“I ask everyone’s opinion when they don’t speak up. And then, when they have an opinion, I’ll ask others to talk about it.” – Ginny Rometty

Democratic leadership is often confused with the idea of the political philosophy of democracy. While the similarities are obviously there, the style also has its own unique quirks and variations.

To understand democratic leadership, one must understand the balancing act of allowing everyone to participate in decision-making and ensuring the organization achieves its objectives.

Democratic Leadership Guide: Definition, Qualities, Pros & Cons, Examples

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In this guide, we’ll explore the concepts around democratic leadership and the characteristics that build the democratic leadership framework. We’ll also explore what it requires from the leader before examining the benefits and downsides to the style. Finally, we’ll look at the leadership model through a few examples of democratic leaders.

UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENT CONCEPTS AROUND DEMOCRATIC LEADERSHIP

Before we start examining the core characteristics of democratic leadership, it’s auspicious to glance at the different concepts involved with the leadership style. Essentially, to understand what democracy means and what are the foundations of the democratic leadership theory.

What is democracy?

Democracy is a concept everyone is aware of and in order to understand how democratic leadership works, you must comprehend the age-old theory of democracy.

The word democracy has it roots in Ancient Greece, which is where the concept of democracy began. The word “democracy” means “rule by the (simple) people”. The essential idea is that instead of someone ruling over people, such as in a tyranny or oligarchy, the people hold the power to decide.

While the modern concept of democracy is dated back to the Ancient Athens of 508 B.C., the idea of ruling as a group has been around for much longer. In the broad sense of the word, many tribes have organized around a village council and governed in a co-operative manner.

The Greeks used democracy in different manners. Solon created the first constitutional reforms by ending enslavement of the Athenians by fellow Athenians, and removed the privilege-by-birth idea from the society. After Solon, the region experienced more tyranny, but turned back to democratic governance under Cleisthenes and Ecclesia. In fact, Athenians used the word ‘democracy’ for the first time under Cleisthenes’ rule.

But it was the ideas of Socrates, Aristotle and Plato that finally gave birth to democracy as a political philosophy. In his famous book Politics, Aristotle describes the benefits of democracy:

When states are democratically governed according to law, there are no demagogues, and the best citizens are securely in the saddle; but where the laws are not sovereign, there you find demagogues. The people become a monarch…such people, in its role as a monarch, not being controlled by law, aims at sole power and becomes like a master.

The Athenian democracy was not the representative democracy we know of today. For one, women were not considered worthy of the vote. The idea faded into the background for a while, with the Roman Empire introducing strongmen to rule once more.

The modern democratic movement began in the 18th and 19th centuries, as philosophers and scholars revived the ancient ideas and pushed them further. The first Parliament of Great Britain was established in 1707 and the United States adopted the Constitution in 1787. Although the systems did not provide equal voting rights at the time, the events began the move towards the modern liberal democracy.

The takeaway from the history of democracy is its building blocks:

  • Separation of powers – executive, legislative and judicative
  • The following of civil rights
  • Religious liberties
  • Separation of church and state

The democratic idea of power not in the hands of the few, but the many, slowly began shifting out of the political sphere and into the world of business and leadership.

Defining democratic leadership

The early part of the 20th century witnessed more interest towards leadership. People began examining what great leaders are about and whether different leadership strategies exist. The idea of democratic leadership was one of the theories that popped up during this time.

The modern basis for the democratic leadership theory dates back to the studies done in the 1930s and 1940s. Kurt Lewin, together with his colleagues R. Lippit and R.K. White, determined three distinctive decision-making styles, which they thought were closely linked with leadership. The three leadership styles included autocratic, democratic and laissez faire and their decision-making methods are broadly outlined in the image below:

USE OF AUTHORITY CONTINUUM IN LEADERSHIP STYLES(1)

The democratic style, also referred to as participative leadership, involved the subordinates in the decision-making. The leader and the subordinates shared an equal voice and these groups didn’t showcase hierarchy. The leadership style involved appraisal of both the leader and the subordinates, with strong feedback structures available.

Lewin et al. identified three core elements of democratic leadership:

  • The leader would expect the subordinates to report to leaders regarding the task.
  • The leader would expect the subordinates to exhibit self-confidence and the ability to get things done without constant supervision.
  • The leader would expect the subordinates to involve others in the decision-making process and therefore not act alone.

