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Democratic Leadership Style: Characteristics, Pros and Cons

Democratic Leadership Style: Characteristics, Pros and Cons

Last Updated March 8, 2024

If you know the definition of democracy, you’re well on your way to understanding what it means to be a democratic leader. Democratic leadership is also known as shared, or participatory, leadership. These alternative names give you a good idea of the basics of this leadership style. In contrast to autocratic leaders, democratic leaders spread the wealth, giving group members the opportunity to contribute ideas and make decisions as a team.

A tortoise and the hare analogy might apply here. Autocratic leaders are like the hare, quick and decisive, but sometimes handicapped by their own ego. Democratic leaders, on the other hand, are like the tortoise. They implement a creative, participative process that can at times be slow, but has winning results: higher productivity and job satisfaction.

What is Democratic Leadership?

Foundational psychologist Kurt Lewin defined three major leadership styles: autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire. According to theorist John Gastil, Lewin and his colleagues created a rough sketch of democratic leadership, one that we still rely on today: Democratic leaders rely on group decision making, active member involvement, honest praise and criticism, and a degree of comradeship.

To bear out his theories of leadership, Lewin conducted a study in the Journal of Social Psychology in 1939, in which he assigned schoolchildren to three groups, each with either an authoritarian, democratic, or laissez-faire leader. He found that autocratic leadership drastically increased hostility and aggression among the students. On the other hand, democratic leadership resulted in less tension and better performance, which was sustained when the leader left for a period and students had to work alone.  

The idea of democratic leadership clearly comes from the early concept of democracy, which in short, means government by the people. In a democracy, some people fill the role of leaders and some the role of followers, but everybody has equal say in the decision-making process. 

Daniel Goleman expanded on Lewin’s ideas of leadership with his six leadership styles, adding two important elements to the definition of democratic leadership: empowerment and consensus-seeking. Team members are empowered to participate fully in group decision-making and the process is geared toward reaching a consensus.

Characteristics of the Democratic Leadership Style

Leaders who embrace the democratic style of leadership often possess the following characteristics. 

Promote creativity

In shared leadership, leaders trust their teams to generate ideas and come up with solutions. This trust encourages organizational creativity, spurring teams to work together in new ways, without micromanagement.


Democratic leaders want all team members to be involved. Everyone comes to the table when it’s time to make a decision. This approach reduces power struggles and makes team members feel valued.


In contrast with other styles of leadership, democratic leadership encourages team members to work together. Employees can’t just rely on the leader’s edicts to get things done. Instead, they have to come up with solutions themselves, knowing that their leader is there to take responsibility when there’s an issue. 


Above all, participatory leaders trust their teams to get things done. They follow Douglas McGregor’s Theory Y model, an optimistic approach that assumes workers are self-motivated, see work as fulfilling and can solve problems creatively on their own.

Democratic Leadership Examples

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was famously democratic in his leadership style, once said that “leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.” 

This attitude doesn’t come automatically to everyone, but it can be learned. Continuing education coursework, such as Strategic Organizational Leadership, a course within Villanova’s Certificate in Organizational Leadership program, can help you acquire the four traits of democratic leaders. 

Known as the “Balancer in Chief,” Eisenhower demonstrated the qualities of democratic leadership by building strategic coalitions and bringing on board knowledgeable experts to help make important decisions. 

Mahatma Gandhi, one of the great leaders of our time, exemplified many of the traits of a democratic leader. He brought together broad coalitions of people, working among them instead of above them. He held the life-long belief that every class of people had something to contribute, and he encouraged diverse and often at-odds groups to find ways to work together. The people of India trusted him, and he trusted them to create a new future for India, together.

Pros and Cons of Democratic Leadership

While democratic leadership has many benefits, there are some drawbacks. 

Cons of democratic leadership

  • Slower decision making: Because democratic leadership requires building coalitions and coming to a shared consensus as a team, it can take longer to make decisions than in situations where one leader is unilaterally deciding an organization’s direction.
  • Can lead to communication failures: If a democratic leader is not adequately engaged or employees don’t have the experience to make important decisions, deadlines can be shuffled to the side and momentum can go haywire. 

Pros of democratic leadership

  • Empowering: Employees are trusted as capable, creative team members, not simply mechanisms for carrying out a boss’s instructions. They are empowered to come up with solutions and get better at their jobs. 
  • Increases employee satisfaction: A meta-analysis of democratic leadership studies shows that there is an increase in group member satisfaction among groups led by democratic leaders. 

When is the Democratic Leadership Style Most Effective?

The democratic style of leadership is the most effective in the following scenarios: 

  1. When you want to encourage creativity: Democratic leadership starts with the assumption that employees are creative and gives them the tools to express their ideas.
  2. When you’re working with millennial team members: Millennials want opportunities for growth, engagement and flexibility—all areas democratic leadership excels in.
  3. When you’re directing experts: Who better to make decisions than the experts themselves? 

Think about the leaders you’ve worked with. Have you worked with a democratic leader? What did their style look like in action? How did they use participation effectively? While not everybody is, or has to be, a democratic leader, the beneficial side of democratic leadership can help you understand how to build a team that works together creatively.