Inclusive leadership: A D&I initiative or a fundamental shift for leaders?

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Inclusive Leadership is needed to lead effectively through uncertainty, not only to foster inclusion and unite but also to generate the outcomes businesses are seeking.

The world has changed. Time will tell whether this change is irrevocable, and possibly even for the better. But it is clear that the first half of 2020 has been a leadership challenge like no other. In politics and in business, leaders are grappling with seismic cultural shifts and demands for social justice that have laid inequalities bare, against the backdrop of a pandemic that has demanded swift changes in operation to survive. These global problems can’t be resolved by one person, one decision-maker, one heroic leader, no matter how skilled s/he may be. Our increasingly complex and uncertain world needs multiple voices and inclusive leaders who listen to and unite these voices to unlock the potential of their teams and organisations. 

To date, organisations have mostly spoken about inclusive leadership as part of their D&I agendas. These agendas have focused predominantly on building diversity – improving recruitment processes, educating about unconscious bias, reducing discrimination in policies and practice. Diversity is more concrete, easier to define, easier to measure. As incremental progress has been made, the conversation has rightfully shifted, acknowledging that diversity alone means little without inclusion. To plagiarise the well-known phrase – there’s no point inviting people to the party if you’re not going to ask them to dance.

In this series, we want to be bolder:

  1. We’re putting responsibility for generating inclusion squarely in the hands of your leaders. Too often, the issue is delegated to D&I committees, allies, supporter networks and often lone representatives of minority groups to resolve.  
  2. We think it’s time to elevate inclusive leadership – not only do inclusive leaders create better diversity and inclusion outcomes, but they are also leading them way more effectively in creating innovation, collaboration, and better business outcomes in this new C-19 world. 

Its time inclusive behaviours were a core part of how ALL leaders lead.

Over the coming weeks, we will be dedicating a number of articles to this critical leadership capability, which will address the following questions: 

  • What actually is inclusive leadership, and why it is important? 
  • What this means for leaders - What do they need to do and how can we help them get there?
  • What does it mean for organisations - How can you assess for, develop and create a culture of inclusive leadership? 

We hope you’ll join us in this practical exploration of an important topic, and you can follow the journey on social media, in your inbox and in conversation with us along the way. 

What is inclusive leadership?

Inclusive leadership is a leadership style that ensures followers feel valued, empowered, psychologically safe and that they belong. 

Leaders who practice it provide less powerful individuals within their teams with access to information and resources, and enable them to participate in decision making, creating a collaborative environment in which multiple perspectives are heard [1,2,3,4].  

Why is it important?

For business outcomes:

Over the past few years, several studies and surveys have shown that inclusive leadership helps to foster the benefits of diversity, unlock the potential of team members and improve business outcomes, including enhanced [5]: 

-    Innovation and creativity (86%)
-    Performance and productivity (81%)
-    Employee engagement and loyalty (81%)
-    Motivation (81%)

As well as improving team effectiveness and cohesion (Catalyst, 2014; Lam, 2016), an inclusive leadership style minimises the risks of groupthink and loss of great talent.

Right now:

Recently, the importance of leaders adopting an inclusive approach has turned to a necessity, for two key reasons:

  1. The death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter campaign has shone a spotlight on the systemic racism that still exists, the importance of equal treatment and opportunity for individuals from minority groups, and the importance of listening to the communities affected.  
  2. The C-19 pandemic has forced us all into a situation where uncertainty is a certainty, remote working is the norm, teams are suddenly dispersed, and organisations are needing to rapidly adapt in order to sustain operations and thrive. In this context of rapid change, the leaders who succeed will be those who can hear the signals in the system, draw on a variety of creative ideas and empower everyone to act, engaging the whole organisation in the process of collectively resolving the challenges they face.

These two recent contextual factors have shown that the traditional, command and control leadership styles aren’t working. Leaders are suddenly in a situation where they don’t have the answers. There is a lack of control. And they are aware of experiences of their minority group members. Many organisations are struggling financially and urgently need innovative ideas to continue to operate. They need diversity of thought, empowerment and trust to generate engagement, unity, and unlock innovative ideas to lead effectively in a complex environment.

It seems that now is the time to leave traditional leadership stereotypes behind in a pre-COVID world and encourage an inclusive style of leadership. More resilient yet vulnerable, curious yet decisive, humble and empathetic leadership is winning [6,7]. 

Now is the time to act. In a time when so many global leaders are being asked “Why didn’t you see this coming?”, it is time to make the shift before being held to account (e.g. ethnicity pay gap reporting, Shareholder Reporting post-COVID).

This pandemic has created conditions for more inclusive leaders and cultures to thrive:

  • Forcing remote, home working has meant organisations have become more aware of, and supported employees with caring commitments and therefore realise the importance of flexibility. The new normal means ‘core hours’, moving meetings because someone’s partner has a call so there will be no one to look after the children – or for a child to be in the background of a video call. Organisations must be mindful of this if/when the ‘return to work’ happens and not fall into the trap of favouring those without caring responsibilities and/or those who can afford to travel to work more safely. 
  • Organisations and leaders have become more tuned into well-being and are more regularly asking people how they are - and meaning it. 
  • Employees are getting to know each other more authentically. They are meeting each other’s children or pets, meetings are interrupted by the postman, hairstyles are evolving, and they are building better, more meaningful relationships. 
  • While some people may be finding this remote working world hard, others (possibly the more introverted) may be thriving in a quieter, more isolated workspace and producing more thoughtful, reflective work. 

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[1] Nembhard, I. M., & Edmondson, A. C. (2006). Making it safe: The effects of leader inclusiveness and professional status on psychological safety and improvement efforts in health care teams. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27(7), 941–966.
[2] Roberson, Q. M. (2006). Disentangling the meanings of diversity and inclusion in organisations. Group & Organization Management, 31(2), 212-236.
[3] Ryan, J. (2006). Inclusive leadership and social justice for schools. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 5(1), 3-17. 
[4] Hollander, E. (2008). Inclusive Leadership: The essential leader-follower relationship. Abingdon: Routledge Academic.      
[5] Shapiro, G., Wells, H., & Saunders, R. (2011). Inclusive Leadership – from pioneering to mainstream: Maximising the potential of your people. 
[6] Wittenberg-Cox, A. (2020). What do countries with the best coronavirus responses have in common? Retrieved from:
[7] McKinsey. (March 16th, 2020). Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges. Retrieved from:

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