In the experiments, the three separate styles were not only identified, but also compared in terms of effectiveness. Among the subordinates, democratic leadership style stood out as the most popular method and the style that achieved the most effective results. According to the studies, under the more autocratic style, the subordinates eventually started rebelling against authority, whilst the laissez faire leadership didn’t lead to coherent results and objectives weren’t achieved efficiently.

While Lewin’s research on leadership has been highly influential, he and his colleagues didn’t define democratic leadership with absolute clarity. In fact, according to John Gastil, the model they proposed also had certain undemocratic implications. The problem was the ambiguity of the definition, which allowed breathing room for different levels of participation in the decision-making.

Daniel Goleman introduced his idea of democratic leadership as part of his six leadership styles. According to Goleman, the democratic leadership is built around the idea of consensus through collaboration. The leadership framework would bring people together, enhance communication and sharing of ideas, with the team reaching a consensus on the best approach forward. Goleman theorized that this would create an environment where employees feel more appreciated and therefore, committed to achieving organizational objectives.

Aside from the two famous theories of democratic leadership, Sanghan Choi’s 2007 article published in the International Journal of Leadership Studies identified nearly 30 different definitions of democratic leadership. As we’ll see in the following sections, the variety of definitions has caused confusion over what the democratic leadership truly stands for.

Nonetheless, one of the most accurate and used definition comes from Gastil’s article A Definition and Illustration of Democratic Leadership. To Gastil, democratic leadership is about “distributing responsibility among the membership, empowering group members, and aiding the group’s decision-making process”. It is these core functions, identified by Gastil and others, which we move on to looking at in the next section.

THE CORE ELEMENTS OF DEMOCRATIC LEADERSHIP

Despite some ambiguity in definition, most democratic leadership theories agree on a core set of elements and functions. In this section, we will explore the core functions of the framework and the building blocks required for creating a democratic leadership structure at any situation.

Core functions

Let’s first examine the core functions of a democratic leadership framework. One of the most commonly used set of democratic leadership functions came from Gastil’s 1994 article. In the article, Gastil outlined the three core elements you need for the framework to work:

  • The distribution of leadership.
  • The empowerment of subordinates.
  • The aiding of democratic decision-making in deliberations.

#1 The distribution of leadership

Obviously, the first major function of the framework has to be about distributing the power. The democratic leadership requires an equally shared power structure, without any hierarchy in decision-making. Gastil quoted Krech et al, who wrote in 1962, that the leader must aim “to evoke maximum involvement and the participation of every member in the group activities and in the determination of objectives”.

But the responsibility to share responsibilities doesn’t mean that each decision must always be made within the group. Depending on the specific roles and responsibilities, certain decisions might be only in the hands of the leader. This sort of framework refers to the functionality of representative democracy. For example, a member of a national parliament is allowed to make decisions based on his or her best judgment, with the power provided by the voters of the member.

Each decision made must be done according to the expectations of the electorate and the member has to be able to explain his decisions to the voter. Similarly, a leader might have the power to make certain decisions, guaranteed that he or she is able to do it with the approval of his or her subordinates.

Organizations must therefore carefully define the roles and distribute power in decision-making according to these roles. The focus of it must aim for a democratic framework, where no one person has concentrated power over others.

Decision-making is key for business leaders. Therefore, learn more about decisionship and how to make the right decisions faster.

 

#2 The empowerment of subordinates

Another vital function of the leadership system is the ability to empower the subordinates. In its simplest form, this happens through the distribution of responsibilities and power to make decisions. Democratic leadership doesn’t purely assume people should participate in decision-making, it actively requests people to contribute.

Furthermore, the framework should focus on empowering subordinates through the development of their skills. Since the leadership model requires people to be part of the decision-making process, they should look for enhancing people’s skill set. This includes things like public speaking, logical thinking and organizational skills, aside from the pure professional abilities required within the specific industry.

The empowerment should also aim to help subordinates develop their psychological abilities. But this should not be done through the traditional “great man” model, according to Gastil. In his article, he quoted Adorno’s 1950 article, which said that democratic leadership should never “manipulate the masses through shrewd exploitation of their mentality”. This means that instead of focusing on the paternal aspect of projecting an image of themselves to the subordinates, the democratic leader should aim to genuinely develop the subordinate’s own skills and abilities.

