How to Be an Inclusive Leader: 5 Ways to Develop Your Leadership Style and Create a Culture of Belonging

  • October 8, 2019

Each one of us is, in one way or another, a leader. Whether you helm a major organization or work for yourself, manage a team or not, you have the power to create an environment in which everyone around you feels involved, respected, and connected.

A recent report by BCG examined the correlation between employees’ race, gender, sexuality, and sense of belonging in the workplace. Over 70 percent of white, cisgender, heterosexual men reported that they felt like they were able to “bring their authentic selves” to work. In contrast, respondents with just one contrasting dimension of diversity—those separated from the dominant group by race, gender, or sexuality—were less likely to report feeling included and heard. The more different a person is from what’s considered the majority—and in many cases, this means a workplace that’s dominated by whiteness or masculinity—the more excluded they tend to feel. Equally concerning is that the higher they climb on the corporate ladder, the less diversity they find.

It may be uncomfortable to acknowledge that these numbers also reflect the employee experience in your workplace. However, discomfort is part of every inclusive leader’s journey and one of the best catalysts for growth. For folx who want to proactively create a culture of belonging where everyone can thrive but don’t fully understand the role they can play, where to start and how to be most impactful can seem opaque, stalling well-intentioned efforts to create a more inclusive workplace.

I want people to know, however, that this work is not just challenging; it can also be inspiring and fulfilling. There are real opportunities to make a difference—not only in workplace culture and performance but also in the lives of individuals. To this end, in my book, How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive, I introduce the four-stage Inclusive Leader Continuum.

Leading and Creating an Inclusive Workplace

The Inclusive Leader Continuum was developed by the Jennifer Brown Consulting team over many years of implementing DEI strategy for organizations of all sizes: the continuum helps people understand where they are, where they want to go, and chart a path to move forward to bolster inclusion efforts and create a culture of belonging. Throughout each phase, the keys to success are not only having the humility to admit that you don’t have all the answers and might get it wrong sometimes, but also having the courage to admit when you’re wrong or need help from others.

Consider other key areas as you lean into your inclusive leader journey:

1. Acknowledge where you are.

By taking honest stock of where you are, you’ll have the best chance of moving forward. The first two stages of the Inclusive Leader Continuum, Unaware and Aware, are internal processes encouraging you to take private stock of where you are and how you move through the world—both within and beyond the workplace—and then reevaluate the language you use, the media you consume, and your behavior relative to those around you.

In order to discover your current place on the Inclusive Leader Continuum, take our Inclusive Leader Self-Assessment. Uncover things like how to proactively fill in knowledge gaps about the experiences of others, and measure your contribution to your organization's cultural inclusivity.

Even if self-assessment places you at the very beginning of the continuum, remember that all of us must start somewhere. Have no shame in where you are if your intent is to grow.

2. Understand that what got you here won’t get you there.

When we think about the things that have historically been valued in a leader—such as decisiveness, courage, and a singular focus on the job at hand—there’s an implicit expectation of infallibility, which isn’t realistic. Your potential to become an inclusive leader lies in your ability to acknowledge which areas will need more care and attention in order to grow—which means having the courage to admit it when you are wrong or don’t know what you don’t know or to recognize that an increase in diversity among your team or organization means that you will likely hear experiences you’ve never encountered before. Traditional leadership qualities, such as command-and-control and omniscience, may be what got you to where you are today, but an inclusive leader needs to prioritize humility when they start and lead from a place of inquiry and active listening.

Similarly, increasing how much you reveal about yourself in the workplace can help others bring more of themselves to work. While these latter qualities may seem anathema to how you’ve been taught to lead, exhibiting them can better engage your team and help them to thrive at work.

3. Take action.

I often hear from leaders who have the best of intentions but aren’t proactively using their voices as instruments of change. The reality is that intentions are not the same as action, and without action, change can’t happen.

The second two stages of the Inclusive Leader Continuum—Active and Advocate—are about putting the knowledge gleaned from building your awareness of different identities to work in your interactions with others, being on the lookout for bias in yourself and others, and tackling the hard, uncomfortable questions head-on.

We all need to feel inspired to act, however, so keeping in mind your motivation for being on this journey in the first place can help inspire you into action and keep you motivated when things get tough.

4. Don’t expect instant gratification.

As you work your way through the continuum, there’s no doubt that, at times, you’ll find the work to be hard. You are likely to jump around in terms of your level of understanding, as I personally continue to do, depending on which community identity you are learning about.

Depending on your motivation, you may find some things harder than others. You may find it takes longer than you wanted to feel like you’ve made progress, or you may get pushback from colleagues whose approval you’d hoped for.

But this is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes training to build these skills and—just like any other professional initiative—time and patience before it pays off.

5. Remember that you’re not alone.

I find myself reminding both myself and others that we’re all on the same journey. If you find yourself feeling alone, reach out to find a community or build one around you. If you’re in a leadership role, you are likely also in a position to gather and inspire others to begin this journey alongside you. Having other people around you with the same goals and priorities can make a critical difference in nurturing your inclusive leadership journey and staving off fatigue.

It can be challenging to admit that there is work to be done, but coming to understand that it is your responsibility as a leader to use your privilege to make a difference is a big mindset shift that can make all the difference when it comes to creating a culture where everyone feels like they belong.

Through my work and my personal experiences, I have found that leadership is most gratifying when your organization is not just succeeding but leading. The success of tomorrow’s companies already hinges on working together to make space for more voices, more difference, and more innovation.

That future begins with you.

Jennifer Brown is an award-winning entrepreneur, speaker, diversity and inclusion consultant, and author and the founder, president, and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting. Visit today for more information about Jennifer Brown’s new book, How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive, and to take the Inclusive Leader Self-Assessment.


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