Inclusive leadership: how to develop inclusive leadership behaviours

Insight shared by:

Kiddy & Partners

In previous articles, we have made the case for why inclusive leadership matters, what it looks like in practice and how to assess for it. In this article, we share our experiences of developing inclusive behaviours for individuals, teams and groups of leaders.

We know that current and future challenges for institutions, corporations, organisations and society require inclusive leadership to solve. Those who rise to that challenge will need to promote an environment that encourages deep dialogue, recognises different perspectives and values creativity that cuts across boundaries [1].  To create these conditions, leaders must be skilled at building trust, listening, seeking to understand and having the humility to acknowledge the limits of their ability to solve problems alone. They will need to be able to tune in to weak signals in the system to inform decisions, to move quickly but thoughtfully, to experiment and to learn, and ultimately to take everyone with them on the journey, maximising the potential of all the people around them [3].

The first step is to make it real and engage leaders in the need for change

The best outcomes from leadership development are achieved when organisations invest in really bringing the challenge to life in the context of their environment; moving beyond conceptual conversations about inclusion to sharing rich internal data and incorporating the lived experiences of employees in their business. Many leaders, typically in positions of privilege, may not be aware of the realities of corporate life for a minority group nor may they have experienced non-inclusive (exclusionary) behaviours themselves – without this exposure and subsequent understanding, it is challenging to gain commitment to the behaviour change required for meaningful and sustained inclusion.

For example, asking leaders to read quotes from employee focus groups brings the voice of employees into the discussion in a powerful way—research findings and other organisational data can be used to ‘show’, not ‘tell’ the leaders of the impact of their own or other’s exclusionary behaviours. Non-identifying real-life stories and anonymous quotes can also create an emotional connection, which fosters empathy and enhanced motivation for change [2]. This shift in mindset is critical for how leaders think about inclusion, as much as how inclusively they behave.

Then help leaders acknowledge where they are

As articulated in our previous articles, inclusive leadership requires a shift in internal attributes as well as external behaviours, so it is important for leaders to reflect honestly on how inclusive they are currently to have the best chance of moving forward. For example, as Jennifer Brown describes, moving between the first two stages of the Inclusive Leader Continuum, Unaware and Aware, is an internal process encouraging leaders to take stock of where they are and how they move through the world—both within and beyond the workplace—and then reevaluating the language they use, the media they consume, and their behaviour relative to those around them. This personal reflective process should be supplemented with data from others, through directly sourced feedback or through an assessment which combines live 360 and simulation data to hold up a mirror. 

Understanding that what got them here won’t get them there

When we think about the things that have historically been valued in a leader—such as decisiveness, courage, and a singular focus on the job at hand—there’s an implicit expectation of infallibility, which isn’t realistic. Becoming an inclusive leader requires an acknowledgement of which areas need more care and attention in order to grow—which means having the courage to admit when you are wrong or don’t know what you don’t know, or to recognise that an increase in diversity in the team or organisation means that you will likely hear of experiences you’ve never encountered before. Traditional leadership strategies, such as command-and-control and attempted omniscience, may be what your leaders believe got them to where they are today, but an inclusive leader needs to prioritise humility and lead from a place of inquiry, curiosity and active listening [4].

Similarly, attributes such as authenticity and vulnerability should be given much greater value in your leadership population - how much leaders reveal about themselves in the workplace can help others bring more of themselves to work, creating a more open and tolerant culture as a result. While these qualities may seem anathema to how many may have been taught to think about leadership, exhibiting them can better engage teams and help them to thrive at work. Goffee and Jones’ seminal work, “Why should anyone be led you?” asks some incredibly important questions and gives a great framework for discussion in this space [5].

Build safe learning experiences that allow for discussion and experimentation

It is important that facilitated learning opportunities provide a safe space for individuals to explore and challenge the inclusive leadership construct; encourage leaders to share experiences of inclusive and exclusionary behaviours (inside or outside of the workplace) to bring it to life and make it personal. Experienced psychologists can supplement this personal exploration with deep insight into group dynamics and leadership behaviour, as well as bringing to life the way biases operate to create an exclusionary culture. Then, by using tools such as simulation exercises, role-play, scenario case studies and analysis of leader interactions, leaders can be enabled to move from understanding what is required to knowing how to do it themselves. Finally, it is about challenging leaders to set and commit to actions they will take to develop collectively in this area.  

From a team perspective it can be incredibly powerful to engage in this development together, as a shared and collaborative experience that helps speak to challenges that may have never been raised or addressed; ultimately allowing each leader to unlock even more potential in the effectiveness of their team.

Optimise outcomes with action learning and coaching

Action learning brings concepts to life, develops capability, and embeds behavioural change by using newly established tools and skills to solve real-life problems and then reflecting on the impact of the action taken to enhance learning. It is also important for people to have live examples of how others are tackling critical issues. For example, on a programme we were recently involved in with a Dutch Investment bank, leaders spent a day visiting a wide-ranging number of businesses and institutions (including tech start-ups, refuges for sex workers and government institutes) to listen and see how others have found ways to drive more inclusive behaviours.
Finally, to further embed the learning into lived practice we believe 1:1 coaching provides the best medium for helping leaders to build new habits inspired and provoked by learning workshops or events.

Establish accountability

It is important to have a formal plan for measuring the outcome of your investment in inclusive leadership development—what metrics will be calculated, by who, and how often? Once targets or other goals are set, responsibility for their achievement should be assigned to individuals who are held accountable through scorecards and other performance management tools [6]. Ultimate accountability for diversity and inclusion should be at the level of the CEO – think about how this can be spread throughout your organisation rather than the sole responsibility of a D&I committee or HR.

However, don’t expect instant gratification

Depending on your leaders’ motivation, you may find some of these aspects harder than others. You may find it takes longer than you wanted to feel like you’ve made progress, or you may get pushback from colleagues where you were hoping for engagement. But this is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes training to build these skills and—just like any other professional initiative—time and patience before it pays off but as Shane Parrish said, “failing at things that matter is better than succeeding at things that don’t” [7].

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[1] Willful blindness, Heffernan, 2014
[2] Center for Talent Innovation. (2013). Innovation, Diversity and Market Growth. Downloaded from CTI website:

[3] How to be an inclusive leader, Brown, 2019
[4] Nielsen & Kepinski (2016). Inclusion Nudges Guidebook: Practical Techniques for Changing Behaviour, Culture & Systems to Mitigate Unconscious Bias and Create Inclusive Organisations. CreateSpace Independent Publishing.

[5]Why should anyone be led by you, Goffee & Jones, 2006
[6]Deloitte. (2018). The Diversity and Inclusion Revolution: Eight Powerful Truths. Downloaded from Deloitte website:

[7] The great mental models: General Thinking Concepts , Parrish, 2020

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