On inner democracy and leadership


Our democracy has become a play, a game of appearances that lacks an inner democratic disposition. That is the thesis of German psychiatrist, therapist and writer Hans-Joachim Maaz. In Germany as well, you might think? Indeed so.

But there is hope, I counter. Democracy can learn from what has taken place in leadership practices in recent decades under the influence of leadership experts like my teacher Manfred Kets de Vries.

Leadership is not an immutable concept but a competence that has evolved in recent years along the lines of personal leadership. Personal, inner leadership has become the foundation of any individual, organisational leadership.

Our democracies need a similar change. To strengthen our democracy, we must prioritize building a strong foundation of inner democracy that supports our outer democracy.


Whether you were a colonel, factory manager or chief administrator, in the stable and hierarchical organisations of the past, leadership behaviour was the behaviour that fitted exactly into that specific context.

And then our world modernised. Processes accelerated; technology exploded. We went from a manufacturing to a service economy. Our organisations and businesses became very agile and dynamic. Learned leadership behaviours and routines from the stable world of the past no longer worked.

It forced leaders to learn different competencies. You had to be able to repeatedly demonstrate effective leadership behaviour in changing environments. It challenged leaders not to just think and execute, however thoroughly. Competencies like anticipating, improvising, and inspiring were now required.

Personal leadership

These new competencies had a different character, they were more creative, interactive and social. But what made these novel capabilities special was their fundamentally different origins. The source of these competencies was no longer just the rule of the game, like the Soldier’s Handbook, or the Regulation on Accountants’ Conduct.

These skills and abilities were not to be found in a new and different prescription or handbook but in yourself. You are that source.

Who am I?

What do I want?

What is my ability?

Why am I here?

Searching for the answers to those questions, that is what leads to self-awareness. And only that awakened self is capable of continuous dynamic alignment between the personal sense of integrity, meaning and direction and the always complex and sometimes absurd reality of which you are at the wheel. Like the reed in the wind.

It was the paradigm shift of modernity that forced our leaders to look at their personal leadership. And since then, personal development and inner leadership has been natural and necessary for most leaders.

Outward democracy

Such a development has passed our democracy by. Or perhaps we have lost the connection between inner and outer democracy. And now the democratic construction is on the verge of collapse. This degeneration has little to do with the political denomination. And it has also little to do with Germany, the Netherlands, the UK or the US, we see similar phenomena all over Europe and America.

Where did outer democracy and inner democracy lose each other?

Outward democracy begins to alienate from inner democracy as democracy becomes a play. We still stage the parliamentary rituals of playing coalition, and opposition, having polls and interpellations and filing motions by the book. But it has become meaningless, there is no measure, and there is no relationship. Our politicians are still industriously busy on the stage and in the wings. But the theatre hall is empty.

The discrepancy between inner and outer democracy shows itself in a rapidly growing sense of societal alienation about the outer democratic game. When failure is so frequent and so widespread, and so without consequences citizens lose their confidence. When the electorate moves beyond anger, and into apathy.

Have you ever wondered why current politics seems to lack any sense of inner democratic compass?

If you learn to constantly make concessions, learn to exhibit desirable behaviour, and conform to the order of the party. If you find that having a personality is not a perk. If your media training focuses on the meaninglessness of your eloquent answers. When lies are tolerated as long as they are covered by the coalition. If you find that it is ok to exclude political parties because they really are totally politically incorrect. When you see that policy execution is interesting but political compromise is more important. When the political rates of the day and retention of power are more important than concrete prospects and vision. When there is no longer any connection between the perception of the politician and that of the citizen. When you attribute the inexplicability of your decisions to the electorate. Then it is only natural that your inner democratic orientation disappears. That is to say, if you had it at all when you were selected by your party.

Inner democracy

To develop a personal inner democratic attitude, one must first acknowledge that the power game of democracy is not one’s own but that it is power that is borrowed. It does not belong to you, politician, but to the people. Just as you treat a borrowed car differently from your own. Rule of law principles like proportionality and subsidiarity express that principle of borrowed power. But do we see any of that in policy? We see a lot of crises. But unfortunately, a crisis does not allow for proportionality and subsidiarity. How convenient.

What else is needed for inner democratisation?

The next step is recognising that no more sustainable external democracy is possible without an awareness of the need for an inner democratic disposition. Just as we saw in organisational leadership the growth towards personal leadership. Plus the realisation that however much this development is commonplace in modern organisations this will be a very difficult and exciting step in politics.

It also requires the understanding that you can only be a true democrat in the psychological sense when you have explored your own shadows. When you know the unpleasantries, the embarrassments, the shame, the hypocrisy, your guilt, in short, your inner “mess”. Because if you have not examined and mastered these aspects of yourself at least to a large extent, it is almost inevitable that you will project these blind spots onto the outside world. You then start fighting and moralising at the others, leading to polarisation and hostility.

Last but not least: Learn to be kind to yourself and understand your journey of personal growth. It’s important to be empathic about your own past hurts, lack of affection and appreciation, and feelings of inadequacy. Allow yourself the time and space to process these emotions with empathy and care.

With the necessary attention to our inner democratic orientation, are we going to establish paradise on Earth? Presumably not. But that sustainable governance of our Western countries is no longer possible without that attention to an inner democratic compass seems to me to be easily ascertainable by any Twitter user, or newspaper reader.