What is Democratic/Participative Leadership? How Collaboration Can Boost Morale

Democratic/participative leadership requires collaboration between leaders and the people they guide.

The democratic leadership style is based on mutual respect. It is often combined with participatory leadership because it requires collaboration between leaders and the people they guide.

The democratic/participative leadership style places significant responsibility on leaders and their staff. This is true for all organizations — from private enterprises and government agencies to educational institutions and nonprofit entities.

Read on to discover more about democratic/participative leadership:

Democratic/participative leadership definition

It’s difficult to imagine democratic leaders accomplishing their goals without direct participation from others. Participation is key to all successful democratic enterprises. This includes:

  • Attentive constituents in a congressional district
  • Concerned parents of students at a school
  • Active members from a nonprofit organization
  • Engaged employees at a prospering company

What is the definition of democratic/participative leadership?

One of the clearest definitions of democratic leadership comes from John Gastil. His 1994 article, “A Definition and Illustration of Democratic Leadership,” for the Human Relations journal remains relevant to private industry and the free market.

Gastil, a professor at Penn State University, has written extensively about jury selection and democratic participation in the deliberations process. His succinct definition of democratic leadership explains that it is conceptually distinct from positions of authority.

Gastil’s definition of democratic leadership:

“Distributing responsibility among the membership, empowering group members, and aiding the group’s decision-making process”

What is participative leadership?

Edwin A. Locke, a professor emeritus of leadership and motivation at the University of Maryland, offers an expanded definition of democratic leadership by adding participative to the equation.

Participative leadership is “any power-sharing arrangement in which workplace influence is shared among individuals who are otherwise hierarchical unequals,” Locke and his colleague David Schweiger explain in “Participation in Decision-Making: One More Look.”

The authors warn that leaders should be careful when using the participatory style because it can backfire. If people feel their input is being ignored, the democratic/participative style “can actually lead to lower employee satisfaction and productivity,” Locke and his colleague wrote in 1979.

The key to letting subordinates take part in decision-making is to build mature teams with experienced and cooperative people. Democratic/participative teams are not only capable of making good decisions but they also support their group’s goals — even when their own suggestions aren’t adopted.

History of democratic/participative leadership

The democratic leadership style always involves participative decision-making. It empowers employees to have a strong hand in managing organizations.

Democratic/participative leadership — or the “style with two names” — has become popular in recent decades. It dates to the 1930s and ’40s. That’s when noted behavioral researcher Kurt Lewin led studies that helped identify the value of the democratic/participative leadership style in organizations.

In “Leadership and Group Life,” Lewin and his colleagues Ronald Lippitt and Ralph K. White cite democratic, laissez-faire and autocratic as the three primary leadership styles. Based on interviews with business leaders and employees, Lewin, Lippitt and White concluded that the democratic leadership style was the most popular among subordinates.

Successful democratic leaders differ from autocratic and laissez-faire leaders in two important ways.

  • Unlike autocrats, democratic leaders expect people who report to them to have in-depth experience and to exhibit self-confidence.
  • Unlike the laissez-faire style, which delegates authority to experts, democratic leaders are involved in the decision-making process.

Democratic/participative leaders have enormous responsibilities. Organizations that incorporate the democratic style still need strong leaders who know how to avoid the pitfalls that can trip up collaborative teams when they lose their compass.

Case in point: Apple

Apple was a successful company from 1976 to 1985, before it almost failed in the mid-1990s. Then it became enormously successful again — precisely because it faltered.

In other words, Apple had a vision. Apple lost its vision. Apple regained its vision.

That’s rare.

In the mid-1990s Gateway, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and other companies reportedly zeroed in on Apple as an acquisition target. Years later, many of those brands disappeared. Yet Apple survived.

Apple survived because Steve Jobs learned how to adapt. He became a democratic/participative leader. Jobs started out as a charismatic/laissez-faire leader, and Apple soared. Then he became an autocratic leader, and Apple’s board of directors requested his resignation.