#3 The aiding of democratic decision-making in deliberations

The final core function of democratic leadership model revolves around the creation of structures that support and encourage deliberation. According to Gastil, this can be achieved “through constructive participation, facilitation, and the maintenance of healthy relationships and a positive emotional setting”. If these are fostered, then the above two functions are easier to achieve.

Essentially this requires problem solving to be done through analysis and group deliberation. Solutions must reflect the group’s effort and understanding of the situation, with a collective interest of the group being at the heart of the solution.

In terms of facilitation, the leader’s role is not to guide the decision itself, but rather ensure there are structures for the process. In essence, the role is to oversee that the process follows pre-set guidelines, which is important for effective decision-making. An organization should create a schedule and process for making decisions, with the group coming up with the solution. Therefore, the leader wouldn’t try to influence the outcome, but he or she would ensure the decision is made within the right amount of time, for example.

Gastil also highlights the importance of a healthy relationships and positive environment, as essential aspects of the democratic leadership framework. The leader’s role is to ensure new subordinates are assimilated to the organization and the team. There’s also a strong requirement for acting as a mediator to ensure any issues within subordinates are resolved quickly.

We learned that a positive work environment is key. Here is how you can create it.

 

The building blocks

To establish the framework for democratic leadership, there are certain aspects the organization and leader should focus on. The main aspect of democratic leadership, as we explained above is a participative environment. For this to occur, four elements should be focused on.

First, it’s important to engage the whole team in terms of determining tasks and other processes. Democratic framework works the best when the roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and divided within the group. If everyone is aware of the tasks, then there is no need to spend time figuring out what needs to be done and by whom.

Furthermore, the different processes in place should also be clearly defined. Mainly this means creating a clear framework for the democratic process and how different decision are made within the group. You want to know the mechanism for starting out a process of discussion and set a timeline for when the decisions should be taken.

The framework should also invite ideas and opinions from the subordinates. You need to establish a framework for providing and assisting feedback. The democratic framework isn’t only about inclusion in the decision-making, but you want to create a system where discussion and open dialogue are part of the make up of the organization. Therefore, it’s important that subordinates feel able to voice their opinions at all times.

Finally, the framework requires a clear and well-established system for rewarding creativity and new ideas. The democratic framework requires a strong reward structure. The rewards can range from financial bonuses to simple official recognition, but it’s important to acknowledge the work done by subordinates. In many organizations, things such as the “Employee of the Month” are part of the fabric of the company.

 

THE QUALITIES OF A DEMOCRATIC LEADER

What about the characteristics of a democratic leader? It’s easy to assume that since the decision-making power moves away from the leader, the leader’s responsibilities or importance diminish. But in fact, the democratic leader has to show quite a bit of skill to get the system to work appropriately.

The traits

There are certain traits that make being a democratic leader easier. If you possess the below four traits and you enhance these qualities, you can begin your journey towards democratic leadership.

#1 Intelligence

While all leadership styles require the leader to be intelligent and competent, democratic leadership is among the top styles that call for this trait. Because the democratic leader is like a conductor of an orchestra, he or she needs to have the competency to keep all the parts together and moving. Although the decisions might not be in the hands of the leader, the leader needs to ensure the group is competent enough to make the decisions.

The leader must provide enough information for the subordinates to guarantee they are well equipped to make the right choices. The leader will often be the person to provide background information and answer questions the subordinates might have on a variety of topics.

But intelligence for democratic leader shouldn’t just be about understanding the industry and the professional topics. The leader also needs plenty of emotional intelligence to ensure the team works well together. It’s not easy to keep people working smoothly together in an environment where everyone should be able to voice their opinion. Therefore, the leader needs the ability to communicate with different personalities and get people to work together efficiently.

To better understand how emotional intelligence works and how to improve your emotional intelligence, check out the below YouTube video.

 

#2 Honesty

Democratic leaders need to be honest. The open communication and discussion-led leadership framework won’t work if the leader can’t be honest with the subordinates. The leader must be able to lay out the situation to ensure decisions are made on real information and the leader has to stay honest about his or her own opinion. While the leader might have the final say, it doesn’t mean the leader shouldn’t lay down his or her own ideas for what the best course of action should be.

When it comes to leadership positions, honesty can be a tricky trait to hold on to. You want to ensure situations don’t escalate and that employees remain happy. But at the same time, you can’t start favoring people or hiding vital information only to maintain a happy work environment. If you show honesty as a leader, then subordinates are also more likely to stay open. This will create a better work environment for everyone.

