Building a successful product requires an exceptional leader as well as an empowered and engaged team. It takes more than great ideas to keep your product on the right track.
To go from an idea to an app, you need a team with varying skill sets and a strong leader who makes the important decisions of what to develop and how to develop it. You can support this by adopting a democratic leadership style.
In this article, you will learn what democratic leadership is, the skills you need to become a democratic leader, as well as some best practices product managers may need in their journey.
Democratic leadership is a leadership style that encourages participation and input from all team members. It’s founded on the principle that everyone has something valuable to contribute, and that decisions are best made when everyone has a voice.
Democratic leaders are willing to delegate tasks and responsibilities to their team members. They are open to feedback and suggestions and willing to share power and authority with their team members.
Democratic leadership styles can be effective in a variety of settings, including businesses, organizations, and schools. They can help to create a more collaborative and productive work environment, and they can also help to build trust and loyalty among team members.
The concept of democratic leadership comes from ancient Greece, where it emerged as a political system in which citizens had a say in the decisions and policies of the government. You have probably heard about the Greek philosopher Aristotle who wrote about the idea of “rule by the many” and the importance of citizen participation in government.
Today, democratic leadership is recognized worldwide as a valuable, efficient, and productive leadership style in many organizations across the globe.
Democratic leadership is based on a set of principles designed to facilitate a democratic culture within the company. Without these principles, you cannot truly embrace a democratic leadership style.
Now let’s break down the main principles:
As a democratic leader, you should be able to openly communicate with your team members about all the small details and never hide anything related to the project from them. You should provide regular updates on progress and welcome their feedback.
Always keep in mind that even if you think something isn’t important, it may be important for someone else on your team.
Discrimination is not consistent with democratic leadership. Create an inclusive environment where everyone has an equal voice and their contributions are valued.
You should embrace diversity and recognize the importance of different perspectives and experiences. No idea no idea is dumb and the best ideas could come from where you never expected.
Trust doesn’t come from the first encounter; trust should be built over time.
As a democratic leader, you should inspire trust as much as you trust your team members.
Once your team members trust you as their leader, you will feel the difference in how they engage with you and in the project in general. They will feel safe and comfortable to voice their honest ideas and work together towards your common goals.
Just because the democratic leadership style involves everyone in decision-making, that doesn’t mean people are off the hook when things go wrong.
Real democratic leaders hold themselves and their team accountable for their actions and decisions. They take responsibility for mistakes and learn from them. They never blame others.
Democratic leadership is not a static way of leading a team. There are two major styles:
In this style, the leader collects as many opinions as they can from the team before making a final decision. However, the leader retains the reserves the right to make the final decision.
This approach can be particularly effective in organizations that are facing complex problems requiring diverse perspectives and creative solutions.
In consensus-based there is more of a group discussion between stakeholders facilitated by the leader with the goal of reaching an agreement at the end. Of course, the leader is still responsible for making the final decision.
When there is a high degree of interdependence among stakeholders and where decisions need to be made collaboratively, consensus-based democratic leadership is often considered the best choice. It can be used when there is a need to achieve a high level of agreement among team members before moving to the next step.
Feel free to try these different styles separately or in combination, depending on your preferences and the needs of your team and company.
Many tech companies’ leaders adopt democratic leadership because it promotes creativity, innovation, and teamwork. You have probably heard about Google, Netflix, or Microsoft CEOs being democratic leaders.
However, one of the best examples is the South Korean giant tech company, Naver. It is an online search and technology company that is considered one of the largest internet companies in Asia.
The former CEO, Han Seong-Sook, was widely known for her democratic leadership style. Under Han’s leadership, Naver implemented a “smart work” program, which allowed employees to work remotely or choose their own work hours. Han also implemented a “flat” management structure to promote better and more frequent communication between employees and higher-ups.
In addition, Naver started a unique employee benefit called the “innovative challenge program,” which provides newly hired employees from any department with KRW 10 million (about $9,000) to pursue their own product ideas. It’s mandatory for employees to use the given funds to develop their own product ideas, which can be related to Naver’s core business or completely unrelated. If Naver employees refuse this opportunity, that amount is debited from their salary instead.
