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Natalia Rossingol

What is Inclusive Leadership & How to Get it Right

Inclusive leadership practices have the potential to transform organizations into powerhouses of innovation and opportunity. Let's explore how.

Society's attitudes have come a long way in the past couple of decades. Whereas many (perhaps most) industries and organizations used to be inflexible and unwelcoming to everyone from working moms, to employees from racial minority backgrounds, to workers with disabilities, we now realise that creating equitable access to opportunities and building diverse, dynamic workforces is better for business and society.

But there's still a long way to go before things are perfect - and that's why organizations need to prioritise inclusive leadership. When organizations put self-aware, considerate leaders at the helm to update outdated policies and implement new practices, they create social good as well as transforming organizations to be more competitive, innovative, and resilient.

In this article, we'll delve into what inclusive leadership entails, why it's crucial, and the potential obstacles it may present.

What is inclusive leadership?

Inclusive leadership refers to a specific approach to leading a diverse team based on the principles of respect, empathy, and empowerment. It’s a leadership style focused on bias- and discrimination-free collaboration, where factors like origin, color, and race are completely excluded from the game.

Its purpose is to build a work culture where everybody feels valued for who they are and for their input, which would create a feeling of belonging and unlock potential – and, consequently, make an organization flourish.

There are three main characteristics of inclusion:

  1. Fairness and respect – the idea that everyone should be treated equally and get equal opportunities.
  2. Value and belonging – recognition of each person’s uniqueness and developing a sense of social connectedness.
  3. Confidence and inspiration – the ability to speak up, which leads to higher motivation and better performance.
This is a story of a high performing team, in which a group becomes so much more than the sum of its parts, a story of trust and empowerment, in which people feel confident to contribute without fear or embarrassment, and in which mutual sharing of ideas is both stimulating and energizing. - Giam Swiegers, Karen Toohey, Deloitte 

Here we should mention the correlation between inclusion and diversity, as these two concepts are inseparable from each other, yet mean different things:

  • Diversity refers to who is represented in the workforce. For example, gender diversity is about the composition of men, women, and nonbinary people in a certain group; age diversity concerns how many generations are represented in a group etc.
  • Inclusion refers to the processes that happen in a diverse workplace: how people representing different groups are treated, to what degree they can make meaningful contributions, and if they are culturally and socially accepted.

The task of an inclusive leader is to make a diverse group work well together, embracing and overcoming the challenges of diversity.       

Why is inclusion important?  

There is a reason why inclusive leadership is becoming a thing these days. According to Juliet Bourke, the complexity and total unpredictability of the modern world reshaped the context in which businesses operate, creating diversity that requires leaders to react to it:

  • Diversity of markets – the growth of the middle class, in particular in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, means that income rises, as well as the customers’ demands. And it’s impossible to satisfy customers’ demands without embedding yourself into their culture.
  • Diversity of customers – presented with an outstanding opportunity of choice, customers prefer personalization. This creates an extremely competitive environment for businesses, who are now engaged in a customer-winning race.
  • Diversity of ideas – rapid technological development makes it important to constantly watch out and stay alert, otherwise you risk falling behind. This means organizations must move forward and innovate. And the more ideas an organization generates and the more diverse these ideas are, the higher the chances those ideas will be brilliant.
  • Diversity of talent – various anti-discrimination policies have opened doors in front of historically marginalized groups, and a failure to recognize that may lead businesses to failure.

Naturally, this new context requires leaders to demonstrate new behaviors and redefine the rules. To become an inclusive leader, one needs to develop a whole new mindset, change values and take specific actions to build an inclusive environment where everyone is treated equally and respectfully.

The benefits of inclusive leadership

As a strategy, an inclusive leadership style can bring great results on both individual and organizational levels.

Benefits for individual employees:

Personal and professional growth

In a respectful work environment, the opinions of each team member are valued. This encourages people to voice them and learn from each other. This way, they are free to come up with new ideas and exchange experiences, which helps them grow.

The opportunity for growth also takes place through empowerment, provided in a diverse and inclusive workplace. Inclusive leaders give their team members decision-making power, recognizing their unique skills and knowledge and valuing their feedback.

Employee satisfaction and engagement

Feelings of trust and respect make people feel safe in their role, which means lower turnover and more loyalty towards the company.

Research by Deloitte showed that diversity and inclusion lead to 101% employee engagement.

Fosters personal creativity

Inclusive companies promote creativity, and this lets people experiment and explore new heights, creating something new and feeling fulfilled at their jobs.

Benefits for organizations:

It helps capture new markets

This happens because of different skill sets and broader, diverse perspectives that allow teams analyze market with more accuracy and take action to meet the demand. According to research, diverse teams are 70% more likely to become successful in new terrain.

Improved decision-making

Diverse workforce makes better decisions 87% of time, as their members provide various choices and solve problems more efficiently.  

If you hire only those people you understand, the company will never get people better than you are. Always remember that you often find outstanding people among those you don’t particularly like. – Soichiro Honda, a founder of Honda Motor Co., Ltd.

Better collaboration

Heterogeneous groups may experience some clashes during the early stages of team development, but these hiccups may be resolved through inclusive leadership. Ultimately, this means that a team's differences can be leveraged for more dynamic collaboration - a healthy diversity of perspectives leads to more creative ideas and solutions.