When he returned to Apple more than 10 years later, Jobs combined several leadership styles and added democratic/participative to his repertoire. He hired other experienced leaders and entrusted them to excel. Jobs encouraged his lead designer Jonathon Ive, and he mentored manufacturing expert Tim Cook, now CEO. He let them make key decisions.

That’s why Apple survived.

Watch this video to learn how Jobs changed his approach to leadership and embraced the collaborative, problem-solving process — also known as democratic/participative leadership.

Examples of democratic/participative leadership

All successful leaders are self-actualizing people with loads of self-confidence. They take responsibility for their actions, they support their teams, and they don’t make excuses for failures.

Among U.S. presidents, there are many examples of men who brought the democratic/participative leadership style to the Oval Office. Most of these presidents exhibited traits that reflected a variety of leadership styles.

U.S. presidents with democratic leadership traits:

  • George Washington: Unlike commanding troops during the American Revolution, Washington was notably democratic when guiding the U.S. government. He showed early signs of his democratic leadership style by appointing strong leaders to his staff. His decision not to serve a third term exemplified a democratic leader who knows when to pass the torch.
  • Thomas Jefferson: As president, Jefferson was both an authoritarian and democratic leader. As primary author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776, Jefferson left no ambiguity about his devotion to democracy: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” In 1803, he autocratically bypassed Congress to expedite the Louisiana Purchase for $15 million.
  • Abraham Lincoln: Often considered the epitome of a democratic leader, Lincoln was autocratic in his decisions throughout his presidency. Although his character and principles were democratic in nature, Lincoln was an autocratic leader as president out of necessity. The Civil War demanded decisiveness.
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower: Far more democratic in his approach to defeating Germany during WWII than his subordinate, Gen. George C. Patton, Eisenhower was a strategist and consensus builder. Eisenhower is an unusual example of a military commander who adopted laissez-faire and democratic/participative leadership styles as commander in chief.
  • John F. Kennedy: A charismatic leader at heart, Kennedy displayed characteristics of laissez-faire and democratic leadership styles. His spearheading of the Apollo space program is an example of JFK’s laissez-faire style. In other cases, he showed autocratic leadership tendencies, such as his quick decisions during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Jimmy Carter: A former naval commander, Carter exemplified both the qualities and pitfalls of the democratic/participative leadership style as president. He surrounded himself with some experienced staff, but he often deferred to inexperienced subordinates when acting authoritatively would have been a better choice.

If there is a lesson to learn from these presidents it’s that the best leaders find the right style to suit the needs of a nation or organization, crisis or paradigm shift.

Democratic leadership in business

Business enterprises and other organizations comprise numerous experts, so they are well-suited to the democratic/participative leadership process. Whether it’s a CEO or a project manager, democratic leaders can be effective in business if they surround themselves with experienced players.

The participatory style works best with experts who know their jobs and carry out their responsibilities under minimal supervision. This is true for:

  • Biotech R&D divisions
  • Housing construction sites
  • Universities
  • Information technology companies

Yet in private businesses and government agencies with strict procedures or a high turnover of employees, the autocratic leadership style is often more appropriate. Even within these environments, though, divisions exist that function best under a democratic/participative leadership style.


  • Pharmaceutical industry: Pharmaceutical companies have educated chemists who work well in collaborative teams on development projects. Such companies also require autocratic leaders who supervise subordinates in automated assembly-line operations. They demand procedures and tight tolerances that do not lend themselves to a democratic/participative leadership style.
  • Hospitals and labs: Hospitals and healthcare testing facilities call for a blend of leadership styles. Hospital administration — from personnel and accounting departments to facilities maintenance and insurance billing — requires autocratic leadership to ensure consistency and accountability. Simultaneously, physicians work collaboratively under democratic/participative leaders. Ditto: nurses, who employ both autocratic and democratic leadership styles to carry out team functions and individual responsibilities.
  • High-tech firms: The technology industry offers countless examples of companies that are well-suited for the democratic/participative leadership style. Many are startups with engineering and software development teams that work collaboratively under democratic leaders. In successful cases, these firms evolve from laissez-faire startups to democratic-led enterprises to mature autocratic companies.

