Truly 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 color (, 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.  Organizations 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. It highlights the challenges of inclusive leadership that persist in the workplace. This lack of diversity at the top can lead to unconscious bias and hold back the ability to foster a diverse team. A truly inclusive leader would actively seek to create an environment where everyone feels valued and included.

Beyond the status quo – building a culture of inclusive workplace

To become truly inclusive, organizations 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 organizations and governments.  This is not to say that people of color, women, or Muslims are incapable of leading cultural change; the structures and institutions of society are designed to empower white straight men.

These structures and institutions need to be more aware of implicit bias and open to diverse perspectives. They should challenge the status quo and ensure equal opportunity and equitable outcomes while authentically reflecting their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in their hiring practices for top positions. Only then can they claim to exhibit true inclusive leadership.

Why inclusive leadership matters

 Today’s senior leaders need to take a different approach from their predecessors. We must move from performative inclusion, which is led by branding and marketing, towards inclusive leadership behaviors that focus 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 and without understanding the importance of inclusive leadership.

Implementing truly inclusive leadership measures is crucial for effecting genuine change. Inclusive leadership fosters an environment where different cultures are respected and valued. The first step to actual inclusion is to recognize and acknowledge that the system is not fair and that your organization has not got it right, yet.

The traits of 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:

Courage – lead by example

It will take courage to take a stand and admit that your organization is not yet inclusive, and it will take resilience to see it through.  Admitting that there is no inclusive work environment, is the first step to creating a culture of inclusion. Start off with some data: compare the race breakdown at each level of seniority. If the percentage of people of color diminishes as seniority increases, you have a complex challenge. Do the same for 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 color and women underrepresented at senior levels, your organization 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 analyze inclusivity in the workplace culture, not from the perspective of the brand, but looking at the ways it reinforces white privilege.

Inclusive leaders at every level must be aware of their own biases. The second part of courage is being prepared to take risks and stand up and challenge biased practices. An inclusive leader must lead by example and ensure that their behavior is inclusive. They should actively seek out and consider different perspectives, and encourage team members to speak up. Research done in schools shows that bad behavior 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 patronized or accused of being overly pushy or temperamental.  An inclusive leader will proactively call upon, listen to, and accept the perspectives of underrepresented staff. They will ensure that every employee feels valued and heard, regardless of their diverse backgrounds and experiences. A courageous inclusive leader will discipline those who dismiss or put down those with different opinions.

Inclusive leaders are aware that diverse teams lead to better decision-making. They provide development opportunities for all staff and seek out and consider different viewpoints. This commitment to an inclusive work environment is what truly sets them apart.

Foster 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 bias and assumptions.  Be one of the leaders who actively seek solutions. 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 everyone is comfortable sharing their ideas, which 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 and diverse workforce. 

Data – the key to unlocking diversity in the workplace

This touches on the most important tool in the inclusive leader’s toolbox: data.  Most organizations will agree with a survey done in Minnesota: we believe we’re doing OK on diversity.  Until we collect and analyze 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 analyzed 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 color, because organizations 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 judgment is fallible; a leader who is open to challenges from others, and who 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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