Exploring the Possibility of Democratic Leadership: A Critical Analysis

By Jenna L. Utecht

Article Summary: Democratic leadership is a concept that has long intrigued scholars and practitioners of politics. However, the notion of leadership within democratic systems has been met with discomfort and perceived tensions. This article critically examines the possibility of democratic leadership, drawing on insights from the journal article “Is Democratic Leadership Possible?” by Eric Beerbohm (2015). By analyzing the key arguments and concepts presented in the article, I will evaluate whether democratic leadership is feasible within the framework of democratic ideals and principles.

Exploring the Possibility of Democratic Leadership: A Critical Analysis

Democratic leadership is a concept that has long intrigued scholars and practitioners of politics. However, the notion of leadership within democratic systems has been met with discomfort and perceived tensions. This article critically examines the possibility of democratic leadership, drawing on insights from the journal article “Is Democratic Leadership Possible?” by Eric Beerbohm (2015). This article goes into depth about the idea of democratic leadership and looks at why both normative and empirical theorists of democracy are uncomfortable with it. The main research question is about why people think democratic ideals and the idea of leadership are at odds with each other. Beerhman states that there are two things that cause this tension. One cause is the broad idea that leadership can involve conflicting types of power that go against democracy. Another cause is the notion that leadership’s limited role in democracy can create a paradox in self-governance.

Defining the Problem

Beerbohm (2015) highlights the discomfort shared by normative and empirical theorists of democracy regarding the concept of leadership. The tension arises from a broad conception of leadership, encompassing various forms of influence, and a narrow conception of democracy, limiting the role of leadership. These conflicting perspectives have prompted the need to investigate whether democratic leadership can be reconciled with the principles of democratic self-government. The article suggests a two-part plan to deal with these problems. First, Beerbohm (2015) suggests that we should make a theory of democratic leadership that fits how democracy works. A theory like this would define the conditions under which leadership can be called democratic. It would also consider the complexities and nuances of leadership in democratic systems. Second, the article makes a case for a more realistic idea of democracy that takes into account how representation and leadership work together. This would mean realizing that leadership doesn’t have to be against the idea of self-government. Instead, it should be seen as a shared political activity and a set of shared commitments. For example, the role of elected representatives could be looked at in the context of democratic leadership. Representatives are expected to listen to the wants and needs of their voters, but they also have the power to stand up for themselves and lead. This tension between being pulled by voters and pushing back as leaders is an example of the complexity and challenges of democratic leadership.

Understanding how leadership works in a democracy is important to evaluate how well democratic institutions are working. The research question in this article is important because it questions what people think they know and looks into the complexity of democratic leadership. The article sheds light on how leaders and democracy are connected by looking at what theorists think about leadership in a democracy. It, therefore, makes scholars rethink their ideas about leadership in democratic settings. For example, the article talks about the paradox of democratic leadership, which is that leadership is seen as going against the norm of self-government through participation. This contradiction shows the importance of looking closely at the link between leadership and democracy. The article talks about the commitment theory of democratic leadership. It shows how important it is to have shared commitments when working together. This framework explains how leadership and democracy are closely related. This research and its approach add to discussions on democratic theory and leadership in democratic systems.

Exploring the Commitment Theory

Beerbohm (2015) proposes the commitment theory of democratic leadership, which suggests that joint commitments about collective action are the foundational element of democratic leadership. This theory suggests that democratic leadership requires shared objectives between leaders and followers. The theory focuses on citizens instead of just leaders and aims to show what makes democratic leadership different. It acknowledges that effective democratic leadership depends on the shared commitments and actions of everyone involved in the political process, not just the leader’s traits or goals. For example, the commitment theory recognizes that democratic leaders are not just agents of social forces or self-starting entrepreneurs. Instead, they are people who have relationships with the people who follow them. Leadership means involving people in politics equally, with shared commitments. It’s important to understand democratic leadership beyond traditional ideas and include the relational aspects of leadership in democratic systems. By shifting the perspective from leader attributes to the viewpoint of individual citizens, the commitment theory aims to capture the distinctively democratic mode of leadership.

