Democratic Leadership

When talking about democratic leadership, we're not referring to a politician such as a senator or representative.  We're talking about the style that exhibits "democratic" characteristics; one that allows everyone to have an equal vote in the workplace and elsewhere.

There are roughly three distinct leadership styles with many variations in-between.  At one extreme is the autocratic leader, which makes unilateral decisions on how to proceed.  At the other extreme there are laissez faire leaders, which allow the followers or fellow employees to make all the decisions.  In the middle of these two extremes are democratic leaders, which allow for more participation in the decision-making process.

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In fact, Lewin, Lippitt and White back in 1938 used these three styles as the basis for their leadership model.  In the democratic leadership style, there is a balance in the decision-making process.  Employees, or followers, are allowed to participate in the decision; their opinion counts just as much as the leader's.  Now this might sound like the optimal way to manage a group, but as is discussed later on, this style has both its pros and cons.

Democratic Leadership at Work

Daniel Goleman also thought there were enough distinguishing characteristics found in democratic leadership to include it as one of his six styles.  In his model, the primary behavior of these individuals was to forge consensus through collaboration.  The key to this style is communication; seeking the opinions of others, and the sharing of opinions too.

When the workplace is ready for democratic leaders, the style produces an environment that employees can feel good about.  Workers believe their opinion counts, and because of that feeling they are more committed to achieving the goals and objectives of the organization.

But Goleman and others also recognized that not every style is effective in every work environment.  That's what situational leadership is all about; finding the right style to apply to a given set of circumstances.

Pros and Cons of Democratic Leadership

Most of us would like to think the democratic style could be effectively applied to any group of employees.  However, when we start to scratch beneath the surface, the pros and cons of democratic leadership becomes apparent.

Pros

Since employees or followers have an equal say in the decision-making process, they are more committed to the desired outcome.  The collaborative environment created by this style often results in more thorough solutions to problems.

This creates an ideal environment for collaborative problem-solving in addition to decision-making.  However, this process has its drawbacks.

Cons

The democratic leader depends on the knowledge of his followers or employees.  If the workforce is inexperienced, this style is not very effective.  A fair amount of expertise is required to make good decisions.

The other drawback of the democratic style is the collaborative effort takes time.  When asking people for their opinions, it takes time for them to explain what they think and for others to understand what they are saying.  If the business need is urgent, the approach is ineffective and the manager should switch styles.

The pros and cons of this style are very much in alignment.  The strength also becomes a weakness.  The manager gets more input, but it takes time.  People can share their knowledge, but they have to understand the process first.  The democratic leadership style is most effective when there is a workplace that has experienced employees, and there is sufficient time to develop a thorough solution.

Examples of Democratic Leaders

We're going to finish up this topic by providing an example of a democratic leader at work.  While President John F. Kennedy is certainly one of the more famous members of the democratic party, he's actually a very good example of a charismatic leader.

Interestingly, one of the best examples of a democratic leader is also a political figure:  Dwight D. Eisenhower (a Republican no less!).  As a military leader, Eisenhower was faced with the difficult task of getting the Alliance forces to agree on a common strategy.  Eisenhower labored hard to make sure everyone worked together to come to a common understanding.  This was one of his greatest achievements.  It was here that the democratic leadership style, and collaborative efforts, of Eisenhower shone through.  The subsequent victory of the Alliance forces back up the correctness of the approach under these circumstances.


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