Companies that reflect democratic leadership principles

Most successful companies evolve, and their leaders display a mix of leadership styles. They have autocratic leaders who run manufacturing, quality control and distribution divisions along with R&D teams spearheaded by democratic/participative leaders.

Examples of companies where democratic/participative leadership works:

  • Google: Founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page developed their Internet search engine while pursuing their doctorates at Stanford. After obtaining initial financing, they did something unusual. Brin and Page followed the advice of experienced entrepreneurs and hired Eric Schmidt to jump-start their company. Incorporating a blend of autocratic, laissez-faire and democratic leadership styles, the Novell and Sun executive brought experience into Google’s dugout. The three immediately began scouting experienced talent to set up democratic/participative teams. Today, Google remains relatively democratic in its approach to product development under CEO Page.
  • Genentech: A pioneer in the discovery and development of restriction enzymes to develop biological drugs, Genentech was started by Robert Swanson and Herbert Boyer. They faced competition for financial resources and talent when they launched the company in 1976. Recombinant DNA technology was a mystery to all but a few forward-looking biologists and chemists. The key to Genentech’s success was instilling democratic/participative leadership values to attract those scientists. Although it’s now owned by Roche, Genentech remains on the leading edge by blending democratic R&D with autocratic manufacturing leadership styles.
  • Mayo Clinic: A nonprofit organization with a reputation as one of the most cutting-edge healthcare research facilities in the world, the Mayo Clinic thrives on democratic/participative leadership values. Founded by Dr. William Mayo and his family, the hospital, healthcare and research facility attracts some of the most brilliant minds in the medical field because it gives them opportunities to work collaboratively among peers on democratic teams. Although the processes required in the medical research industry often call for an extremely autocratic approach, healthcare organizations like the Mayo Clinic cannot succeed without democratic/participative leaders.
  • Amazon.com: When it launched, Amazon was known for selling books. The company prospered by embracing all three of Lewin’s leadership models. It started as a laissez-faire company, with Jeff Bezos as final arbitrator of all key decisions. He recruited a lot of veteran computer programmers from nearby software companies and quickly implemented a democratic/participative leadership model. Today, Amazon sells everything imaginable, including cloud services and big data security storage. Amazon is necessarily autocratic because of its commitment to timely customer service. At its core, however, the company retains its democratic values among C-suite executives, division heads and project directors.

Famous democratic/participative leaders

The democratic/participative leadership style works best in creative businesses, design firms and corporations driven by research and development. The participatory leadership style is also well-suited for educational institutions with collaborative environments.

Examples of leaders who exhibit democratic/participative leadership style:

