The word democracy means “rule by the people” and it has its roots in ancient Greece where democracy as we have come to know it today started from. The basic idea is that the people hold the power to decide who leads them instead of someone ruling over them, such as in a tyranny or oligarchy.
While the modern concept of democracy is predominantly associated with the ancient Athens of 508 B.C., the idea of ruling as a group has been around for much longer and in many more parts of the world as evidenced by how many tribes all over the globe have adopted a democratically cooperative style of government organised around a village council with representatives from various sections of the society.
The modern history of democratic leadership
The early part of the 20th century saw the concept of leadership attract more scholarly attention and interest than ever. People were looking to find out what great leaders are about and what different leadership strategies exist. The idea of democratic leadership was one of the theories that surfaced.
Kurt Lewin, together with his colleagues R. Lippit and R.K. White, during studies done in the 1930s and 1940s, determined three distinctive leadership styles: autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire.
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 with no hierarchy. Both the leader and the subordinates were equally subject to appraisal, with strong feedback structures in place.
In his 1994 article, Gastil outlined the three core elements for a democratic leadership framework:
- The distribution of leadership.
- The empowerment of subordinates.
- The aiding of democratic decision-making in deliberations.
The distribution of leadership
Democratic leadership requires an equally shared power structure, without any hierarchy in decision-making and no one person has concentrated power over others. However this 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. A leader might be empowered to make certain decisions with the mandate of their subordinates.
For example, a member of a national parliament is allowed to make decisions based on their best judgment, with the power provided by their voters. However, this is turn means each decision they choose to make must be done according to the expectations of said voters and the member of parliament must be able to explain their decisions to the voters.
The empowerment of subordinates
Democratic leadership doesn’t just believe that people should contribute decision-making, it actively invites them to participate in the process.
Since democratic leadership requires people to be part of the decision-making process, the framework should also look to enhance people’s skill set in things like public speaking, logical thinking, organisational skills and leadership skills too, aside from the pure professional abilities required within the specific industry. The democratic leader should generally aim to genuinely develop the subordinates’ own psychological skills and abilities.
The aiding of democratic decision-making in deliberations
Problem solving should be done through analysis and group deliberation. Solutions must reflect the group’s effort and understanding of the situation and have a collective interest of the group at heart.
The leader’s role is not to guide the decision itself, but rather to ensure there are pre-set structures and guidelines for the process and that they are followed as this is important for effective decision-making.
The qualities of a democratic leader
While all leadership styles require the leader to be intelligent, democratic leadership has a unique call for this trait of good leadership. The leader must provide enough background information for the subordinates to guarantee they are well equipped to make the right choices.
However intelligence for democratic leader is more than just professional industry knowledge, they need to have a lot of emotional intelligence too to ensure the team works well together. It’s not easy to keep people working smoothly together in an environment where everyone has the ability and responsibility to voice their opinion.
Therefore, the leader needs the ability to communicate with different personalities and get people to work together efficiently.
Democratic leaders must stay honest about their own opinion and be able to lay out the situation to ensure decisions are made on real information. If you show honesty as a leader, then subordinates are also more likely to stay open and this in turn creates a better work environment for everyone.
However, it’s equally important to ensure honesty doesn’t turn into cruelty. You should critique ideas and give negative criticism when it’s necessary without being brutal.
Ask yourself three questions before voicing the opinion:
- Is this feedback true?
- Is this feedback necessary for reaching an objective or goal?
- Is this feedback kind or beneficial from the person’s perspective?
Since the democratic 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 in itself calls for innovative thinking from the leader.
As a leader, you can improve your own creativity, but also subordinate’s creativity by establishing the right environment within the organisation. Creativity is easier when people are able to speak their mind freely and feel that their ideas are respected so you should always reward innovative thinking.
The democratic leadership framework must be fair and consistent. As a leader, you need to be able to distance yourself from the situation emotionally and to think rationally. Fairness also calls for transparency.
If you allow subordinates to understand your own thinking process and decisions, or even better set clear guidelines with them, you will show them your decisions are based on rationality and not any personal feelings you might have towards different employees.
Democratic leadership is often confused with the idea of the political philosophy of democracy.
To understand democratic leadership, one must appreciate the delicate art of allowing everyone to participate in the decision-making process of the organisation.