Democratic leadership (DL) is also known as participative or shared leadership. This leadership style is nothing new. Indeed, US Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were said to be advocates of this approach. Nowadays, it is something promoted by many of the main large fashionable and creative industries (naming no names) and characterised by members of a team taking a more participative role in the decision-making process.
In practical terms it sometimes extends to holding a ballot or vote, mostly informing the leader’s ultimate decision. It is not an approach exclusive to politics or multi-nationals though, it is wholly applicable in any business. And I know from experience it exists already in very many. I wonder how remarkable it could be for more and more children, young people and team members to witness and learn from this type of democracy in action, first-hand. What a great learning experience for everyone’s self-regulation, social and relationship skills, study and employability skills.
In DL, team members participate, share ideas, and discuss issues to inform decision-making, under the support of the team leader. It is often the operating style teams reach when they are at fully functioning or ‘performing’ stage (Tuckman 1965). But is does need conscious effort from all to make it as effective as possible.
Take this simple self-assessment test yourself, and ask your team what they think:
- Are all team members supported to share ideas, thoughts and opinions?
- Is there a sense of creativity in the leader and team, and is it welcomed and valued?
- Do team members feel involved and engaged with the decision-making process?
- How honest, fair and democratic is the leader considered to be?
Be warned though, one misconception of this approach, is the leader doesn’t make decisions. They do. After a well-facilitated discussion or consultation, the team could choose to take a vote. A majority vote could be enough, or the leader could have a casting vote if needed (think the Strictly Come Dancing panel, where the head judge has the decision in the event of a tie). Or the leader could acknowledge the majority view, but still side with the minority – justifying and explaining their position clearly to all.
A leader who may be struggling and unconfident, finding it difficult to make decisions, may use this approach too much and destabilise the team in the process. This can be very unsettling and confusing for the team members and could weaken trust and respect. It is not a technique to use when teams are newly formed either, as teams will be looking for strong directional leadership until the team develops further. Nor is it for when there is tension and disagreement between small sub-groups, as the open sharing of views and ideas will either become stifled, or it will fuel disagreements and division.
Save it for when the group feels skilled and willing to participate. DL benefits are many and can include: happier individuals and team members, improved idea or solution generation, the sharing of morals and values – which strengthens connections and relationships, and higher functionality and quality results.
This blog is based on an article by me first published in Teach Early Years.