Democratic Leadership in Higher Education

Lewin, Lippitt, and White (1939) identified three main groups of leadership styles that impacted the experiences of teachers and students. According to this classic study, the three leadership styles were authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire. Authoritarian leaders determined the policies, expectations, and details about the processes. They tended not to share future steps, but would keep that information to themselves until it was time to share the information so that tasks could be completed. This leadership style hindered creativity in problem solving and seemed “impersonal” (p. 273). Laissez-faire leaders had a difficult time getting their students (children) to perform adequately, as they provided little instruction and allowed the students to freely determine what they should do next. These leaders would only provide information if and when they were asked; the result was that the followers seemed to be lost and without clear direction most of the time. These findings seemed to indicate that laissez-faire leadership may work in situations where the followers were highly skilled and required little supervision. The third leadership style was identified by Lewin, Lippitt, and White as “democratic” (p. 271), a style that the present author has used in his work.

Democratic Leadership

Democratic leadership is characterized by the participation of the leader along with the individuals who are being led; the leader does not simply provide instructions for others to follow, but he or she is part of the implementation process as well (Lewin, Lippitt, & White, 1939). A democratic leader is participative but has the final say in the decisions to be made. The democratic leader allows group members to participate in the decision-making process, seeking to involve everyone in an attempt to implement the ideals of unity, liberty, and diversity (Woods, 2005).

Under a democratic leadership style, the group members are encouraged to be creative and their creativity is rewarded. As they share possible solutions to problems or their different ideas about the tasks ahead, group members will tend to be more productive and they may come to feel that their voices are being heard, that their involvement is critical to the success of the project, and that they are valued for their contributions; in addition, a democratic leadership style tends to alleviate stress in groups of educators, especially males (Tahseen, 2010).

There are many possible reasons why leaders would choose the democratic style of leadership when leading groups of people. Woods (2005) proposed five goals that leaders wish to accomplish by choosing a democratic leadership style:

to create an environment in which people: are encouraged and supported in aspiring to truths about the world, including the highest values (ethical rationality); practice this ethical rationality and look for ways of superseding difference through dialogue (discursive rationality); are active contributors to the creation of the institutions, culture and relationships they inhabit (decisional rationality); are empowered and enabled by the institutional, cultural and social structures of the organization (therapeutic rationality); promote respect for diversity and reduce cultural and material inequalities (social justice). (p. 131)

The author of this article works as a campus dean for a large, for-profit, multi-campus university in the United States. As part of its academic governance structure, this university has so-called “area chairs” who work under the supervision of the campus dean. Each area chair serves as a liaison between the campus dean and a content area’s adjunct faculty, and may have up to 20 instructors in his or her content area. The role of area chair includes many important responsibilities, which makes it is critical for the campus dean to have highly qualified faculty in that role. The area chair must be able to supervise his or her adjunct professors, to provide them with critical and timely information, and to solve problems quickly. In his role as campus dean, the author has operated under the democratic leadership style because the characteristics of the group members, the school structure, and the dynamics of interaction between professors and administration were optimal for this style; this decision seems to conform with Woods’ (2005) reasons for a democratic leadership style.

Effective Democratic Leadership

Ogunola, Kalejaiye, and Abrifor (2013) identified several situations in which the democratic leadership style is most effective and should be used: when the problem to be resolved is large and complex; when the leader wishes that the group members participate in making decisions and solving the problems; when the leader wants group members to be satisfied with their jobs and grow personally and professionally; when the leader wishes to foster greater participation by group members while encouraging them to function as a team; and when the problems or changes are large, complex, and will affect others.

As campus dean, the author of this article faced each of the situations outlined by Ogunola, Kalejaiye, and Abrifor (2013) by utilizing a democratic leadership style while leading the group of area chairs in his team. For instance, when faced with a large and complex problem, the area chairs were involved in the problem-solving process from the beginning. The problem was an unexpected merger between the two main campuses located in the same state; the merger was announced the day it happened, and the academic leadership team—campus deans and the Director of Academic Affairs—of one of the affected campuses was fired that same day, leaving one academic leadership team to supervise two campuses located about 100 miles apart. This was done without any opportunity being given for interaction between the two teams. As a democratic leader, the author immediately summoned the area chairs of both campuses to a teleconference, during which he explained what had occurred and indicated that he would like to consider the two groups of area chairs (one from each city) as one single group of area chairs, since there was now only one campus in the state. Then he proceeded to share the little information he had about the merger, and asked for opinions, comments, and suggestions as to how the area chairs in both locations could work as a cohesive team so as not to disrupt the students’ learning experience. The results were very positive: area chairs in both locations were willing to work together, pairing up according to content area, and started to immediately share some concerns and possible solutions to anticipated pushback from faculty.

