The Critical Need For Inclusive Leadership Practices

Would you call yourself a genuinely inclusive leader and if so, how would you truly know?

The practice of inclusive leadership, while it may sound easy on paper, is something almost every leader will struggle with.

I’m sure we all like to think of ourselves as inclusive leaders but, in order to understand this, we really need to examine our own behavior through an external lens of understanding. Have you ever dismissed someone else’s idea as irrelevant without giving it due consideration? Have you ever judged another person based on your own unconscious biases – and we all have them?  If you have done that then you have been guilty of exclusive behavior.

Every one of us will know an exclusive leader and their behavior can range from subtle to extreme. They can be people who try to maintain control over others through to those who deliberately exclude others based on cultural or personal differences.

The world witnessed an indefensible example of exclusive behavior in 2016 when, at a US press conference, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump used mimicry to mock and belittle a disabled reporter – a man Mr. Trump outranked in privilege, power, and the ability to fight back. That act of mocking led to many people in the room laughing and the reporter feeling exposed and humiliated.

When leaders exhibit any kind of exclusive behavior it is dangerous for two reasons:

1. It diminishes the relevance – and by extension the humanity – of the excluded person and

2. Perhaps most dangerous, it gives permission to everyone else in the organisation to exhibit the same behavior.


The challenge then is to build and demonstrate the characteristics that lead to truly inclusive leadership.

1. Be curious

If you truly want to be inclusive, you need to seek out opinions and perspectives that are radically different from yours. This is both challenging and uncomfortable because you’re inviting people to disagree with you. The truly inclusive leader will open themselves up to experience this discomfort.


2. Work on building cultural intelligence

Not everyone sees the world through the same lens of cultural understanding, particularly in Australia, a country of remarkable cultural diversity. The inclusive leader will work to ensure they build a greater understanding and respect of people’s cultural differences. A colleague recently related a story to me of a team leader who felt one of her team members was disrespecting her because he never looked her in the eye. It wasn’t until later they became aware this was little more than a point of cultural difference. The team member came from a culture where looking people in the eye was considered disrespectful.


3. Work together

Inclusive leaders work collaboratively with their people. They understand that a diverse team can come up with great ideas and they celebrate the fact that a diverse team of thinkers is greater than any individual within it.


4. Stay focused on the goal

It can be challenging to maintain focus on your goal. You will encounter roadblocks and various forms of resistance. Sometimes the temptation to give up can feel overwhelming but the truly inclusive leader will help the team maintain their focus, to see the vision for which they strive. To that end, the truly inclusive leader will contribute to building a highly resilient team.


5. Show courage

Opening yourself up to vulnerability requires a significant element of courage. Genuinely inclusive leaders are prepared to talk about their weaknesses. They’re prepared to receive feedback from their people whether that’s good or bad and they’re prepared to say when they don’t know. And somewhere in that vulnerable state, they begin to open themselves up to the thoughts and ideas of others.


6. Know yourself

One of the most challenging aspects of inclusive leadership is to identify and challenge your biases. Unconscious bias affects us all. It affects the way we think and the way we make decisions and it can lead us all to unwittingly exclude people.


In the end it is up to each of us to make efforts to develop the skills and characteristics of inclusive leadership. Claudia Brind-Woody, Vice President and Managing Director of intellectual property at IBM said ‘inclusivity means not just ‘we’re allowed to be there’ but we are valued. I’ve always said smart teams will do amazing things, but truly diverse teams will do impossible things’. The right to be valued and included has been pushed right to the front of the line in the last few years. Every organisation therefore holds a moral responsibility to develop a culture of diversity and inclusiveness. The consequences for not doing that could be dire but the benefits of doing it can be extraordinary.


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