It’s important to ensure honesty doesn’t translate to meanness. You want to provide critique of ideas and negative criticism when it’s necessary, but you don’t need to do it in a brutal manner. Counselor and psychotherapist Anna Jezuita recommends using an old Sufi saying as a guideline when it comes to being honest without being a bully. According to the saying, you should ask yourself three questions before voicing the opinion:

  • Is the feedback you want to provide true?
  • Is the feedback necessary for reaching an objective or goal?
  • Is the feedback kind or beneficial from the person’s perspective?

How to give feedback to employees.

 

#3 Creative

A democratic leader must also show plenty of creative flair. Since the leadership framework requires innovative ideas and collaboration, the leader must be able to show the way with ideas. The leader must also be able to help other members of the team to innovate and this itself can require innovative thinking from the leader.

Creativity is often considered an innate trait, but everyone can improve and enhance their creative thinking. As a leader, you can improve your own creativity, but also subordinate’s creativity by establishing the right environment within the organization. You can do this by ensuring there are enough stimuli to keep people innovative. You want enough resources available to challenge your thinking. Continue your professional learning and provide subordinates opportunities to do so as well.

Creativity is easier when people are able to speak their mind freely and feel that their ideas are respected. You therefore want to encourage this type of behavior by rewarding innovative thinking.

#4 Fairness

Since people will be open to speak their mind and decisions are mainly done through majority vote, the leader has to be able to show fairness. There can’t be a situation where certain ideas are dealt in a favorable manner, while other people’s ideas are not fully appreciated. The democratic framework must be fair and consistent, with the leader bearing the brunt of this responsibility.

As a leader, you need to be able to distance yourself from the situation emotionally and to think rationally. Fairness in this context also means transparency. If you allow subordinates to understand your own thinking process and decisions, you will show them your decisions are based on rationality and not unfair feelings you might have towards different employees.

One of the key ways to be fairer is to set clear guidelines. If you and the team create a set of processes for the objectives you want to achieve, you limit the risk of appearing unfairly. Communicate with your subordinates more and ensure you listen to feedback, even if you think it isn’t just.

As a leader you should be thinking about creating an ethical corporate culture.

 

How to make democratic leadership work?

Establishing a democratic leadership model in an organization is not an easy thing to do. But with the help of the above characteristics and the below steps, it is possible to ensure the leader can make this leadership style to work.

First, the leader must focus on open and honest communication. It’s crucial for the leader to take in and give fair criticism without it causing a problem. For this kind of communication to work, the leader must establish trust with subordinates and show consistency and fairness in his or her decisions.

The key is to approach ideas and suggestions with an open mind. If people don’t feel criticized or mocked by the ideas they lay out, they are more likely to feel able to continue to stay creative. In addition, the leader needs to ensure everyone in the group is able to view different ideas without dismissing them immediately. The leader wants to create an open and honest communication channel between the subordinates as well and not just between him and them.

The trust and commitment can be built quicker if there is respect for different ideas, even when the particular idea doesn’t fit the current need. As a leader, you shouldn’t turn away an idea only because it isn’t relevant for the moment. You don’t want to spend too much time talking about issues that aren’t relevant, but you also don’t want to dismiss suggestions straight away.

The third point of focus should be to create an environment of determined commitment to decisions and explanation of different roles and rules. As mentioned in the previous section, the democratic leadership framework works the best when roles and responsibilities are outlined clearly. One of the key reasons behind clarified processes is to ensure people stay on-topic. The leader must ensure the conversation stays within the framework and the discussion is flowing towards a solution for the problem at hand.

In essence, the democratic framework needs someone to keep the process flowing towards the right direction, even when the power of decision-making is shared. If you’ve ever been to a big conference, you know there has to be an organizing team helping people out, even when the participants are free to decide where and when they go.

The determination to commit to decisions is another important part of the leader’s role under this model. This essentially requires the leader to ensure that when a decision is made, the team sticks to it. Although decision-making can take longer under the democratic system, once the decision has been taken, the discussion around it should end. Naturally, the organization must constantly review whether the decisions have been the right ones to take; yet, the leader can’t have the team second-guessing the decisions at all times. After the decision has been taken, the leader must ensure everyone gets to work.

Finally, the leader has to learn to explain decisions openly and clearly to the group. As we’ve discussed above, not all decisions are necessarily made within the group under a democratic system, and even when they are made within the group, the leader’s role is to get everyone on board. As a leader, your duty is to ensure subordinates understand the reasoning behind the decisions.

