This article forms part of the Leadership Styles Blog Series and today we will be exploring democratic leadership. Democratic leaders focus on the needs, opinions and values of their employees. They listen to their ideas, empathising with their beliefs and actively seek their input. This style of leadership empowers staff and places them at the centre of the decision making process.
When making decisions that impact the whole team a democratic leader will ensure they obtain the views of the employees before committing to any actions. For example, if the leader is establishing organisational objectives, rather than setting them independently the leader will include the employees in the process. Employee input will ensure that the views and opinions of the staff have been incorporated and with everyone contributing to the objectives there will be feeling of collective ownership.
The input of employees is vital for effective democratic leadership but it must be noted that the final decision still lies with the leader themselves. In democratic leadership either the leader must make the decision or if the decision has been made by the staff the leader must approve it. Good democratic leaders are able to make calculated decisions based on the valuable input from their staff. Some information provided will be highly relevant and some will be highly irrelevant. The leader must consider everything that is presented to them and make an informed decision using their own unique knowledge and experience.
As with all leadership styles there is a time and a place for democratic leadership and effective leaders know when to use it and when not to use it. We will now consider a couple of key strengths and criticisms of democratic leadership.
If the leader involves their staff in the decision making process the final decision will be partly their decision. Therefore, it will be as much their decision to pursue a course of action as it is the leader. This collective responsibility and agreement on actions to be taken can result in greater adherence to the task. In turn employees will demonstrate higher levels of engagement, enthusiasm and motivation to perform.
One of the fundamental aspects of leadership is that leaders must understand that they need their staff. They need them because they are often more knowledgeable and experienced than they are in many different areas. If you have a well educated and vastly experienced marketing manager they will typically be able to provide more effective marketing strategies than you. Similarly, they will be able to evaluate and provide informed advantages and disadvantages for any ideas you may come up with.
Involving employees in the decision making process can sometimes confuse matters unnecessarily. Too many opinions and ideas can overcomplicate things and make the decision making process complex and time consuming when it need not be. Some situations and issues are better dealt with in a different way where the leader takes decisive action. Often the decision is a simple one and the leader does not need to consult his employees but rather deal with it independently.
If the leader is in a position where they are leading staff who have low levels of skills, experience and knowledge a democratic approach to leadership may not be suitable in every case. It could still be used in personal situations, such as agreeing on development opportunities or establishing improved employee work patterns, but when the leader is faced with a complex situation the input of a low level staff member may not be of any benefit. I am not suggesting that democratic leadership should only be used for knowledgeable and experience staff, quite the opposite, what I am saying is that democratic leadership needs to be applied in the right situations with the right people to ensure the leader draws benefit from its application.
I often see democratic leadership discussed as being a good way of getting the staff to ‘feel’ involved and a good way of ensuring staff ‘believe’ they have been listened to. However, this is an extremely patronising and arrogant view as the leader should not request input from their staff just to make them ‘feel’ included but rather the leader should want to include the staff as great benefit can be gained from their input.
Many employees will have a great deal more knowledge and experience than the leader and a good leader will tap into this resource as frequently as possible. Effective leaders listen to their staff, value their opinions and incorporate their input into their decision.
A final point to emphasise is that ultimately it is the leader who makes the final decisions. As important as the views of the staff are, the democratic leader is still the leader and when they are required to make a decision they need to be decisive.