  • Indra Nooyi: Nooyi, the CEO and chairman of PepsiCo, has endeared herself to employees. She takes an interest in the personal lives of employees and has a vision of the company’s future. Nooyi made news when she sent letters to the parents of direct reports to let them know how proud they should be of their executive adult/children. When one recruit was undecided about joining the company, Forbes magazine reports, Nooyi called the candidate’s mom and subsequently landed the executive. She has also made fans of investors with smart divestitures and acquisitions, such as Tropicana, Quaker Oats and Gatorade.
  • Bill George: George was a senior executive at Honeywell and Litton Industries before joining Medtronic as CEO. Now a professor at Harvard Business School, George says he felt hamstrung by the bureaucratic processes before joining Medtronic. Although he acknowledges the necessity of autocratic procedures in businesses with tight manufacturing controls, George applauds Medtronic’s innovative approach to healthcare technologies. Noted for its heart stents and mechanical heart valves, Medtronic would not have thrived under George’s tutelage from 1991 to 2001 had he not been devoted to the principles of collaborative research efforts, baked into the democratic/participative leadership style.
  • Tommy Lasorda: A successful baseball pitcher before coaching, Lasorda bonded with his players. As manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1976 to 1996, Lasorda won two World Series championships, four National League pennants and eight division titles. Considered a player’s coach, Lasorda’s decision to let Kirk Gibson pinch-hit during the 1988 World Series against the Oakland A’s remains one of the most memorable moments in baseball history. Most managers would not have sent an injured batter to the plate against an ace pitcher. Lasorda did so because he trusted his player’s judgment and his own instincts. Both are hallmarks of a successful democratic/participative leader in action. Gibson hit a home run and helped the Dodgers win the series.
  • Ginni Rometty: As CEO of IBM since 2012, Rometty has demonstrated a methodical approach to managing and a democratic/participative leadership style. She has made the tough decisions expected of IBM CEOs, such as selling its profitable but slowing server business and reducing staff. She has also committed resources to IBM’s big data efforts. IBM is partnering with healthcare companies, government enterprises and social media firms to leverage its strengths in cognitive computing.
  • Muhtar Kent: Known as a democratic/participative leader, Kent is CEO and chairman of the board at Coca-Cola. He has a reputation for seeking input from others on key decisions. Kent has an inclusive style that reflects his commitment to diversity. The New York-born executive is as committed to improving managerial processes and manufacturing efficiencies as he is to teamwork. He worked his way up the corporate ladder, in part, by doubling Coca-Cola’s bottling operations output. As CEO, Kent built collaborative management teams to address slowing sales growth and tackled challenges from global competitors, reflecting a blend of autocratic and democratic styles.

A major characteristic among democratic/participative leaders is inclusiveness. Democratic leaders seek participation from a wide range of people, including women. Watch this video of Coca-Cola’s Kent discussing his views on diversity in the workplace.

Democratic/participatory leadership quotes

These leaders are known as big innovators and strong collaborators. Many of them blended different leadership styles or evolved to adopt the characteristics of democratic leaders. Here are some quotations that reveal their devotion to democratic and participatory leadership:

Thomas Aquinas: “If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.”

Jeff Bezos: “I strongly believe that missionaries make better products. They care more. For a missionary, it’s not just about the business. There has to be a business, and the business has to make sense. But that’s not why you do it. You do it because you have something meaningful that motivates you.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

David Packard: “Take risks. Ask big questions. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not reaching far enough.”

Steve Jobs: “One of the keys to Apple is Apple’s an incredibly collaborative company.”

Ginny Rometty: “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.”

Mahatma Gandhi: “Honest disagreement is a good sign of progress.”

Tommy Lasorda: “I believe managing is like holding a dove in your hand. Squeeze too hard and you kill it, not hard enough and it flies away.”

William J. Mayo: “Lord, deliver me from the man who never makes a mistake. And also from the man who makes the same mistake twice.”

Bill George: “You’d sit in a business meeting and say, ‘Is this product good enough to go to patients — so 100 percent of all patients who get it are going to have their lives improved? If it’s not, we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board.’”

Thomas Jefferson: “Delay is preferable to error.”

Jerry Yang: “Certainly Yahoo wouldn’t exist without the sort of environment that Stanford gave us to create it.”

Sergey Brin: “Solving big problems is easier than solving little problems.”

Tip O’Neill: “It’s easier to run for office than to run the office.”

Jimmy Carter: “The experience of democracy is like the experience of life itself — always changing, infinite in its variety, sometimes turbulent and all the more valuable for having been tested by adversity.”

Democratic leadership case study: Twitter

It should come as no surprise that a company devoted to instantaneously spreading the word about anything and everything in 140 characters or less has a reputation for being collaborative.

Twitter, which has seen fits and starts since its founding nearly a decade ago, has a shared leadership style that starts at the top. Founded by Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, Biz Stone and Noah Glass, Twitter began life in 2006 as a democratic/participative enterprise.

It remains so today.

