Learn why democratic leadership is the most desirable leadership style

There are many management styles, and chances are you've encountered a fair few different types of leaders in the workplace. Democratic leadership is a highly coveted leadership style, particularly for those in executive roles. This is because it's designed to empower employees, prioritise team cohesiveness, and establish a culture of trust.

Within this guide, get to know the definition of democratic leadership and types of democratic leadership styles, along with examples, pros and cons, and how to reference this leadership style on your CV and in an interview. 

What is democratic leadership?

Democratic leadership, also known as participative leadership, is a leadership style designed to empower employees to contribute to the decision-making process. 

The leader is accountable for the decision and the outcome and is there to help guide the conversation. But democratic leadership, unlike autocratic leadership, prioritises team cohesiveness, allowing communication to flow bottom-up and top-down between all employees. 

A study on participative theory concluded that democratic leadership is the ideal leadership style, because it takes the input of others into account. Because democratic leaders encourage participation, they make members of the group feel that they're seen, relevant, and valued contributors to the decision-making process. 

This means that if a leader seeks input from a wider circle, rather than looking to make all the decisions themselves, they will improve commitment and increase collaboration, which results in better quality decisions and a more successful business.

Types of democratic leadership styles

There are subtle differences between a leader and a manager. Democratic leadership styles are virtually the same as democratic management styles, as they both welcome diverse schools of thought and collaboration.

There are three types of democratic leadership and management styles to be aware of:

Consultative leadership: This leadership style focuses on team building and leveraging each person's skillset, thoughts, and opinions, to help the leader make an informed, strategic decision.

Participative leadership: This leadership style also involves encouraging the thoughts, ideas, and opinions of employees, but the team works together collaboratively to make a decision. This style is prioritised to represent minority voices and create a participatory culture.

Collaborative leadership: This leadership style includes the fundamentals of consultative and participative leadership styles, but the key difference is that the decision is determined by a predominant consensus.

Characteristics of democratic leadership

Democratic leadership is the best style for leaders that want their team to contribute to the decision-making process. Democratic leaders typically have the following characteristics:

Encourage collaboration: Democratic leaders encourage staff to share ideas freely as they value a wide range of opinions.

Encourage creativity: Democratic leaders believe that there is no such thing as a silly answer, and encourage staff to ideate and suggest thoughts, no matter how simple or wild.

Ask for feedback regularly: Democratic leaders regularly ask for feedback to gauge the opinions of others and test ideas.

Showcase a “team player” attitude: Democratic leaders lead by example and maintain a team player attitude. This supports the group and prompts others to adopt this mindset, creating psychological safety for employees to speak their minds and collaborate.

Respect flexibility: Democratic leaders understand that everyone has their own way of working, and often trust employees to get from problem to proposed solution in a flexible way. The leaders are still responsible for creating a brief and setting task boundaries to ensure that outcomes are in line with expectations. 

Prioritise communication and transparency: Democratic leaders establish trust by placing high importance on open and honest communication. For example, they may share information with the team or ask for volunteers ahead of project assignments.

Examples of democratic leadership

Some companies are known for their democratic operational style. Larry Page, who is one of the founders of Google, is a well-known leader that uses a democratic leadership style. 

As a leader, he was recognised for his openness to receiving ideas from employees and motivating them to be innovative. And as you know, Google is known for its innovative and creative nature, which suggests that it has prospered through strong leaders that use democratic leadership styles.

Advantages of democratic leadership

There are pros and cons to democratic leadership. A few of the benefits include:

It invites participation

Participation is an essential component of democratic leadership. The involvement of the team results in feelings of inclusion, which results in feelings of importance. If staff can contribute and voice their thoughts in a safe environment, they feel valued and validated, with a sense of team cohesion and trust.

It prioritises different points of view

Democratic leadership makes a point of bringing different viewpoints to the table. This leverages the diversity of the team and gives a platform to minority voices. While not every point of view can be actioned, every point of view can be heard and valued.

It creates efficient problem solving

Good ideas aren't born, they're created. And high-quality solutions will be created if you include different brains in problem-solving. While there are other leadership styles that might problem-solve at a faster rate, such as autocratic leadership, democratic leadership often creates better solutions as there's a chance to identify and debate weaknesses before a solution is decided.

It increases commitment

As democratic leadership fosters a culture of listening, communicating, and collaborating, the team will inherently feel more tight-knit. This results in higher commitment levels from the team, including to each other, to team projects, and to the business.

It increases job satisfaction

Democratic leadership drives a diverse team to be vibrant and innovative while remaining inclusive and cohesive enough to be effective. This leadership style will create a work environment where job satisfaction and morale are likely to be higher because staff feel valued, respected, and heard. 

It places honesty at the forefront

Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair. Since democratic leaders rely on transparent communication from their team, honesty is always the best policy, even if an idea presented isn't quite on the mark. The leader must adopt a truthful, empathetic, and well-evidenced explanation of why an idea would not be taken forward to protect the safe space for sharing.

It hinges on a strong vision

A way to facilitate growth and obtain buy-in from staff is by having a strong vision for the future that employees can align with. Democratic leadership doesn't work without a clear vision. Without an aim, employees can't visualise what they are contributing to, which weakens the ideation process and can lead to a lack of faith in the leader and business.