Even if the employee’s product idea doesn’t succeed, Naver considers it as a learning experience and values the employee’s effort and initiative. In other words, there is no sanction in case of failure.
This program is based on the idea that everyone in the company has the potential to come up with great ideas, regardless of their job title or position within the company. This is an example of Naver’s commitment to fostering a culture of innovation, creativity, and empowerment, as well as a commitment to investing in their employees’ growth and development.
The fact that Naver supports its employees even if their product ideas fail demonstrates a culture of trust and transparency, which are key principles of democratic leadership.
Naver has established a democratic workplace where employees are encouraged to take risks and try new things. They are not punished for making mistakes or taking calculated risks. This helps to create a more engaged and motivated workforce, which ultimately benefits both the employees and the company as a whole.
Product manager is a leadership role that requires the ability to make decisions that will closely impact the success of a product. Embracing a democratic leadership style leads to:
Involving employees in the decision-making process is like getting access to a collective knowledge and discovering the creativity of your team.
This leads to innovative solutions and ideas that you may have never expected and that may not have been possible without the collaboration of the entire team.
However, this works only if your team is motivated enough to participate in the process. Make sure to keep an eye on your team’s mental health and listen to their needs.
When team members feel like they have a say in how the final product should be, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated in their work.
You can expect a more positive and vibrant work environment from this. Consequently, this leads to better results because your team members are more committed to the product goals. They are also more likely to be committed to the outcome and take ownership of the results.
Gathering diverse perspectives and ideas from the team can help identify potential risks or opportunities that might have been missed if decisions were made by a single individual.
Democratic leadership encourages open communication and collaboration among team members or different teams. This can lead to a more cohesive and productive work environment.
While democratic leadership has many advantages, there are also some potential disadvantages or challenges to be aware of as a PM and a leader of your team:
You should be aware that involving many team members in decision-making is a time-consuming process, as it involves consulting with team members and gathering opinions before making decisions.
Styles like the consensus-based democratic leadership are out of question when quick decisions are required urgently.
Different team members would never discuss important product decisions without having different opinions or encountering disagreements. It can be challenging for product leaders to manage conflicts and ensure that decisions are made in a fair and objective manner.
Judging from my experience, a conflict is inevitable.
Team members may have different ideas about how to approach a problem or a task. In this case, as a product leader, you should give clear directions or the team may struggle to make progress in the roadmap.
You should follow up their advancement and make it clear where you are going and what the next step to work on is.
The inability to make a decision could be due to fear of making the wrong choice, having too many options, or conflicting opinions.
This can be a significant risk of democratic leadership as involving many people in decision-making can sometimes lead to prolonged discussions and debates, ultimately resulting in “no decision.”
You should know that democratic leadership may not work in all situations or with all teams. Product leaders need to be flexible, and tailor their leadership style to the needs and preferences of their team.
Any successful democratic leader must have the following skills:
Good communication skills are crucial for any leader, but it’s especially important for democratic product leaders. You deal with a very big team composed of individuals from different departments. You must be able to speak in each one’s language.
I do not mean that you need to talk eloquently during meetings. What I mean is that you need to constantly learn about the team members, their fields, their personalities, and their concerns.
As a democratic leader, you should be flexible and adaptable to change. You should be willing to experiment with new ideas and approaches, and be open to feedback and suggestions.
You should especially encourage your team members to share their thoughts and opinions, listen to their suggestions, and show them that you genuinely consider their feedback.
Empathy is a critical quality for any leader as well. You should be able to understand your team members’ needs and perspectives, be supportive of them, and be willing to work with them to find solutions to any challenges they may face in the process.
Overall, as a democratic leader, you should have a balance of leadership and teamwork, where you empower your team members while ensuring that your company’s goals are met at the same time.
If you’re a product manager looking to adopt a democratic leadership style, there are several best practices you can follow to ensure its success.
Encourage team members to share their ideas and opinions and make sure that everyone’s opinion is valued. No idea is stupid or useless. This can help to build trust and collaboration within the team and create a sense of ownership and accountability.
Set clear expectations and establish a shared vision for the team. This can help to align everyone’s efforts towards a common goal and ensure that everyone is on the same page.
Never be afraid to talk about everything and organize a lot of meetings with stakeholders.
Featured image source: IconScout
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