Inclusive Leadership: What Is It and How Do You Cultivate It?

Updated Jun 7, 20224 min
Inclusive Leadership: What Is It and How Do You Cultivate It?

Inclusive Leadership: What Is It and How Do You Cultivate It?

Caroline BantonUpdated Jun 7, 20224 min
Inclusive Leadership: What Is It and How Do You Cultivate It?

We live in a rapidly evolving world of commerce where customers, markets, employees, technology, and workplace skills and talents are increasingly diverse.

Inclusive leadership has emerged as a critical capability for competitive companies. It is a flexible and responsive approach to management that addresses biases, adapts to customers, empowers workers, and nurtures leaders who show humility and empathy. Inclusive leadership is the antithesis of rigid and strict authoritarian control that characterized past organizations.

Read on and learn what inclusive leadership is, why addressing biases is so essential, the traits that characterize an inclusive culture, and five steps an organization can take to yield greater efficiencies and attract top talent.

What Is Inclusive Leadership?

Inclusive leadership is a type of leadership that values diversity because of the competitive advantages a diverse workforce brings. Inclusive leadership also empowers workforces by encouraging them to offer feedback that is incorporated into the corporate strategy.

For example, a recruitment program can target certain demographics and build a diverse workforce of people from different backgrounds. Another example of inclusive leadership is using a Kaizen approach to instigate organizational change.

Related: "Why Leaders Should Respond Instead of React When Things Don’t Go as Planned"

The Kaizen Approach

The Japanese word “kaizen” roughly translates to “change for the better.” Kaizen is a philosophy that seeks improvement in business systems and organizations. The Kaizen approach engages all employees in the change process by asking for their feedback and implementing their suggestions. Typically, the people doing the actual hands-on work in a company have the most relevant insights and the best ideas as to how to change things for the better. 

The Kaizen approach reduces waste by streamlining processes to save time and money.

The Role of Bias and Inclusive Leadership

Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook have long been criticized for their ivy league-heavy recruiting practices and lack of diverse teams. Pinterest, however, is an exception.

It’s common now for companies to hire a chief diversity officer to ensure inclusive leadership. For example, Candice Morgan is head of Pinterest’s inclusion and diversity division. 

In 2015, according to CNBC, the company started to follow a rule when recruiting for senior roles whereby there would be one woman and one ethnically underrepresented candidate slated for an interview. This is known as the Rooney Rule after the Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney.

At the time, the percentage of black and Latino engineers in the tech industry nationwide was just 1 percent. However, by 2017, the number of people from underrepresented ethnic groups working at Pinterest tripled, and the number of women in tech roles increased from 21 to 29 percent.

What Leadership Behaviors Are Inclusive?

Inclusive leadership is often a precursor to a more egalitarian and less hierarchical organizational structure. Inclusive leaders are committed to promoting a workplace where team members feel that their opinions and uniqueness are valued. 

Under inclusive leadership, staff are more likely to engage and suggest initiatives to improve processes, leading to innovation.

Here are some of the signature traits of an inclusive leader.

Cognizance of Bias

We all have innate biases that we may be unaware of. They are the result of our upbringing and life experiences. Unconscious bias can cause us to make assumptions based on our preconceptions and prejudices, and these assumptions influence our decisions.

Inclusive leaders make a conscious effort to understand and control their own biases and blind spots. They value different perspectives and make decisions based on less subjective factors. For example, an inclusive leader will rely on data, and they will suspend coming to a decision until they have considered the opinions of others.

Here are some examples of biases that a non-inclusive leader might exhibit.

1. Time Bias

Let’s say a manager is conducting a performance review with a direct report, and the direct report recently experienced a project failure. The manager may focus unfairly on the employee’s recent performance even though the employee might have had ten successful projects during the early part of the period under review. Remember the adage, “You’re only as good as your last [_].”

2. Similarity Bias

Let’s say a manager is hiring for a position in their department. The manager is a Harvard graduate, and one of the candidates is also a Harvard grad. Not only that, but the candidate reminds the manager of themselves when they were at a similar place in their career. Inevitably, the manager will feel some affinity with that candidate, which may influence their hiring decision.

3. Visibility Bias

The hybrid work environment is a great example of where visibility or proximity bias can rear its ugly head. Managers may offer prized assignments to individuals who are physically closer to them. This could be because it is more convenient or because they have a stronger working relationship. Individuals who work remotely often fear that they will be overlooked for promotion because of proximity bias.

4. Gender Bias

The pay gap between men and women is an example of gender bias in the workplace, but there are more subtle aspects to gender bias. For example, a study found that close to 80 percent of critical feedback given to women included comments on her personality, with words like “abrasive” used as descriptors. Only 2 percent of negative feedback for males included similar comments.

For more on intelligent leadership, read "Powerful Reflection Questions for Leaders"

Cultural Intelligence

It’s a tall order to expect a manager or leader to have in-depth knowledge of different cultures, but a good leader has the mindset to empathize with people regardless of their background. An inclusive leader has self-awareness and understands that everyone has their preferences and viewpoints. They attempt to accommodate cultural differences and workers’ preferences to ensure collaboration, well-being, and a sense of belonging in the workplace culture.


The Kaizen approach epitomizes the idea that organizations improve through change, and change occurs with the input and engagement of all workers. Therefore, an inclusive leader must be able to not only adapt to change but aggressively promote it. They cannot be resistant or afraid of change, which includes leveraging diverse human capital. Inclusive leaders act as role models and challenge the status quo.

How to Establish Inclusive Leadership

As the name implies, an inclusive environment requires the buy-in of everyone, from the person who orders office supplies to board members. Anyone resistant to change will thwart the efforts of others.

There needs to be a well-thought-out, top-down communication strategy to build a new culture where everyone is empowered to contribute to organizational decisions and problem-solving, whether it be through a boardroom vote or a response to a staff survey.

Here are five steps to inclusive leadership.

1.   Develop a PR campaign to inform all stakeholders and investors of the advantages of an inclusive organizational culture—better innovation due to diverse perspectives, better systems, greater efficiencies, improved staff morale, better reputation as an employer, etc.

2.  Define leadership for the organization. Leaders should undergo leadership assessment by their peers and direct reports. Include leadership capabilities and best practices into a leadership competency model. For example, leaders should conduct regular one-on-ones with staff and oversee their career development.

3.  Design recruitment to ensure a diverse workforce. Seek out workers from unique backgrounds. For example, reach out to organizations for women in technology, offer internships to targeted groups, and change company policies to appeal to diverse candidates.

4.  Identify future leaders and create a leadership development program to train them in the fundamentals of inclusive leadership. For example, a leadership development program should cover biases, employee empowerment, and the practice of fairness, humility, and empathy.

5.  Ensure that senior-level professionals are committed to inclusive leadership and hold them accountable for their leadership style and non-inclusive actions. Reward and showcase leaders that model inclusive behaviors.

A Final Word

The bottom line is that changing to inclusive leadership is a catalyst for better decisions and improvements all around. Targeting all demographics in recruitment builds an innovative workforce.

A Kaizen approach improves processes. Empowering employees to be part of the decision-making process improves morale, and a reputation as an organization with an inclusive culture will attract unique and diverse talent. There are many arguments that advocate fostering an inclusive workplace, and few that do not.

Caroline Banton
Expert on career acceleration and business topics with vast experience writing for globally-recognized publications

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