It can be used in most organisations

Democratic leadership can function in most organisations, particularly in the corporate world. It's less common in workplaces or situations where there are strong procedural elements, such as manufacturing.

It can be practised by anyone

Leadership theory suggests that anyone can become an effective leader, as long as they understand and implement particular behaviours. As democratic is a highly sought-after leadership style in many companies, it's a good thing that it can be practised easily by anyone.

The disadvantages of democratic leadership

Of course, with advantages come disadvantages. A few drawbacks of democratic leadership include:

It's reliant on strong communication skills

Democratic leadership requires strong communication skills on two fronts. Firstly, the leader must be aware of how to set expectations and boundaries, how to communicate value, and how to inspire. Secondly, the leader must know how to navigate challenging communication situations, such as when a team member goes off-topic or team members don't contribute.

It is reliant on clear roles and expectations

Democratic leadership only works if everyone knows what they are responsible for, what their individual aims are, and what the expectations of the discussion are - such as what the team should produce in a specific time frame. Without this information, discussions may be unproductive or incomplete.

It is reliant on sharing of information

A truly democratic discussion requires all pieces of the puzzle to be shared ahead of time. If you have different bands of employees in your task force, chances are managers may have a level of clearance on certain information, and sharing that with other members of the team may create a security issue.

It requires relevant skill sets 

Democratic leadership celebrates diversity of thought. However, the thoughts, and the skill sets behind those thoughts, must be relevant to the task at hand. If it's not, two things can happen. Firstly, the conversation won't be of the highest possible quality and the team may go off track. Secondly, team members that lack the necessary expertise may feel awkward as they can't contribute, or feel disheartened if their opinions aren't taken into consideration, weakening the circle of trust.

How to use democratic leadership

The pros outweigh the cons when it comes to democratic leadership, but its successes are reliant on how you implement this leadership style. Here are a few pointers on using democratic leadership:

  • Enthusiasm: Democratic leadership works best where employees are skilled and eager to share their knowledge

  • Time: Always give people plenty of time to prepare, contribute, develop and plan, and vote on the next steps

  • Deadlines: To run an efficient session, set realistic deadlines or timebox so that everyone has an equal chance to contribute effectively

  • Expectations: Setting a brief, including expectations of the team's involvement, will make the purpose of the task and the boundaries between team and leadership responsibilities clear

  • Process: As part of the brief, you may also communicate parts of the process, such as why you are using this democratic approach and some pitfalls to be aware of

  • Reflect: Always conduct a postmortem after your project, to analyse what worked well, what the key takeaways were, and what could have been better, to ensure even more success next time

How to show democratic leadership on your CV

If you're applying for a manager or leadership position, particularly one in a corporate setting, showcasing democratic leadership abilities on your CV is essential. 

Democratic leadership incorporates a range of soft skills, so the optimal way to display your skill set is by showing relevant achievements in your employment history section. For example, you might highlight how your ability to engage a team resulted in the successful delivery of a project, or how your competency in navigating challenging team situations with candour and professionalism helped to foster a culture of trust.

Don't forget to quantify each achievement with facts and statistics to highlight the value and impact that you could make in your new role.

You may also like to list desirable characteristics associated with a democratic leadership style in your core skills and competencies section. You could include:

Always read the job description carefully to identify the leadership skills that the prospective employer seems to value the most and prioritise them on your CV. 

For example, if the job spec requires a candidate that has “excellent interpersonal and influencing skills, and self-confidence in dealing with issues in a tactful and diplomatic manner,” prioritise listing the achievements in your work experience that reflect your ability to democratically lead in this way.

Tailoring your CV like this will show the recruiter that you're a direct match for the vacancy.

Democratic leadership example interview questions

If a role has an element of management or leadership, hiring managers will do their due diligence by asking candidates to demonstrate their ability in an interview. It's rare for interviewers to ask about democratic leadership abilities specifically. You're more likely to receive general leadership interview questions, and you can tailor your response to showcase your leadership style. 

These leadership interview questions are closely tied to the characteristics of a democratic leadership style: 

  • What is your leadership style?

  • What qualities should a team leader have?

  • Tell me about a time you demonstrated leadership skills at work

  • Can you describe a time you led by example?

  • How would you boost a team's waning morale?

  • How do you respond to ideas and suggestions from team members?

  • How can your presence add value to the company?

  • How do you manage a conflict situation?

  • What was the hardest decision you've taken as a leader? 

  • How do you ensure that your team delivers quality work within the specified timeframe and budget?

  • How do you motivate a team member that is underperforming?

  • Tell me about your approach to delegation

How to answer “what is your leadership style?”

If an interviewer is asking this question, they want to know how you lead and how comfortable you are doing it. They may even list specific requirements in the job description referencing what kind of leader they are looking for. And they will evaluate your candidacy against this list. To answer the question effectively, you need to prepare.

As part of your preparation, consider the leadership styles of your previous bosses and determine the traits that helped you to perform and those that didn't. Also consider the qualities of a good democratic leader, and other strong leadership traits, and cross-reference them with the qualities that make you a good leader.  

In the interview, tell a story using the STAR approach, drawing on your knowledge of leadership theory and highlighting evidence of what kind of leader you are.

If you're looking for a leadership position, highlighting your leadership abilities on your CV is essential. Want to make sure you've showcased your expertise in the best light? Submit your CV for a free review.

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