Democracy: A True Leadership Challenge

Prof. Pierre Casse

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”
W. Churchill
“Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people”
O. Wilde

The often quoted statement “Democracy is the government of the people, by the people and for the people” raises some fundamental questions when applied to today’s global social and political context. For instance:

  • When we say “of the people”: it is unclear as to whom we refer. In a global context in which we are increasingly interconnected and interdependent, where the boundaries between societies, regions and states are unclear, it is not so obvious who are “the people” to be governed. This is an important issue given the current trends in migration both across Europe and elsewhere in the world.
  • When we say “by the people”: it is a challenging issue especially because of the impact that the new communication technologies have on the way we live together. The process of electing competent representatives to decide in the people’s interest has, as we all know, some serious shortcomings. Not everybody in society is interested in being involved.
  • When we say “for the people”: This is about a fair redistribution of the outcome of our collective efforts. Here again we must acknowledge that a few groups of people benefit more than others and that the so called economic and social justice is not the rule in many parts of the world. The question is: Who are the major beneficiaries of a democratic approach to organising a society?

From a leadership perspective, the following concerns are real and challenging:

  • How can we improve the application of the democratic principles without jeopardizing our safety and development?
  • How can I resist, or counteract, the pressures from interest groups which through their actions exploit the democratic principles and practices to their advantage?
  • How can we escape our natural narcissistic lust for power and control over others?

On careful reflection, given the characteristics of human nature, perhaps adhering to democratic principles in the organisational world is naïve and unrealistic. Even if this is so, do we have a choice?


A Leadership Dream or Nightmare

“Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve”
G.B. Shaw
“A Vision is a Dream with a Deadline”

It seems clear that democracy, as a framework for public leadership, is an ideal rather than a reality. The concept of democracy is a guiding star in the distance, an aspiration never to be reached. Our very nature restricts us from realising our dream and we are compelled into frustration. We yearn for the principles and in asking for our support, leaders assure us that they can and will deliver but time and time again, we are disappointed.

So let’s consider for a moment, some of the issues related to democratic leadership in the world today:

  • Power is a corrupting force – We can’t really get away from the fact that power distorts a person’s perspective over time. It has a disturbing effect on the fundamental assumptions that drive a person’s behaviour.
  • Democracy favours the few - George Orwell captured the essence of the issue in his story Animal Farm when, in describing democracy under the leadership of the farmyard pigs, he asserted that in a democratic society although all people are equal; some people are more equal than others. We are living the Orwellian prophecy.
  • The ideal is a demotivating dream – The gap between the ideal and the reality seems to be widening despite our desires and best intentions. The result is that more and more people are losing confidence in the democratic process and disengaging.

Moreover, for a democratic system to work effectively, the electorate must be well-informed.  Unfortunately, the media –our main source of information- do not behave accurately and impartially.

If we are to establish democracy as an effective form of political organisation, then we must recognise the need for some basic pre-conditions. For instance, people should be free to vote for whomever they like. But this is not what happens in most of the mature democracies of Western Europe. Many people in European countries are forced, by law, to choose a political party which will present the electorate with a list of candidates which the party considers as deserving of the public’s vote. If voted into office, the party leader will then appoint a team of decision makers from the available pool of professional politicians who will then make decisions which affect everyone. Nowhere in the process does the individual voter have full freedom to choose whomever they consider to be the best person for the job. This does not seem to adhere to the fundamental principles upon which the concept of democracy depends but rather deviates from it in the following ways:

  • The process serves the interests of the political party rather than the interests of the electorate;
  • The parties can, and do, manipulate the votes cast and the result may often run contrary to the wishes of the people;
  • The individuals who are appointed to powerful decision-making positions may not be those who would be appointed by the people.

In the light of today’s experience, at least in Western Europe, we must review the basic definition of democracy: “Democracy is the government of the people by political parties and related interest groups, for the main benefit of powerful interest groups”.

The dream has been perverted!


The Democratic Requirements

Democratic leadership can only prove effective if the following three requirements are in evidence:


A minimum of social and economic stability

Democracy cannot function properly without a minimum of stability. When society is plunged into a crisis situation, the democratic approach to diagnosis and decision making which involves substantive discussion and the exchange of ideas, is inappropriate. In times of crisis, swift, decisive action is required.


Some political maturity among the members of the society

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education”.
F.D. Roosevelt

The electorate must have a minimum of education and political maturity so that the democratic process can be implemented properly and effectively. Common sense, tolerance and patience are among the key values that can guarantee the effective implementation of the democratic processes in a society. Unrealistic expectations and drives (for instance, to spend the money that one does not have must be banned). The electorate must be well informed so a free, impartial, honest and reliable media is central to the functioning of the system.


