How to Become an Inclusive Leader

inclusive-concpt-chainsTolerance is at the root of inclusion, since a leader who is open to others, will be more likely to include different points of view in order to make the best decision at the right time. In today’s complex and high-speed world, leaders have to face a paradox: move fast AND at the same time take different points of view into account, which for one thing slows down the decision-making process. How can we deal with this problem?

What exactly is an inclusive leader?

According to a study of the Harvard Business Review published last March [1], which included a survey of 4100 employees, the six traits of behaviour of an inclusive leader are the following:

  1. Visible commitment: They articulate authentic commitment to diversity, challenge the status quo, hold others accountable and make diversity and inclusion a personal priority.
  2. Humility: They are modest about capabilities, admit mistakes, and create the space for others to contribute.
  3. Awareness of bias: They show awareness of personal blind spots as well as flaws in the system and work hard to ensure meritocracy.
  4. Curiosity about others: They demonstrate an open mindset and deep curiosity about others, listen without judgment, and seek with empathy to understand those around them.
  5. Cultural intelligence: They are attentive to others’ cultures and adapt as required.
  6. Effective collaboration: They empower others, pay attention to diversity of thinking and psychological safety, and focus on team cohesion.

An inclusive leader is capable of creating conditions within his team and among his co-workers that will generate a high level of trust and make everyone feel that they are listened to and understood.

Throughout my experience as coach, I have often heard colleagues express deep and sensible thoughts within the coaching frame, yet within their team, their attitude was quite the opposite, perhaps out of fear of being seen as opponents or as someone who “swims against the tide”, whereas they simply meant to alert their co-workers to certain decisions that often turned out to be harmful for the company.

This brings to mind the well-known tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” which tells the story of an emperor who wants his tailor to create the most beautiful outfit ever made. Two swindlers promise the emperor a new suit of clothes that they claim is invisible to anyone who is either stupid or unfit for his office. Blinded by his ego, the emperor parades before his subjects wearing “the new clothes.” No one dares say that the clothes do not exist, for fear of being considered stupid, until an innocent child cries out: “But the emperor is naked!”

In every company there is a number of “children” who don’t dare say what they think, who sometimes belong to minorities (women, people from other cultures or with a different skin colour, etc.) but whose voice is vital in today’s companies.

An inclusive leader must create conditions that will enable these voices to speak up, certainly not to create a cacophony or to paralyze decision making, but rather to express their opinions at the right time and thus be useful.

Make Both Ends of the Paradox Meet

I often hear leaders express false beliefs, such as:

  • “If I listen to everybody, I will never reach a decision”
  • “If I listen to them, they will want to do it their way”
  • “If I let opponents speak, we’ll never move forward”
  • Etc.

Usually, it is not inclusive leaders who express this kind of opinion, but rather men with a huge “ego.” The latter are convinced that they must know and direct everything, since they are the leaders. This has important consequences on team members and on their way of interpreting teamwork:

  • Team meetings are often “star-shaped” – the leader listens to each team member and then gives instructions on how to proceed.
  • Teamwork is often either motivated by or steered towards a series of specific tasks: “We must work on this project together in order to succeed.”
  • Individual or departmental projects often have priority over other projects.

An inclusive leader creates conditions that will encourage co-workers to contribute to the company’s common good, instills the need for collaboration into them so that each team member will forget his ego and make room for collective success. He sets up working approaches that reflect his image:

  • Meetings favor dialogue and enrichment with the aim of working together to find the best solutions to the problems that are being discussed
  • Collaboration concerns everybody and goes well beyond the immediate task or goal: it must be spontaneous and always aims at a common objective
  • The inclusive leader fights for the common interest and is willing to share results with others.

What is the Inclusive Leader’s Return on Investment?

Several research studies have shown that inclusive leadership generates several benefits for companies:

  • Teams with an inclusive leader have a 17% increase of their chances to succeed,
  • have over 20% more chances of reaching high quality decisions,
  • and have over 29% more chances of working together efficiently.
  • A 10% improvement in the perception of inclusion leads to an increase of attendance at work of almost 1 day per year and per employee, thus reducing the cost of absenteeism.[2]
  • Inclusive leaders boost innovation by 20%,
  • and bring about a 30% decrease of decision related risks.[3]

Another study on the performance rate of investment funds[4] shows that the success rate of acquisitions and stock market flotation showed a decrease of an average 11,5%, when the investments partners had shared the same school environment as compared to those where partners came from different schools. The effect of fund partners with the same ethnic background was even more marked: it reduced investment performance by 26,4% up to 32,2%!


[1] Harvard Business Review, “Why inclusive leaders are good for organizations, and how to become one?”, 29 March 2019
[2] Harvard Business Review, “Why inclusive leaders are good for organizations, and how to become one?”, 29 March 2019
[3] “The diversity and inclusion revolution”, Deloitte review, issue 22, 22 January 2018
[4] Harvard Business Review, “The other diversity dividend”, July-August 2018

Anna Gallotti

Anna Gallotti

Anna Gallotti is a Master Certified Coach and the creator and CEO of Share. Her specialty is coaching international executives and developing organizational change projects.

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