participation, whether in the form of activities or tasks. Even if the leader or a delegated senior may be responsible for the final decision-making, each member of the team has a say in it, from start to finish.

Employee creativity

Democratic leadership encourages the employees to be creative as they strategise and brainstorm on various tasks and processes, sans any hierarchy or rules blocking their ideas and growth. Creativity, when not confined, leads to great ideas.

Employee empowerment

Decision-making empowers a person. When a democratic leader entrusts employees with the power of decision-making, it empowers the latter and infuses them with a feeling of belonging to the larger vision of the organization they are a part of.

Employee responsibility

When the employees are entrusted with the responsibility of decision-making, it also cultivates a sense of responsibility in them. When employees are aware of their actions being accounted for in the bigger picture of the organization, they are more responsible. Carelessness often stems from ignorance. Given everyone has an equal part in decision-making, there is equal attention distribution. Thus, the keen sense of responsibility.

Employee decision-making skills

Democratic leadership style cultivates decision-making skills in employees, regardless of designation or status. This is an important skill which benefits in both personal and professional facets of life.

Further to this, as per various studies, the following are some of the effective leadership qualities that have been found befitting for a democratic leader:

  • Intelligence
  • Creativity
  • Honesty
  • Creativity
  • Competence
  • Fairness

A good democratic leader is one who has all the aforementioned traits and combines those with the characteristics of democratic leadership, to create a holistic management approach.

What are the principles followed by democratic leaders?

Democratic leaders often follow certain principles and encourage the team to do the same. Following are some that form the core of democratic leadership:

Collaborating

Democratic leaders encourage employees to collaborate and think collectively, to come to a consensus. This acts as a team-building exercise and also brings the team together.

Deciding

The Democratic style of leadership pushes employees to make decisions, albeit not against their will. It believes in honing and nudging them to come up with ideas until they are confident enough to come into the limelight and do so themselves.

Encouraging

Democratic leaders believe in encouraging the employees to take ownership of the tasks and take decisions accordingly. Whether or not that decision would be a part of the final statement is a thing to be decided later, but when the discussions happen, each and every statement is given equal weightage.

Participating

The whole concept of democratic leadership is based on the tenet of participation. It is called participative leadership for a reason.

Democratic leadership should be inclusive enough to include all the ideas, thereby making it truly a participative and shared experience.

Democratic leadership style examples

Quite a few business icons and big corporates have been following democratic leadership style, either individually or in combination with some other style of leadership.

Let’s take a look at some democratic leadership style examples to understand the concept even better:

Democratic leadership example at Google

The search engine which was started by Larry Page and Sergey Bin found further footing when the duo hired Eric Schmidt. The man brought a mix of three different leadership styles to the company: autocratic, laissez-faire, and democratic. While the second style is fairly redundant now, Google has since then propagated the democratic or participative leadership, which continues to date.

Democratic leadership example at Mayo Clinic

Founded by Dr William Mayo and family, Mayo Clinic also runs on a democratic leadership setup. The reason this non-profit venture thrives is that it invites professionals to come on a level platform and share their skills, rather than control them. This is in sharp contrast to many setups in the industry that are known for their autocratic approach.

Democratic leadership example by Indra Nooyi

The former CEO of PepsiCo had been famous for her endearing style of leadership, one that took interest in both personal and professional lives of the employees. One of the most interesting tasks that she undertook as a leader was when she sent personal letters to the parents of executives, praising the latter’s performance.

A democratic leadership style finds its roots in compassionate participation by the employees and its efficient regulation by the leaders.

What are the industries where democratic leadership works best?

While leadership styles can be adapted anywhere, depending upon the type of the leader, it can’t be denied that there are certain industries that adapt better than the other, especially when it comes to a certain type of leadership style. Democratic leadership style is no exception.

democratic leadership in offices

There are a few industries where you can expressly witness the benefits of participative leadership because the organizational structure is conducive to the same.

Here are a few industries where the democratic leadership style works best:

1. Medicine

Hospitals and laboratories usually work on a mix of leadership styles, mainly because of the unpredictable and erratic schedules. However, democratic leadership works best here because decision-making can pop in anywhere, any time, whether a person is an intern or a resident or someone else. However, for most of the times, there is a perfect mix of autocratic leadership and democratic leadership, so that no decision goes awry to cost a life.

2. Education

Schools and universities are also places where democratic leadership can often be seen. The main tenet of democratic leadership is sharing knowledge and the participation thereof. It is evident in educational setups where teachers and professors are often entrusted with the decision-making process, with the management and principal taking over the administration as a whole. However, there is a touch of autocratic leadership as well.

Democratic management style works best in places where the team members are skilled themselves and are eager enough to participate and share their own knowledge. This can be adapted to various situations and by different corporates.

What are some of the democratic leadership pros and cons?

Democratic leadership looks ideal amongst the many leadership styles, but it has both pros and cons. Let’s take a look at each, briefly.

Pros of democratic leadership

  • Encourages creativity: Democratic leadership encourages creativity when employees are given a chance to showcase their decision-making and ideation skills.
  • Encourages commitment: When employees are entrusted with the decision-making power, they feel empowered and more connected with the organizational vision on the whole.
  • Increases productivity: A feeling of empowerment and belonging encourages employees to perform better, thereby increasing their productivity.

Cons of democratic leadership

  • Unhealthy competition: Decision-making power in the hands of many may often lead to unhealthy competition and personal grudges. This needs to be watched out for.
  • Overriding opinions: Often in the quest to prove who has the best idea and decision-making capabilities, opinions of those who may have brilliant ideation skills but poor communication skills, maybe overruled and unheard.
  • Poor decision-making: ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth.’ One has to ensure that this situation does not arise, wherein too many ideas and decisions regarding one situation leads to a useless conglomerate that does not make any sense.

Do you need a democratic leadership style in your organization?

If you think that participation is the key to success, then yes, the democratic management style is your cup of tea.

Has your organization been a democratic one? Did you have a democratic leader or are you one? Do share your experiences and tag us @HarmonizeHQ, on Twitter.

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