Inclusive Leadership: Taking up the Challenge of Real Leadership

Published on February 2nd, 2021

In the UK, there is one black CEO in the FTSE 100.  Across, the UK, Canada and the USA only 5% of CEOs are people of colour (, Jan 2020).  There are more CEOs in the US called John than there are female CEOs (NY Times, 2018).

The websites of all the FTSE 100 companies have a page where they “celebrate” diversity and talk about how inclusive these companies are – and it is not just big companies.  Organisations of all sizes and shapes make a show of celebrating Pride Week, International Women’s Day, and Black History Month; but they hire white men as CEOs.  This is not inclusive leadership.

Beyond the status quo

To become truly inclusive, organisations need a fundamental culture change in leadership.  And, at the moment, it is those who benefit most from the status quo, who must change most.  White, middle-aged men have had an “invisible knapsack” of privileges, according to Peggy McIntosh.  They control the power and the resources that shape the big organisations and governments.  This is not to say that people of colour or women, or Muslims are incapable of leading culture change; the structures and institutions of society are designed to empower white straight men.

The inclusive leader

Today’s leaders need to take a different approach to their predecessors.  We must move from performative inclusion – which is led by branding and marketing and move to inclusive leadership which focuses on real change, whether or not it looks good.  Performative inclusion measures include mentoring for BAME staff, Women’s networks, “cultural days”, and rainbow lanyards for ID badges.  These measures put the burden of fixing the problem on those who have no responsibility at all for the cause: the underrepresented groups who have not benefited from privilege.

Performative inclusion allows male pale and stale leaders to congratulate themselves on doing an excellent job of diversity without actually changing anything.  The first step to actual inclusion is to recognise and acknowledge that the system is not fair and that your organisation has not got it right, yet.

The traits of an inclusive leader

Deloitte research has identified six traits of an inclusive leader:

  • Curiosity
  • Cultural Intelligence
  • Collaboration
  • Commitment
  • Courage
  • Cognizance (awareness of bias)

We will focus on just two of them here:


It will take courage to take a stand and admit that your organisation is not yet inclusive, and it will take resilience to see it through.  Start off with some data: start by comparing the race breakdown at each level of seniority.  If the percentage of people of colour diminishes as seniority increases, you have a problem.  Do the same for other men/women.

Other legally protected characteristics are harder as they are not often declared, but you can be sure that if you have people of colour and women underrepresented at senior levels, your organisation will have similar challenges in other areas as well.

When you notice that you have a problem in hiring and retention at senior levels, you will need specialist advice.  Someone who can dispassionately and objectively look at your recruitment strategy forensically and analyse your workplace culture, not from the perspective of the brand, but looking at the ways it reinforces white privilege.

The second part of courage is being prepared to stand up and challenge biased practices.  An inclusive leader must lead by example and ensure that their behaviour is inclusive.  Research done in schools shows that bad behaviour in white children is more likely to be excused or overlooked than in BAME children.

This feeds into business.  BAME staff frequently point out that when they object to decisions or raise contrary opinions, it’s attributed to “being difficult” or they are ignored and overlooked.  Women often say that they are patronised or accused of being overly pushy or temperamental.  An inclusive leader will proactively call upon, listen to and accept the perspectives of underrepresented staff; a courageous inclusive leader will discipline those who dismiss or put down those with different opinions.

Cultural Intelligence

Scientists estimate that we make 35,000 conscious decisions each day.  Most of those decisions will be instantaneous, relying on instincts and experience to identify the best course of action.  Unfortunately, the assumptions underpinning these decisions are often wrong, and even more so when the decisions involve other people.

Our understanding of “normality” or “right and wrong” is formed from our unique mix of past experiences: our upbringing, background, politics, faith, life experience, education, friends, success and traumas.  This combination is unique to all of us and means that “my normal” and “your normal” are not quite the same.  Cultural intelligence is the skill we can develop to help us start to understand how those different understandings make other people tick.  Leadership can only be inclusive when the leaders don’t assume that they have all the information.

The first step is to understand your own perspective: question why you make decisions and challenge your own assumptions.  This is difficult and requires active effort – we are undoing years of conditioning.  You then have to allow yourself to accept that others see the world differently at a fundamental level and those perceptions are equally valid.  The key to inclusive leadership is creating an environment where everyone’s contribution is valued and that means recalibrating your own perspective.

A good leader will always empower those around them to put forward contrary opinions and to play devil’s advocate.  A good inclusive leader will reflect on the final outcome of these decisions: does the final decision reflect their own perspective, or have they allowed genuine thought diversity.  Keeping a record of whose ideas are taken forward is a great way to keep an eye on how close you are to inclusive leadership.

Data – the key to unlock diversity

This touches on the most important tool in the inclusive leader’s toolbox: data.  Most organisations will agree with a survey done in Minnesota: we believe we’re doing OK on diversity.  Until we collect and analyse data, we allow our unconscious bias to define our definition of “OK”.   Latina women in the US earn $0.54 for every $1.00 a white man earns, according to one survey in Fortune magazine.  Although the UK has analysed data for the gender pay gap (UK women earn £0.83 for each £1 earned by men, according to UK government data), there is no data on people of colour, because organisations don’t collect it according to HR magazine.  If you want to be an inclusive leader you need data – you need to know where to focus your efforts, where your successes are, and where you have fallen short.  If you are going to stake your reputation (see above – Courage!) you need to know that you have reliable information.

Inclusive leadership requires a special kind of leader – someone who doesn’t trust their instincts, who is aware that their judgement is fallible; a leader who is open to challenges from others and actively empowers those around them.  But an inclusive leader is a real leader – an inspiration, a game changer, someone who makes a difference.


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

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