Cultural Intelligence – The Key to Becoming an Inclusive Leader

Published on January 21st, 2021

We often hear or read that cultural intelligence is an essential skill for inclusive leaders – and it is hard to disagree.  But we are not always clear about what cultural intelligence is and how it applies to inclusive leadership.

In this context, we can define cultural intelligence as knowledge – data, information and awareness of context about the factors that influence how others relate to each other and the skills to remove barriers to effective relationship-building.

A “starter for 10”

It is fashionable in these times of virtual social events to attend quizzes.  So let’s look at an alternative quiz as a way to lead into a discussion of cultural intelligence.

  1. Who invented the prototype of the modern-day filament light bulb?
  2. When did the first black people arrive in Britain
  3. In what year did the Bristol Bus Company employ its first person of colour as a bus driver or conductor?
  4. What proportion of the UK population is Muslim?
  5. Is the UK gender pay gap increasing or declining?


  1. Lewis Latimer was an inventor. Edison’s light bulb lasted no more than a few minutes.  Latimer added a carbon filament which turned it from an interesting curiosity into a usable invention.
  2. Around 300 a.d. as freedmen of the Roman Empire. Early remains suggest that at least some black people of the time were quite wealthy.
  3. September 1963. Despite legislation outlawing racial discrimination, Bristol Bus Company refused to hire black staff, it wasn’t until Paul Stephenson led a boycott that they changed their hiring practices.
  4. About 5% (2018 figures). Nearly every survey shows that people overestimate the number.
  5. At senior levels (middle management and above) the gender pay gap is increasing (9% in 2018 to 15.9% in 2019)

So what?

While these are interesting facts, you may ask yourself, why is it important to know about this kind of history?  School history lessons have an invisible, yet hugely influential overtone that “normal” is male, white and straight.  Our heroes and champions of the past are whitewashed – St George, the patron saint of England was either Greek or Turkish, but most images of him are of a white man. It wasn’t until July 2020 that the Church of England challenged its own imagining of Jesus (a Palestinian) as a white man.  We remember Wilberforce’s counter-cultural struggle to pass laws to abolish slavery, but overlook the fact that compensation was paid to the slave owners, not the slaves when the law was finally passed.

Fitting reality to expectations

If normal, good, heroic, or right are portrayed as white, male straight, anyone who does not conform to that image may be considered abnormal, bad, cowardly and wrong.  If nostalgia is white and male, anything else is measured as less than ideal.  This is not conscious discrimination.  But it has a discriminatory impact.

If being asked by a customer if they can speak to your boss doesn’t make you defensive, you’re probably a man.  If being asked where you’re from doesn’t lead you to consider how that might be used against you, you’re probably white.  If you can take your partner to a party without worrying about how your relationship will be judged, you’re probably straight.  If you are never asked how “your community” feels about a topic, you’re probably white, straight and male.

A golden ticket of privilege

At work, we bring the whole weight of our identity baggage with us.  Every experience, interaction and thought shape how we view normal.  For the privileged, this baggage is a golden ticket.  We are free to be ourselves, to behave as we want – badly or well – without it being ascribed to our upbringing.  We don’t need to fear the police, because we know the police only arrest criminals; we know we got our jobs because we earned them and that we are rejected when there are better candidates, not because of our skin colour, our accent, our religion, our dress, our disability.

Inclusive leadership

An inclusive leader is not only aware of their own golden ticket of privilege, they are actively conscious that others do not have the same advantages, and often have barriers.  They work to remove those barriers, not because under-represented groups are less capable of earning their own seat at the table, but because those sitting at the table have shaped the seats to fit them.  Seats that are tailor-made for white male straight people.

Caroline Criado Perez, in her book Invisible Women, writes that this is behind the statistic that more women die from cancer than men – drugs and treatments were designed for and tested on men until very recently.

If you are conscious that a question or comment that is innocent to you has the potential to provoke emotional responses in others, you will not judge someone as “always defensive” or “avoiding engaging with others.”  You will actively look to apologise and change structures to include others.  It is much more than being aware of unconscious bias.  We need to stop looking for easy ways out and focus on active change.

Getting the balance right

No one promised being an inclusive leader would be easy.

The inclusive leader will have to get used to hearing uncomfortable things and will have to use their cultural intelligence to inform others.  Reni Eddo-Lodge in her book Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race explains that it is not up to people of colour to educate white people about race.  Nor is it women’s obligation to talk to men about gender issues.  Leaders must step up and talk truth to power – they need to say the difficult things: that structures and practices are not equitable.

There is a balancing act.  An inclusive leader will create space for people to ask where the boundaries are.  We can’t shut down conversations about privilege.  We must allow space for people to explore what is constructive and what is not.  Education is the answer; and learning is based on dialogue.  However, those with privilege must do the hard work – the research, the processing and the reflection.  And the apologising.

It is inevitable that we will get it wrong.  We need to own that without dissemination and strive to avoid the same mistake in the future.  Leaders who aim to be inclusive will make visible mistakes and will be held to a higher standard.  Remember that talk about courage?

At its simplest level, cultural intelligence is nothing more than good leadership – listening, understanding, empathising and being a role model.  In the context of inclusive leadership, cultural intelligence builds in curiosity and constant self-reflection.  This is a challenge to even the best of leaders – understanding that all those characteristics that have made you a great leader are the same ones that reduce your ability to be an inclusive leader.  It would be like learning to walk in zero gravity – a realisation that what you thought you knew to be true was in fact a barrier to seeing the real truth.

But once you’ve learned, a whole new world of opportunities opens up.


Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.

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