Don’t confuse explaining to apologizing. As the leader, you don’t need to validate the decisions, even though you want to ensure subordinates have an understanding of the reasoning behind the decision. The decisions, with the different aspects affecting it, must be clearly communicated to the rest of the group and organization, but the leader shouldn’t face lengthy objections. As mentioned earlier, once a decision is made, the group should get on to reaching its objectives and goals.

Watch the following video and learn how to deliver engaging speeches to your employees.

 

ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF DEMOCRATIC LEADERSHIP

Democratic leadership has a positive reputation, mostly driven by people’s appreciation of the democratic process. The enhanced involvement of different stakeholders is considered a positive element, especially in a world where corporations don’t always have the best reputation.

Nonetheless, the democratic leadership framework comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages, just like any other leadership style.

Advantages of democratic leadership

The advantages of the leadership style come from the increased involvement of subordinates. First, being part of a group and having an equal say in the running of things, will provide a sense of empowerment for employees. When the subordinate feels included and able to have a say, the job satisfaction rate can improve as a result. You don’t feel as a machine just doing what you are told, but a part of the organization.

Being more involved with the projects and tasks will increase the subordinate’s commitment levels. As Lewin and his colleagues found during their experiments, the enhanced inclusion in decision-making spills over to how attached one feels to the task. When you feel your contribution is important, you want to put your heart and soul into achieving the results. In essence, the subordinates see themselves invested in the outcome. This in turn is beneficial for the organization because it can lead to projects being finished more efficiently.

Furthermore, democratic leadership also enjoys from the benefits of diverse opinions. Since the decision-making process is based on sharing ideas and collaborating as a team to reach a consensus, the decisions are more thought-through and could better answer the needs of the organization. There is more balance, and the discussion before the decisions are made can point out any problems the process and project might have. These can then be eradicated or prepared for better.

Gathering different opinions over decisions isn’t just about the diverse ideas it brings about, but also the increased knowledge. People are experts on different things and by asking a group of people to contribute, you guarantee the people who know the most about a giving subject, provide their expertise. Therefore, decisions made within a group can show higher competence levels.

 

Furthermore, the solutions are not decided on a whim, but are thoroughly thought through, as the process requires people to discuss the ideas before the decision. This has the possibility of ensuring the option the organization goes for has been tested for possible risks and therefore, the group can be better prepared for everything.

Innovation is flourished because people are free to share ideas, offer feedback and challenge the current ways of doing things. The democratic environment looks outside of the box and constantly wonders whether behaviors, actions and ideas can be improved. For a business, this kind of environment can provide benefits in terms of productivity and product development.

In addition, consensus in decision-making can help create a stronger vision of the future and ensure everyone is as committed to working towards these objectives. Even though people might not always agree with the group’s decision, they have nonetheless been part of the process and have, hopefully, understood the reasoning behind the decision. This can ensure cohesion within the group and strengthen everyone’s commitment to achieving the goal.

The above can help build a work environment based on trust. Since subordinates and leaders have access to the same information and their decision-making power is equal, there is no resentment or mistrust within the group. You don’t need to question the leader’s motives or be afraid of the decisions that are taken – you will be an active member in the process and you can trust the leader will listen to your views. The more trust there is in the workplace, the more motivated and loyal the subordinates will be.

Overall, the above can drive up productivity and increase the bottom line consequently. Subordinates are more satisfied at work, reducing the company’s churn rate, and the decisions are more effective and innovative, creating better service, which can lead to improved sales.

Disadvantages of democratic leadership

While it’s easy to understand democratic leadership through the above advantages, the leadership framework shouldn’t be considered error free. There are specific disadvantages of the theory and it is important leaders are aware of these.

First, as mentioned in the first section, the leadership theory has often lacked a proper definition of what the democratic leadership actually entails. The clarity in definitions matters, as it makes measurement of the theory’s effectiveness rather difficult. As Gastil’s research showed, the framework has been used to describe systems that didn’t actually include democratic participation.

He used the example of William Graebner’s 1986 study of the Foremen’s Club to point out the problem. The club used democratic leadership style, but in a manner aimed to “manipulate foremen”. He quotes Graebner’s findings, which state the participatory framework was “designed to modify attitudes, and to convince foremen, a group increasingly tempted to unionize, that their natural allegiance was to capital rather than labor.