A minimum of democratic traditions and proper historical background

“It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition”
H. James

It is absolute nonsense to try to organize a society around some basic democratic principles if the people have no background and experience in the field. Democracy will be perceived as chaos and anarchy by those people who have no historical knowledge of what it entails.


Political Leadership: A Situational Approach to Democracy

The practice of leadership should be decided upon according to these three fundamental requirements:


Scenario 1.

All the conditions are present i.e. economic and social stability, people’s political maturity and historical knowledge of the democratic principle. The most appropriate form of democracy in this is environment is what we describe as “Direct Democracy”.

The system used in Switzerland is a very good example of this form of democracy. Not only are the people consulted on a regular basis on economic and social issues but they can also take all sort of political initiatives and even openly disavow their political leaders regarding issues with which they disagree.


Scenario 2.

Some of the required conditions are present but for some reasons others have weakened or disappeared: The democratic traditions and the political maturity are both present but some economic crisis or social unrest is exercising considerable pressure on the system. This environment calls for a form of democracy which we refer to as “Indirect Democracy”.

Most countries in Western Europe fit into this category, (France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, and Holland). Politicians are elected by the people to represent their interests in the organisation and management of society. However, some decisions escape from the public scrutiny for either for some good reasons e.g. the technocrats are involved and their expertise is critical in the decision making process, or for reasons that are not so good e.g. where individuals or special interest groups aim to manipulate the system for their own ends.


Scenario 3.

Some of the key democratic requirements are missing and as a result the whole functioning of the democratic system is jeopardized. For instance, the political maturity is present in that there is a high level of knowledge and skills among the population, but there is no history of constant democratic experience and some critical economic and social challenges have arisen which require immediate decision and action. This form of democracy we refer to as “Semi Democracy”.

Most countries in Latin America fit into this category. The political leaders must decide on the issues that they should handle themselves with the help of relevant experts and which issues should be put before the people.


Scenario 4.

For some reason, the three critical requirements are weak or non-existent. There is economic instability and unrest among the population. Moreover, there is a lack of well-established democratic traditions in the society. The organisation of the country is a work-in-progress, a situation that requires a progressive, iterative step-by-step to building a democratic society. This is where non-democratic leadership can be justified as long as it aims at building a democratic system in the long term. We refer to this environment as “Democratic Autocracy”.

Russia, and many countries in the Middle East, are examples of this form of democratic development.  It would be disastrous for these societies if a full and open democratic approach was to be adopted. The political and social situation is such that a progressive approach towards democracy is the only way to avoid conflict, chaos and regression. The leaders’ role in this scenario is to show the people that the plan is to stabilize the country, provide the proper means to learn how to function in a democratic environment.


All-in-One: The Four Democratic Options

Political leaders have four options when deciding on the best way to organize the societies for which they have responsibility. They must make sure that the most appropriate approach is used. It is time to realize that a purely democratic approach to politics is:

  • A dream or an ideal towards we must constantly strive for;
  • A way in which some people can gain advantage and ensure their own success at the expense of the majority;
  • Closely connected with the power game that people play and very much dependent on the power rotation that ensures that the same people do not monopolise the power for too long.

We can summarize our simple model the following way:


The model illustrates that there isn’t one best approach that is suitable for everybody in all circumstances. Furthermore, political leaders must keep monitoring the environment when managing people’s collective lives because:

  • A radical change in society, whether it be economic, social, natural, or otherwise, can necessitate a modification of the political system without undermining trust in the system.
  • It all depends on the political leaders and their ability to explain and justify any changes that may prove appropriate.
  • Democracy cannot be imposed on people. This would be a contradiction in terms and prove totally ineffective.
  • Cultural variations in the definition and implementation of democratic societies should be accepted.


The Leadership Conditions for Democratic Success

The success of any political system is fundamentally conditioned by three leadership factors:


Political leaders are competent and not corrupt

It is well known that power corrupts. So people must accept that up to a point their leaders will become accustomed to enjoying the privileges, prestige and status that comes with being in positions of power. This is fine so long as they are competent and deliver results for the good of society as a whole. Since everybody is corruptible, it is up to society to decide where to draw the line.


A long term perspective is in order

Societies will never achieve perfect democracy. However, it is the fight for the principles of democracy that is important. Patience is in order.


The media have a critical role to play

Too often the media show place undue emphasis on the negative sides of democracy. For them, bad news is good news. It is time for the leaders of media organisations to behave ethically and balance the treatment of information in such a way that it is more representative of what’s happening in a country.



Democracy is not a panacea. Nevertheless, it is one of the most acceptable ways to treat human beings in society. It is based on some laudable and desirable values such as trust, respect and dignity. However, it requires a unique kind of leadership that is not easy to find. A leadership characterized by the ability to control our natural inclination for behaviour which is purely self-serving and act in the interests of the greater good.

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