Democratic or autocratic leadership? – PolyU student question

One of the questions asked by PolyU students is:


It took me several years to figure out my own answer to this question. Don’t be discouraged if you too spend many years before having your own answer. The reason why this question is interesting and difficult at the same time, is because our feeling and environment contradict each other. Being a democratic leader seems ineffective and difficult compared to an autocratic one. Also, look around! There are not many really democratic leaders in the world. It is better to be an autocratic leader and admit it, then to say I’m a democratic leader and not be one.

Nevertheless, I firmly believe in democratic leadership. I believe in future where companies are managed in democratic manner. Companies like Odd-e, Treehouse, WL Gore & Associates, Valve, Buffer, Spotify, Facebook, Google are just a few examples of frontrunners in this area. In many of these companies, workers have a lot of freedom, management is chosen by workers or they have no management at all, workers are hired or fired by other workers, people define their own salaries, and many other amazing practices. In other words, democratic leadership is already a reality. The examples from my personal experience are not fully democratic companies, but partially where number of teams or a single department has democratic leadership.

Advantages of democratic leadership are huge. The most important one is that workers are much more motivated. This motivation comes from amount of influence they have in the way company is managed. The most obvious effect from my observation is that people tend to keep working for the company even if it pays less than somewhere else. People are generally more happy even if work is really hard.

On other hand, it is difficult to be an effective democratic leader. If leader lacks experience, getting things done can be very cumbersome and take a lot of time. Very often, if things are urgent and decisions need to be taken, being an autocratic leader seems more effective. But, eventually, the price for being an autocratic leader must be paid. If other workers are not involved, they will protest or – even worse – behave in very passive way. Passive behaviour where workers simply fulfil manager’s wishes ends up in rumours, leaving the company simply because someone else pays better, and general lack of involvement.

Seeing advantages of being a democratic leader can be difficult. Type of leadership has a large influence on organisation as a system. Type of leadership is just one of many possible influences that shape an organisation. We call this awareness of many influences and effects: Systems Thinking. I would like to encourage you to read a book on this subject. It will be very useful once you enter corporate world. It helped me in discovering effects of democratic leadership.

You might say, on short term when observing direct effectiveness, autocratic leadership seems to have more advantages. But on longer term and seen from different perspectives, advantages of democratic leadership are much greater. The biggest one: it contributes to happiness of people.

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