Nonetheless, the ambiguity of the theory isn’t the only disadvantage of the leadership theory. Its participatory style can also provide companies with different types of headaches.

The first big disadvantage comes from the loss of speed in decision-making. Since democratic leadership requires everyone’s input, the timeline for making decisions increases, as you need to organize meetings and have proper discussions over the subject. In a business world, quick decisions are often required as long periods of indecision can lead to drop in operations.

If you have a problem in the manufacturing department, for example, you can’t spend a month deciding what is the best machine to buy as a replacement or whether you should just repair it. Goleman identified this issue and said

the price [of democratic leadership] is endless meetings and confused employees who feel leaderless”.

Furthermore, democratic leadership relies on consensus. But a majority decision isn’t always the best decision – a compromise is not always worth it. Although people might prefer hiring the new lead developer in-house, the organization might actually benefit more from bringing in new talent, as this could mean new ideas and skills, for example. As you can see, the diversity of opinion might not mean the best idea wins, but rather that the team creates a version which most people agree with.

Although democratic decision-making tends to put a number of knowledgeable minds together, there is a danger of grouping people with different skill sets. Not everyone has the same knowledge of a given situation and therefore, the opinions are not necessarily equally as good. Winston Churchill once critiqued the democratic system by stating, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. While this sounds rather harsh, it has an underlying truth to it.

Consider, for example, an organization with a team that has people with different skills and responsibilities. When it comes to decision-making on an organization wide matter, it’s hard to guarantee everyone has the exact same knowledge. Therefore, their decision and opinion might be driven by misinformation or lack of knowledge. In addition, certain situations might involve sensitive information that only the leader is aware of. Sharing it might not be possible, yet if the subordinates aren’t aware of it, they can’t make appropriate decisions.

Interestingly, just as some types of employees don’t work well under an authoritative leadership, some don’t perform at their best in a democratic framework. There are personalities that don’t like making decisions and certain people might even find the requirement to participate in the process burdensome.

For example, the employee might feel like they are doing more than the actual leader, although they might not be as handsomely rewarded as the leader. The leader might receive a higher salary, yet the employees have to be prepared for the decision-making and this could decrease the morale.

For the leadership style to work, clarity in guidelines and individual roles and responsibilities must be ensured. Without an understanding of who needs to know and what, the communication might fail within the group and projects can stall or even fail. It’s therefore a tricky leadership model to implement and requires plenty of setting up to work.

Advantages Disadvantages of Democratic leadership(1)

EXAMPLES OF FAMOUS DEMOCRATIC LEADERS

Examples of democratic leaders are not hard to find. The political world is full of leaders who have called themselves democratic, although their actions might not have always been as democratic as voters might have hoped.

But as we’ve established above, the democratic leadership model is not about what side you are on the political spectrum, but about the participation of subordinates in decision-making. Plenty of leaders have used this as a framework for their leadership and below are some of the most notable examples.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower is a good example of what the democratic leadership can achieve when it’s put under pressure. The Republican president of the United States had to use his leadership knowledge during one of the toughest times in human history, the Second World War.

Eisenhower used a strategic approach to solving the issues, both militarily and diplomatically. He acted as the Supreme Allied Commander during the war, helping to oversee one of the largest air and sea armadas in history. He later became the Supreme Command of NATO and served two terms as the president of the United States.

During his time in the military, he didn’t command autocratically, as many commanders would have done in the circumstances. His quote, “Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose,” exemplifies his wish to create more harmony and consensus in everything society does. He wanted to involve other people in the decision-making and sought out expert opinions from others.

Furthermore, he helped create democratic consensus in a world that had been torn up by war. He transformed the White House, adding in new positions for close advisors, enhancing his ability to seek advice from others.

The Mayo Family / The Mayo Clinic

In 1889, Dr William Mayo, along with his sons, founded the Mayo Clinic to provide cutting-edge medical research around the world in a non-profit style. The hospital, healthcare and research facility now attracts plenty of brilliant medical pioneers from different lifestyles, largely due to its focus on the democratic leadership framework.

The research centre has been a success because it isn’t led autocratically, but people’s ideas and opinions are listened to. There are opportunities for collaboration everywhere and therefore, the doctors and researchers are able to draw the best out of each other. People are interested in working for the organization because of its focus on guaranteeing everyone an equal voice.