Increased profits

As shown by the McKinsey report, companies that have high levels of ethnic and racial diversity are 35% more likely to receive above-average financial returns, and companies with high gender diversity – 15% more likely.

An increase in profit also happens due to innovation as a result of diversity (45% increase).

It helps attract and retain talent

True talent is pretty scarce, and not easy to recruit or keep. According to McKinsey report, 82% of Fortune 500 executives don’t believe they recruit highly talented people. However, at the same time, diverse companies are 73.2% more likely to attract top talent. 

What makes a good inclusive leader?

To inspire the three key elements of inclusion – fairness, a sense of belonging, and confidence – a leader must possess specific traits and demonstrate specific inclusive leadership behaviors. Juliet Bourke, whom we already mentioned, determines six main traits of inclusive leaders:


Leaders who are committed to the idea of inclusion make it a priority, doing everything possible to create a new business reality. They redefine their own values, as well as the company values, deepening their self-awareness by self-reflection and asking for feedback.

How to practice commitment as a leader:

  • Treat each team member with respect, as a unique personality that is capable of adding much value.  
  • Make diversity a business priority, recruiting representatives of different backgrounds. Implement specific processes that would make it a normal practice.
  • Try to detect practices that exclude certain groups of people and look for ways to give more opportunities for underrepresented groups. For example, this could involve evaluating policies to see if they make the work environment restrictive and unappealing for working mothers.


Courage in leadership is typically associated with taking full responsibility and acting with confidence. However, in the context of inclusiveness, courage acquires a new meaning - the ability of a leader to stay humble and vulnerable.

This sounds counterintuitive but it makes a lot of sense. Humble leaders are those who acknowledge their weaknesses and strengths. They admit their mistakes and look for ways to overcome their own limitations. They show their own vulnerability – and this is brave, because it challenges the idea of an always-powerful and distant leader.

How to be courageous as a leader:

  • Realize that you may not be the most skilled and knowledgeable person on your team. Your team members may be much better than you at many things – and that’s wonderful. Let them contribute and reach their potential. Empower them, letting them make decisions.
  • Stand up to protect inclusive behaviors. When new rules get broken, hold people accountable.

Cognizance of bias

Awareness of personal biases means the ability to recognize your blind spots – your prejudices and flaws in the system. When you are aware of the situation, your actions are more reasonable.

Unfortunately, we are all prone to stereotypes. The list of biases we are prone to is long, including favoritism, attribution error, confirmation bias, group think, and many other types of bias that negatively impact leaders’ decisions and make it harder to create an environment of “fair play.”

How to work with biases:

  • Explore your own biases. To get an objective picture, you may need to collect feedback. Listen actively to understand what challenges your team members are facing.
  • Build a culture of meritocracy where people are rewarded for their actions. This concerns public recognition, promotions, and task allocations. Let these decisions be transparent so that everybody knows the reasoning behind them.


Inclusive leaders are deeply curious – they ask questions and listen carefully to learn more about others and understand their perspectives. In a heterogeneous group, it might be especially challenging. Yet, openness to new experience and genuine interest to people help develop loyalty.

How to become a more curious leader:

  • Recognize your limitations and be open to new ideas. Thanks to their experience, people on your team might see things from totally different perspectives which may be new to you and hard to understand. Yet, let them talk and try to hear what they say, this way expanding your own horizons and demonstrating empathy.
  • Do not jump to conclusions. While engaging with other people, give yourself time to analyze their words, instead of formulating a quick, but possibly erroneous judgment.
  • Accept uncertainty. Change is not easy, but a mere understanding that uncertainty inevitably lowers the degree of pressure.

Cultural intelligence

Being culturally intelligent starts with recognizing that your workplace includes several cultural frameworks. This includes understanding differences and similarities among these frameworks, but, what’s even more important, the impact cultures make on each other. Cultural stereotypes and misunderstandings can be ruinous for a healthy work environment.

How to become a culturally intelligent leader:

  • Actively learn about the cultures your employees belong to by using different sources, in particular about the culture of work or human interactions.
  • Adapt your work style as it’s required by a diverse, cross-cultural work setting. You may need to pay more attention to your verbal (speed and tone of voice) and non-verbal (body language) behavior.


Inclusive leaders make an effort to create team cohesion – the ability of a team to stick together and be united to achieve common goals, which is more difficult in a diverse team when people do not have similar views and behaviors. Yet, this can be done by empowering teams and making them feel safe.

What to do to create collaboration in a team:

  • Makes sure people feel comfortable to contribute. For this reason, create an environment of psychological safety, where each employee is free to speak up, voicing concerns and opinions. Involve everyone in the discussion and insist on hearing their ideas.
  • Give people decision-making power, to show that you trust them and to let them take more responsibility and grow.


Inclusive leadership can help organizations unlock employees’ potential and create a work environment of equity and trust. By accepting diversity and promoting fairness, inclusive leaders drive higher performance and help employees grow, at the same time letting them feel safe and fulfilled. This way, they create companies with strong cultures that unite people with different backgrounds into cohesive and successful teams. 

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