3 Examples of Democratic Leadership in Action

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple

As a business owner, you are free to take on any leadership style that you like. You can be an autocrat and do things your way, or you can be a visionary and inspire your followers. As alternative approaches gain popularity throughout the world's various startup hubs, you might even prefer to adopt a transformational, or a pacesetting, method.

Another popular option is the democratic leadership style. Whether it's in business, politics, sport or art, a democratic system of leadership can have significant advantages. Democratic or participative leaders encourage the rest of their team to engage actively and contribute towards achieving a common goal.

To illustrate the benefits of such an approach, we've compiled a list of democratic leadership examples that can be applied to your own business.

Democratic or Autocratic?

First, however, it's necessary to understand that democratic leadership only works within a favourable market climate. If your business is struggling, or facing stiff external competition that requires dynamic and definitive action, then an autocratic approach – such as that demonstrated by Leanord D Schaeffer at Californian Blue Cross – is far more advisable.

Given the right circumstances, however, democratic leadership can be highly productive. For a start, team members are given considerably more leeway to express their creative side, which – depending on your industry – can be significant. As a leader, you still dictate from the front, but always while encouraging your employees to provide input, ideas, and insights.

It works particularly well in creative industries and professional services firms, where employees are highly qualified and competent, and where there is a high degree of mutual respect between all members of the team.

It is also a style that is flexible and robust within a number of diverse areas, as demonstrated below.

Examples of Democratic Leadership

When you think of business management, jazz might seem like a strange place in which to find leadership lessons. But jazz bands (also known as "big" bands) are a great example of how democratic leadership can work in your favour.

Take a typical ensemble, for instance. Generally consisting of around at least ten musicians (each playing a different instrument), a jazz band is often lead by a conductor or bandleader who is responsible for bringing the various sounds and harmonies on display into one cohesive production – exactly like a startup.

However, what makes a jazz ensemble truly democratic is that within the framework of the sheet music, each musician – at specific points – is also given the freedom to improvise and show off their creative side, just as a democratic leader allows their employees to contribute their own thoughts and ideas.

The jazz band example also illustrates the difficulty of keeping things on track as a democratic leader. Since many different sounds are emerging from the band, it takes a Herculean amount of coordination and cooperation to produce music that is pleasing to the ears; within your company, you will have to exercise similar leadership attributes to keep your strategies coherent and goal-oriented.

Democratic Leadership at the Senior Management Level

As a sport with an extreme emphasis on the collective, football is also a fertile ground in which various styles of management can flourish. From autocrats such as Fabio Capello and Jose Mourinho to visionaries such as Pep Guardiola and Johan Cruyff, it's no surprise that management gurus often highlight the similarities between football coaches and business leaders.

Football management also acts as an excellent example of how democratic leadership can work at the senior management level. While, in the past, football managers traditionally ran all aspects of the club, modern-day coaches – while remaining the primary decision-maker for all footballing matters – usually work with a small and dedicated team.

For instance, at many Premier League clubs, the head coach will employ an assistant manager who performs a similar role to that of a company's Chief Operating Officer (COO). The assistant will spend most of their time on the training ground with the players, and a good head coach will take on board their advice and recommendations in terms of how players are performing day-to-day.

Indeed, in all aspects of the club, the head coach doesn't take any one particular decision alone; in terms of player fitness, for example, they will consult closely with physios, fitness coaches and performance analysts. When it comes to scouting opposition or potential future players, many clubs operate within a committee structure, usually consisting of the head coach, scouts and data analysts.

Just as a football coach isn't an expert in physiotherapy, there is no possible way that you, as a business owner, can understand the ins and outs of every single aspect of your company. Therefore, exercising a democratic leadership style is key to evolving and ensuring that the most informed decisions are being made.

This isn't a modern phenomenon, either. Legendary Liverpool coach Bill Shankly was a prominent exponent of democratic leadership, establishing the club's now-iconic "boot room" – a small area where all members of the coaching staff would gather to informally discuss the vision, plans and strategies of the club. One of the fundamental tenets of the boot room was the freedom for every individual to speak their mind without recrimination, ensuring that all decisions were taken with a wealth of diverse perspectives in mind.

Democratic Leadership in the Right Environment

While sport and the arts are interesting areas to explore, ultimately it is examples of democratic leadership in business that offer the most value. The now-traditional Silicon Valley giants, such as Google and Facebook, are often excellent examples of firms where democratic and inclusive management styles have been profoundly influential in their success.

In the early days of Google, for instance, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin tasked CEO Eric Schmidt with deliberately hiring experts in particular fields to drive growth aggressively, with a much more liberal sense of autonomy afforded to them. Google still operate this policy to a certain extent, with the company's notorious recruitment process ensuring that they hire only the best.

Apple, under the stewardship of Tim Cook, has adopted a similar approach, which is a marked diversion away from the autocratic and visionary styles of his predecessor, Steve Jobs, during his two stints in charge.

Indeed, under Cook, the company has emerged as a more democratic and inclusive work environment, where employees are encouraged to voice their opinions and ideas about the design and features of key products. This is to his credit, too; while Jobs had the design, marketing and visionary flair to be able to drive Apple almost single-handedly, Cook has realised his own limitations and avoided the temptation to be Jobs 2.0. His willingness to involve others in the decision-making and strategy-developing process has seen the brand exceed a market value of $1 trillion – proof, if it wasn't already needed, that democratic leadership can truly pay off.


As mentioned, democratic leadership is not always the right choice. Failing businesses and those stuck in a recessionary climate may benefit from more autocratic styles of leadership, while harsh and dangerous industries, such as oil drilling and mining, are also not conducive to such a method.

However, when creativity and knowledge are high on the list of priorities, your business will undoubtedly benefit more from this inclusive approach.

What do you think? Is democratic leadership the most progressive way to lead a company in the 21st century? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.