Each of Twitter’s co-founders had a different vision of what the company should become. That vision ranged from a rebellious underground domain to a kind of brand central station where any company or individual could spread the word about their products and aspirations to thousands of followers.

Dorsey, who has been called “the real core co-founder,” never wavered from his vision of Twitter as a text-messaging service that would change the world as we know it — or as the young Dorsey knew it when he started coding Twitter two decades ago.

Dorsey is both a democratic and a laissez-faire leader. A consummate multitasker, his family and peers know him as a utilitarian hipster with fashion sense. He dislikes all waste and cherishes his haircuts. He grew up listening to C-band radio dispatches of emergency personnel responding to crimes and fires, false alarms and deadly events.

Although Dorsey has returned in the role of CEO, Twitter remains minimalist and collaborative.

Both Dorsey and Twitter represent the new wave of democratic/participative leadership in business. Like Dorsey, Twitter has taken several years to find its compass.

Twitter’s strength?

Brevity is imperative in the new world of social media.

Democratic/participative leadership style requirements

Democratic leadership has many names. They include:

  • Participative leadership
  • Shared leadership
  • Open-book management
  • Participative decision-making
  • Democratic management style

The democratic/participative leadership style has some similarities to laissez-faire leadership, but there are also significant differences.

Laissez-faire leaders allow subordinates to decide how to complete their tasks and projects, but not to make organization-wide decisions. Participative leadership not only accepts subordinates’ comments, ideas and suggestions, it also encourages their input on decisions and strategies.

Both of these styles depend on the leader having skilled, educated and experienced employees. Using the democratic leadership style with inexperienced personnel is asking for trouble unless the workers have an extraordinary intuition for what needs to be done.

Still, most of the noted democratic/participative leaders throughout history have succeeded because they encouraged their staff to get involved in the discussions about major and minor decisions.

Democratic leaders are highly rational

Noted organizational psychologist Bernard M. Bass studied Lewin’s big three leadership styles: laissez-faire, autocratic and democratic. In “The Bass Handbook of Leadership,” he pointed out successful leaders typically exhibit many traits from different leadership styles.

Bass, a professor emeritus at Binghamton University and founding director of the Center for Leadership Studies who died in 2007, observed that democratic leaders are factual and rational in their approach to problem-solving and evaluating staff performance. He also observed that democratic leaders “de-emphasized social distance,” while autocratic leaders exhibited their higher social stature among subordinates.

Social standing is one of several key distinctions between autocratic and democratic leaders. Although both styles can be effective, autocratic leaders are authoritarian because they often supervise inexperienced subordinates, or they’re charged with training experienced people to perform new tasks quickly — such as learning an innovative software program or adopting an updated quality-control process.

By comparison, democratic/participative leaders are:

  • Egalitarian types who feel comfortable rolling up their sleeves
  • Team-oriented captains who view experienced staff as peers
  • Consensus builders who like to mediate disagreements
  • Flexible explorers who share decision-making with key staff

Peter Drucker on leadership qualities

Peter Drucker, renowned management consultant and best-selling author, wasn’t big on labels. But he understood the distinctions among different types of leaders.

In one of his last interviews, Drucker discussed business ethics with Forbes magazine. Drucker’s advice for executives, particularly democratic/participative leaders, still rings true.

Democratic leaders are superb multitaskers. As Drucker points out, productive leaders are extraordinarily accomplished because they rely on experts to make suggestions without relinquishing control of the decision-making process.

In 2004, Drucker said:

“Don’t take on things you don’t believe in and that you yourself are not good at. Learn to say no. Effective leaders match the objective needs of their company with the subjective competencies. As a result, they get an enormous amount of things done fast.”

What are the characteristics of democratic leaders?

Democratic/participative leaders share common traits with laissez-faire leaders, such as delegating. The key distinction is their involvement in the decision-making process.

Democratic leaders don’t simply hire experts to run divisions or projects and then wait for the results. They insert themselves in the process and stay informed. They often rely heavily on data, but they are not slaves to metrics. They balance the instincts of experienced team leaders with the realities of the marketplace.