Strengths and Shortcomings

Beerbohm (2015) selects an important problem, as the concept of democratic leadership is crucial for understanding the functioning and legitimacy of democratic systems. The purpose of the study is clearly stated, and the underlying theories are adequately described, providing a theoretical foundation for the commitment theory. The article adds to the ongoing conversation among academics about democratic theory and the role of leadership in democratic settings. The problem is important and has effects on how democratic institutions work and how legitimate they are. The objective of the study is straightforward. The researcher aims to propose the commitment theory as a solution to make democratic leadership less unsettling. Additionally, Beerbohm (2015) argues for a more realistic ideal of democracy. This makes it easy for people to understand what the research is trying to do. Another strength of this article is the strong theoretical foundation the commitment theory has. Beerbohm (2015) did an effective job of describing the broad and narrow views of leadership. The article also skillfully demonstrates the contradictions between these views and how they relate to democratic theory. However, it could benefit from clearer and more precise definitions of key terms. While the commitment theory is well-explained, some terms like “joint commitments” require further clarification.

However, the article could benefit from providing more precise conceptual definitions and addressing the lack of empirical evidence or specific methodological details. Unfortunately, Beerbohm (2015) puts more emphasis on conceptual and theoretical arguments than on empirical findings. The article is supported by scholarly discussions and references to relevant literature, which serves its intended purpose. However, the arguments could be more compelling with additional empirical evidence or case studies. In general, the article effectively distinguishes between speculation and evidence-based conclusions. The article discusses the commitment theory and its implications but acknowledges that the arguments presented have limitations and are based on norms. Despite these shortcomings, the article effectively distinguishes between speculation and data-based conclusions.

The Feasibility of Democratic Leadership

The commitment theory offers a promising framework for understanding democratic leadership. It recognizes that leadership, rooted in joint commitments and collaboration, can enhance the democratic credentials of political institutions. It dispels the notion that leadership is inherently opposed to the idea of self-government by emphasizing the recruitment of citizens as genuine partners in shared political activity.

However, challenges persist. Democratic leadership, even when guided by joint commitments, can lead to policy outcomes that are unjust, self-defeating, or collectively irrational. This normative tension should not be dismissed. The commitment theory acknowledges the potential risks associated with democratic leadership and the need for vigilance in ensuring just and rational outcomes.

Implications for Decision-making and Policy

This research contributes to decision-making and policy by shedding light on the complexities of democratic leadership. Policymakers and organizations concerned with leadership development can consider the commitment theory as a basis for fostering democratic leadership qualities and practices. Recognizing the importance of joint commitments and collaboration can inform the design and implementation of policies that promote inclusivity, citizen engagement, and collective action. Leaders in democratic systems face challenges and tensions that need to be understood by those who make decisions and policies. The commitment theory shows how important it is for leaders to work together and make shared promises in a democracy. If leaders use this method, they can create and carry out plans that bring people together, engage citizens, and take action as a group. Policymakers and organizations that care about developing leaders can use the commitment theory as a starting point for promoting democratic leadership qualities and practices.

Building on the Study

To further advance our understanding of democratic leadership, future research should focus on empirical investigations of the commitment theory in real-world democratic contexts. By examining the effectiveness and implications of the theory, researchers can gain insights into how joint commitments manifest in democratic leadership practices and their impact on policy outcomes and democratic institutions. Studying real-life situations, like surveys and case studies, can help us see how democratic leadership principles like working together and joint commitment are used. We can analyze this information to understand how democratic leadership affects how much citizens are involved, how well policies work, and how well democratic institutions work overall. Studying how leadership and representation are related in democratic systems could be helpful. Examining how different identities and perspectives affect leadership and democracy could give us more insights. This kind of study could then help us create a better theory of democratic leadership based on real situations.


While democratic leadership presents challenges, the commitment theory provides a pathway for reconciling democratic ideals with the concept of leadership. It emphasizes the collaborative nature of democratic leadership and the importance of joint commitments in shared political activity. However, vigilance is required to ensure that democratic leadership promotes just and rational outcomes. Future studies can also explore how the commitment theory works with other theories to enhance this research. This critical analysis underscores the significance of ongoing research and exploration in understanding the feasibility and implications of democratic leadership within the democratic framework.

Article Reference

Beerbohm, E. (2015). Is Democratic Leadership Possible? American Political Science Review, 109, 639-652. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003055415000398

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