During the transition to one statewide campus, the author let the group of area chairs figure out its own solutions and participated in their implementation, offering suggestions and redirection when needed. After a somewhat bumpy start—mainly due to the surprise announcement and little time for the remaining leadership team to situate itself before the transition—the area chairs in both locations were operating as a single team, consulting with each other, and exchanging ideas as they dealt with the new single campus, two locations reality. The author believes that the democratic leadership style was crucial for the success of this transition; and that it allowed other, smaller problems to be dealt with swiftly and without major repercussions.

Another example of why the author chose the democratic leadership style refers to the interaction between area chairs of different content areas. In 2012, when he became campus dean for the College of Humanities and Sciences, the author noticed that area chairs in the same college had very little interaction and knew little about what other area chairs did or how they performed their duties. He then decided to use the previously scheduled, quarterly meetings with area chairs as opportunities for interaction between them. The author served as a leader and made the final decisions, but he encouraged participation cross-content area, fostering a single culture for the whole college and breaking down the barriers that existed between separate content areas. For instance, the area chair for English was having difficulty encouraging students to read the texts they were required tor read every week, while the Communication area chair was struggling in improving students’ writing skills. During one of the area chair meetings, the author brought up the two problems he had been tracking, and encouraged the English and Communication area chairs to discuss ways in which they could collaborate and help the students. Under the participatory system previously established, they had no resistance to collaborate and work in concert. After a couple of weeks, they both approached the author with a plan that involved including certain readings in the curriculum that built upon previous weeks and culminated with the readings in the English class, which was offered after the Communication class. This solution helped improve students’ writing skills, their scores, and their willingness to complete their weekly readings.

Ineffective Democratic Leadership

Boleman and Burkham (2010) identified five situations in which the leader should not implement a democratic leadership style. First, if time is short and it will not be possible to get input from all group members. Second, if the manager can make the decision is a timely manner and with lower costs. Third, if the organization is in a situation where mistakes cannot be made with a particular decision. Fourth, if the democratic style of leadership causes the leader to feel threatened. And finally, in situations where there is a safety concern.

Unfortunately, the author of this article made the mistake of using a democratic leadership style in one of the situations above: in an attempt to involve as many participants as possible in the decision about what to include and what to exclude from discussions with other professors during the upcoming faculty meeting, the author waited for input but did not receive it from all area chairs; this lack of participation was not due to lack of will, but rather for lack of time for all to participate. The author did not realize that there would not be enough time to get everyone’s input, and as a result only three topics were included in discussions with faculty instead of the usual four themes. In this case, the resulting lack of participation due to a democratic leadership style did not have catastrophic consequences, but the author learned that the time factor is extremely important and influences the decision about leadership styles. In a similar situation, with limited time for universal participation, an authoritarian leadership style may be beneficial for simply informing the group about which topics should be included in the discussions (Lewin, Lippitt, & White, 1939).


The effective leader understands that leadership styles have direct consequences on his or her interactions with group members and on the results the leader wishes to achieve. Effective democratic leadership requires that the leader be aware of multiple factors, such as time, skill level of group members, complexity of issues, costs, and others. But effective democratic leadership can also be extended to a particular kind of leadership: the servant leader is by nature a democratic leader, as a servant “is always searching, listening, expecting that a better wheel for these times is in the making” (Greenleaf, 1970, p. 3). True “servant leadership encourages collaboration, trust, foresight, listening, and the ethical use of power and empowerment” (Salameh, 2011, p. 140). What better way for team-building, solving complex problems, and improving the self-worth of others than by being a hands-on participant in the hard work while affording others the opportunity to opine, suggest, comment, and improve on what the leader has proposed? Democratic leadership, when applied with a servant attitude, can bring together the collective brainpower of the group and take advantage of its synergies (Black, 2010).



Black, G. L. (2010, June). Correlational analysis of servant leadership and school climate. Catholic Education: A Journal Of Inquiry & Practice, 13(4), 437-466.

Boleman, C., & Burkham, A. (2010). Leadership styles. Retrieved from

Greenleaf, R. K. (1970). The servant as leader. Retrieved from

Lewin, K., Lippitt, R. & White, R. K. (1939). Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates. Journal Of Social Psychology, 10(2), 271-299.

Ogunola, A. A., Kalejaiye, P. O., & Abrifor, C. A. (2013). Management syle as a correlate of job performance of employees of selected Nigerian brewing industries. African Journal Of Business Management, 7(36), 3714-3722.

Salameh, K. M. (2011). Servant leadership practices among school principals in educational directorates in Jordan. International Journal Of Business And Social Science, 2(22), 138-145.

Tahseen, N. (2010). The relationship between principal’s leadership style and teacher occupational stress. Journal Of Research & Reflections In Education, 4(2), 107-125.

Woods, P. (2005). Democratic leadership in education. London: SAGE Publications. Retrieved from


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