They are problem solvers. If there is no demand for a great idea, democratic leaders will often pass on it. They take risks, but they know when to cut their losses. Democratic/participative leaders are:

  • Egalitarian
  • Fair-minded
  • Adaptive
  • Engaged
  • Role models
  • Forward-thinking
  • Team-oriented
  • Consensus builders

One of the key selling points about democratic leadership compared to other styles is that it works well throughout an organization.

The autocratic leadership style, by comparison, works within certain departments but not necessarily from the top down. Authoritarian leadership can be stifling and demoralizing if it exists throughout an entire organization.

The democratic/participative style can exist at every level in some companies. This style can work well in an organization that is focused on growth, research and talent acquisition.

Private companies, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations in expansion mode are well-suited for the democratic/participative leadership style because it encourages collaboration. Participatory leadership rewards success and fosters a collegial environment.

Smart, talented people love collegial environments. It’s up to democratic/participative leaders to recruit them, encourage them and monitor their progress just enough to ensure productivity.

If there is one caveat to the participatory leadership style it is this: Too much consensus building can lead to stagnation.

At the end of the day, someone has to take responsibility for the decisions.

Successful democratic/participative leaders step up to the plate. They make the final decisions.

The best ones are prepared. They know when they’re going to hit one out of the ballpark. They not only trust their teams, but they stay informed about workflow progress on a regular basis.

Advantages and disadvantages of democratic/participative leadership

In theory, the advantages of democratic leadership are obvious to subordinates. Most people prefer to work within a leadership structure that encourages thoughtful discussion and rewards collaborative processes.

In reality, not all organizations lend themselves to the democratic leadership style.

Executives, board members, trustees and investors have expectations centered on productivity. For them, the participative leadership style may seem inappropriate.

In some companies and organizations, where internal processes are highly focused, strictly controlled and often perfected, other leadership styles, like autocratic, are a better fit.

It’s up to leaders to determine the best style for working groups within their companies and institutions. Here are some considerations:

Democratic leadership pros

  • Employees have increased job satisfaction and a sense of empowerment.
  • Relationships are built on mutual trust between labor and management.
  • Absenteeism is lower among employees with a stronger commitment to performance.
  • Productivity increases as a result of a solutions-centric workforce that has input.
  • Creativity and innovation increase among employees through team collaboration.

Democratic leadership cons

  • Leaders can become overly dependent on the expertise and experience of subordinates.
  • Collaboration can consume valuable time getting input from people who aren’t in agreement.
  • Fast, incisive decisions may be difficult or even impossible, resulting in missed deadlines.
  • Relying on consensus from people who are misinformed or lack accurate data can be costly.
  • Leaders can become burdened by the challenge of overseeing experts on collaborative teams.

Benefits of democratic/participative leadership

The democratic style requires a special type of leader, but it also requires a special group of participants. Everyone has to be on board with the participatory process. This requires an extremely intuitive and observant leader who acts decisively when conflicts arise among team members.

Participatory leadership traits

Although some democratic leaders are charismatic, many are not. Because they tend to be highly rational, democratic leaders are often even-keeled. They are not prone to sweeping inspirational speeches or motivating staff with a gung-ho style aimed at attaining short-term goals.

Democratic/participative leaders are self-confident, but they’re also pragmatic. They surround themselves with like-minded people who set realistic goals and achieve them.

The axiom “train your replacement” may apply best to the democratic leadership style. Effective democratic leaders are so adept that their staff appears to function well without them.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that participatory leaders are easily replaced.

The best democratic/participative leaders are great multitaskers. They are able to handle the challenge of working with experienced people on collaborative teams without losing sight of objectives or deadlines.

Democratic/participative leaders are focused on accomplishing goals. Productivity is the key to adopting this leadership style. To be successful, democratic leaders must have productive teams that meet expectations.

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