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Defining and Understanding Inclusive Leadership

In today’s business environment leaders need to be inclusive in order to integrate diverse perspectives to create high-performing global teams that drive growth for their organizations.” - Mike Cullen, EY Global

Picture the most efficient, productive and innovative organization you can imagine. What does it look like? Who works there? How are things executed? Chances are that it resembles a highly-advanced leadership team who understand the importance of Inclusive Leadership.

To be successful, now and in the future, organizations throughout the world must develop leaders who can function across borders, inspire across generations, and be at ease across cultures. They must understand that effective leadership and the programs that develop it involve a commitment to diversity and all its elements.

An inclusive leader must adopt – and live – a set of values, which places human relationships centre stage and which defines the purpose of their enterprise. As global business speeds toward a more complex, demanding and borderless expanse of divers markets, customers, and employees, the skills required to lead and inspire are changing. Developing inclusive leaders is not an option; it is a necessity – but not everyone is getting the message. Too often companies use yesterday’s practices and views to develop tomorrow’s leaders – a formula for mediocrity and even failure.

Leading inclusively requires a baseline of trust between immediate managers and direct reports. Managers who successfully achieve trusting relationships with direct reports, enjoy greater team productivity, and realize personal satisfaction in their successful development of talent.(insert reference 1) This trust foundation often eludes most organizations due to the focus on the “Get it Done” at all cost sub culture behaviors. However, without this foundation, organizations may succeed for a period of time but will not sustain success. Trust between managers and a direct report is essential to forming productive workplace relationships; facilitating employee development, engagement and performance; navigating the workplace and improving overall performance across the organization.

Overall, women executive leaders are demonstrating significant strides in the area of Inclusive Leadership. Our natural tendencies are to lead teams that thrive on respect, trust, engagement, rewarding work and open and honest two way communications. It has been my observation that women leaders are often more aware of how their leadership style impacts the productivity of their teams. Successful executive women leaders understand the importance of employee development and are often more actively engaged in providing development opportunities to grow, build exposure, visibility, engagement and goal attainment.

However, if that leader is challenged by their lack of confidence and perception of their contribution, this innate skill can take an unpleasant turn. This behavior will manifest itself in “crab in the barrel” activities. Only looking out for oneself - at all cost. This women leader is perceived to be one who will throw her team and colleagues under the bus at the first opportunity. She is seen as someone who is only out for herself and often is blindsided when given direct feedback. This lack of self- awareness is a significant derailer for a long-term successful executive role...female or male.

So how do we guard against the tendency to fall victim to this behavior? Let’s face it, we all have a little voice in our heads telling us we’re not good enough, we’re not smart enough…our confidence is always on the front line – taking a daily beating. Here are a few safeguards to put in place to regroup when we find ourselves in a state of uncertainty of our contribution:

  • Invest in an Executive Coach – someone who can provide feedback to help us build and grow as well as an objective party to provide observations.

  • Know thyself – take advantage of assessments – 360, Hay Group, DISC, MBTI, etc. Provide that information to your coach and/or leader you trust to make sure you are working on areas of opportunity.

  • Know your triggers and how to handle them– based on the information above, your personal observations and direct feedback – KNOW YOUR TRIGGERS and have a plan to “count yourself off the ledge”.. people love to push our buttons – don’t give them the satisfaction.

  • Ensure your “SistaGirl” network is intact – sometimes it takes a “Come to Jesus” conversation with just the right friend or group of friends to get you back on track and no one can do that like true SistaGirls”

An Inclusive Leader is an asset to any organization. The leader who has solid core values and is focused on team development through attainment of corporate strategic goals and objectives is invaluable to the success of the organization.

Below I’ve provided a high-level list of Characteristics of an Inclusive Leader as well as an Inclusive Culture. As you consider the Characteristics below, ask yourself:

  • Am I demonstrating these behaviors? If not, why, what will I do differently on Monday?

  • What are my opportunities to grow and refocus my efforts?

  • How will I hold myself accountable as an Inclusive Leader?

  • Is there a leader in my organization who is seen as an Inclusive leader? If so, how will I connect to learn their best practices?

Characteristics of an Inclusive Leader: (insert reference 2)

Champions the Corporate D&I initiatives Is an advocate for culture change

Leaders courageously Change Agent for innovation

Challenges the Status Quo Celebrates and recognizes contributions

Listens and is open to new ideas Possesses self-awareness

Understands what motivates the team Hold themselves and other accountable

Characteristics of an Inclusive Culture:

  • Differences are recognized and valued.

  • The various ways people learn, know and communicate are respected.

  • Open and honest discussion is encouraged.

  • Policies and activities which promote understanding and appreciation of other members are encouraged.

  • Progress and change are seen in a positive light.

  • The “unwritten rules” of the community are understood by all members.

  • Accommodations are made for differing needs and preferences.

Building an inclusive culture requires developing inclusive leadership. Inclusive leaders are courageous and curious and look for new perspectives; they are adaptive to new ways of doing things and build relationships easily. These leaders create trust by sharing credit and decision-making authority.

There’s a good reason that inclusive leaders foster loyal and productive teams—they leverage their teams’ individual talents and help to build individual strengths while inviting opinions. They help create cultures that embrace diversity, thrive on synergy, and produce exponentially high results.

Inclusive organizations focus on attracting, developing, and advancing women and underrepresented populations by removing roadblocks, gaining stakeholder buy-in, and developing opportunities for growth.


  1. Kurt Dirks and Donald L. Ferrin, “Trust in Leadership: meta-analytic Findings and Implications for Research and Practice, “Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 87, no. 4 (2002)

  2. Minding the Gap: Overcoming Organizational Barriers to Develop Inclusive Leaders 2010

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