Dr. Charlie Mayo said,

The problem before us is so to exchange information, and so to educate men through travel that there shall develop a final, cosmopolitan system of medicine which will combine the best elements to be found in all countries.”

Therefore, the medical facility the family set up didn’t turn away experts or ignore what they were saying. The family understood that transformation of healthcare requires fresh thinking and collective knowledge.

The organization also understood the importance of combining different levels of knowledge together. They didn’t subscribe to the simple specialist idea that if you are an expert, you alone can make the right choices. In another telling quote, Dr Charlie Mayo said,

The definition of a specialist as one who ‘knows more and more about less and less’ is good and true. Its truth makes essential that the specialist, to do efficient work, must have some association with others who, taken altogether, represent the whole of which the speciality is only a part.

Larry Page / Google

Google has pursued democratic leadership since its foundation in 1998. Larry Page, co-founder and Google CEO, has been an incremental part of creating, not only the business empire of Google, but its democratic approach to innovation and collaboration.

Page’s intelligent and creative personality drives his style. He has been ambitious throughout his career; at one stage, he stated his work philosophy is “we should be building great things that don’t exist”. The radical approach to innovation drives the democratic framework as well.

Because Page is so focused on finding the next big thing, he likes to involve other people in decision-making. His approach is questioning and he tries to bring out the best in his employees. There are no half truths and shortcuts, but employees must be able to demonstrate their opinions or ideas.

 

When Page started out as Google CEO, he changed its existing strategies around. His first objective was to break the company into smaller parts, which would use democratic strategies to innovate and create. Essentially, he wanted them to act as small start-ups. He provided the individual teams with more autonomy and wanted enhanced collaboration within the team in return.

Page’s leadership style shines through the following quote:

My job as a leader is to make sure everybody in the company has great opportunities, and that they feel they’re having a meaningful impact and are contributing to the good of society. As a world, we’re doing a better job of that. My goal is for Google to lead, not follow that.”

Muhtar Kent / Coca-Cola

Another famous CEO, who used the democratic model to succeed, is Muhtar Kent. Kent’s career with Coca-Cola highlights what commitment and focus on employee satisfaction can look like at its best.

Kent began his career in Coca-Cola in 1978. He built his way up the corporate ladder, achieving success along the way. One of his biggest achievements was to double the company’s bottling operation’s output as a director. He held various leadership roles and honed his skills in managing people in different situations.

When he achieved higher positions within the company, he always put his managerial focus on improving the leadership frameworks within the organization and ensuring the management promotes teamwork. He believed it to be an essential part of guaranteeing effective results within the organization.

Kent became the CEO in 2008 and immediately focused on creating a more collaborative management team to address Coca-Cola’s biggest problems. Kent became famous for seeking advice during decision-making and he wanted to ensure the company used diversity of opinion for its benefit. In a speech in 2012, Kent said,

We don’t have all the answers or even all the questions, but we’re committed to innovation, new ways of thinking and new pathways to growth and value creation.

To understand Kent’s participatory approach to business, you also have to look at his record in partnering with other organizations. He said in a Fortune interview in 2015 that, “every moment of every day is an opportunity to start or strengthen a relationship, and those relationships, if cultivated, can lead to incredible opportunities for everyone involved”.

His personal connections helped Coca-Cola open a plant in Albania, after the fall of the Soviet Union and enter the Polish market later on as well. By including other people into your plans, you can achieve success.

To get an insight into Muhtar Kent’s leadership style and ideology, watch the interesting leadership lecture he gave at Wharton School.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Democratic leadership is perhaps the most beloved leadership framework. The idea of shared responsibility and greater involvement of the whole team has become popular among CEOs and employees alike. But it’s also a system, which can be difficult to establish and maintain.

A truly democratic leadership framework does not necessarily work because it can be slow in terms of decision-making and its consensus-favoring approach might lead to diluted decisions in terms of effectiveness. As examples from the business world have shown, often-solid leadership requires making the difficult and unfavorable decisions in a time of crisis. With a democratic leadership, the focus can be too much in maintaining a good working environment instead of doing what the organization needs.

On the other hand, open and innovative environment does breed creativity, which can boost a company’s performance. If the leader is able to use his or her creativity, honesty and intelligence to empower and challenge the subordinates, then the group together can achieve results fast. The democratic framework does provide a more equal and innovative setting for people to achieve the best possible results.

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