What First-Time Leaders can learn from Democratic Leadership Style
We all are led by examples, it’s human nature. So when young professionals are moving up the career ladder and land a position as a first-time leader, one of the first things they’ll do is look at role models that inspire them. Also, they’ll reflect on the type of leaders they had positive experiences with in the past. In both cases, the democratic leadership style often stands out. That isn’t surprising, as these types of leaders can greatly impact how teams and organizations perform. What can future leaders learn from them?
- Intro: Finding your Voice as a First-Time Leader
- What is a Democratic Leadership Style?
- What makes Democratic Leaders so Effective?
- Examples of Democratic Leadership
- The 4 Most Valuable Skills First-Time Leaders can learn from Democratic Leaders
1. Intro: Finding your Voice as a First-Time Leader
When you’re a first-time leader, finding your voice as a manager is one of the many challenges you’ll have to face. Of course, everybody has their own unique set of values, abilities and behavior that they bring to their new role, but chances are it takes some time to understand the rules of the game – not to mention the fact that leading a group of people who were once your peers can be a significant change. Even the most confident high-potentials can feel uncertain and overwhelmed as they take this step on the career ladder, especially because they still need to build the necessary skills for their new position.
So to learn the ropes, it’s only natural to look at leaders that are role models – from famous CEOs to past managers – and to reflect on what made those people so great to work for. Who nailed it and contributed to the success of their teams? Which type of leader was genuinely inspiring? Who made their people feel seen and acknowledged for their contributions? Now there are many types of leadership styles, each with their own pros and cons. But it’s very likely that the answer to these questions is that it was somebody who used a democratic or participative leadership style.
2. What is a Democratic Leadership Style?
Why is democratic leadership popular amongst employees and aspiring leaders? As the term suggests, democratic leaders create an environment where everybody’s voice is heard in the decision-making process. They are open to the input and ideas from others and emphasize the aspect of equality, as they invite every single person to the table – regardless of their hierarchical status within the organization. This is why the democratic style of leadership is also known as participative leadership. These leaders listen and make sure they hear about all the different options that are out there. They may even test ideas with their team or delegate power to them, especially when those decisions directly influence those people’s jobs. That said, a democratic leader is not free of responsibility. They don’t hand over their accountability; they just believe the best decisions are made together. Although they apply a decentralized approach to authority, they still make the final call.
Although modern leadership asks for a situational style – adapting to the people, circumstances, and the specific needs at that moment in time – I try to create a vision together with the team and keep ourselves accountable on the road to that vision.
In my humble opinion, being open and honest is foundational for a culture of trust and with that comes a high performance.
Stef Hoeke, VP Global Enterprises Lepaya
Characteristics of Democratic Leaders
To summarize, these are the most common characteristics that define this particular type of leader:
- They take a collaborative approach to decision-making
- They are open to feedback from staff at all levels
- They have the mindset of a team player
- They are not afraid to delegate authority but always take responsibility for the final outcome
- They build a culture where people know they’re expected to weigh in on ideas
Typical Things a Democratic Leader Would Say
This will probably sound familiar to people who collaborate with, or are democratic leaders themselves:
- “To solve this dispute within the sales team, here’s what I was thinking of doing. What’s your idea on this matter?”
- “We’re looking into the options for a new CMS. What’s your experience with this system?”
- “I’m organizing a brainstorm session to generate creative ideas to make our hybrid workplace function better.”
- “I welcome people who have a different opinion than mine, as I know it will improve the outcome.”
As a leader, I do very simple things. I mean, I ask everyone’s opinion when they don’t speak up. And then when they have an opinion, I’ll ask others to talk about it. I think you’re often in environments where people don’t do that …
if it’s the norm and it’s expected and everybody has to speak up, you have to have an opinion, and you have to argue. You know, you have to stick up for what you believe in.
Former Chairman & CEO of IBM Ginny Rometty
3. What makes Democratic Leaders so Effective?
For decades, psychologists, behavioral scientists and consultancy firms have been researching different leadership styles and what makes them effective. As a result, the consensus is that the benefits of a democratic leadership style are as follows:
Advantages of Democratic Leadership
- It increases job satisfaction and positive employee experience: employees feel like they’re part of a strong team or organization where trust and the freedom to be yourself are top priorities. This people-first approach boosts morale at every step of the employee journey.
- It creates a higher sense of equality among employees: everybody’s opinion is heard, valued and respected, no matter their seniority.
- It fuels innovation: creative, out-of-the-box ideas are welcomed, explored and tested. Even when they fail, it’s seen as a learning process. This approach is a well-known driver for innovation.
- It accelerates team performance and productivity: teams feel empowered and motivated to contribute positively to the company. This will increase motivation and productivity levels. Everybody is working towards a shared goal, which leads to strong relationships between teams, individual employees, and management.
Disadvantages of Democratic Leadership
So, what’s the catch? As with any type of leadership, this particular style also has disadvantages. For instance: constantly aiming for consensus among a group can be inefficient and even costly, as it leads to a slower decision-making process. Also, it can be less effective when teams are relatively inexperienced or unskilled and need more guidance, or when complex decisions have to be made and time is short. Finally, it’s obvious that not every individual idea will be implemented. As a result, some people will inevitably be disappointed or feel rejected.
Where does a Democratic Leadership style work best?
Any type of company that highly values group interaction, inclusivity and collaboration will thrive with a democratic leader on board. It works especially well in companies where group members are skilled, have a certain level of expertise, and are eager to share their knowledge. Their leaders can rely on their teams to independently take action without the need for strict supervision, and are able to make rational decisions together. Think: companies that revolve around innovation, like startups and scale-ups, the tech industry, and the creative industry.
4. Examples of Democratic Leadership
Many aspiring or first-time leaders resonate with the idea of becoming a democratic leader. This is understandable because it’s a positive, exciting and interesting form of leadership that’s been adopted by many successful companies and CEOs. A famous example is Google, whose employees from all over the world are encouraged to share their ideas during extensive brainstorming sessions with the entire company, which has led to some pretty innovative ideas. Then there’s Jack Dorsey, co-founder and former CEO of Twitter, and Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Meta. They both highly value the input from their teams and have been known for boosting an innovation culture that way. Sandberg’s team spirit has even been at the very heart of her motivation to write the successful book Lean In.
I do a lot of my work at stand-up tables, which anyone can come up to. And I get to hear all these conversations around the company. Employees can actually dramatically change the course of the company by presenting a good idea.
Jack Dorsey in Forbes Magazine
5. The 4 Most Valuable Skills First-Time Leaders can learn from the Democratic Leadership Style
Of course, no two people have the same management style. Everybody will lead their teams in their own particular way and tweak their style as they get more experienced. But it is possible to get familiar with a specific skill set that will help aspiring and current leaders to take their new role to the next level. These are the four most valuable skills to learn from democratic leaders:
- Effective communication: democratic leaders take the time to listen to their group members personally and know exactly how to involve them. They’re very good at communicating with various personality types and hierarchical levels within the company.
- Taking ownership: a key management skill is to take responsibility for the outcome of a team decision, and not to point fingers when something goes wrong.
- Driving a feedback culture: creating a feedback culture is a great asset that many democratic leaders have. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and practice to learn how to share and receive feedback.
- Analytical thinking: this helps to detect and solve problems efficiently, as even democratic leaders always have the final call.
Are you an L&D professional interested in first-time leadership development programs? At Lepaya, we offer Power Skills training that is all about empowering your people.
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