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What are Inclusive Leaders Made Of? By Razia Aziz and Jonathan Heath, the Equality Academy Ltd

2016.06.23 Razia Azizi photoInclusive leadership is in fashion. Names such as McKinsey, Deloitte and Ernst & Young, have captured the attention of international business for the benefits of diversity, and the key role of inclusive leadership in ensuring that diversity is maximised – with an emphasis on a strategic approach. Research abounds which appears to show that diversity, particularly gender and ethnic diversity, at leadership level, is associated with superior performance in innovation and earnings.

But what does it really take to be an inclusive leader? That is what we, at the Equality Academy, have worked away at diligently for the last few years. The answers we have unearthed form the basis of our approach to fostering inclusive leaders, which can be summarised as follows:

Inclusive leaders are engaged with the world ‘out there’ and the world ‘in here’: i.e. they know diversity is about them too. This quality of inward inquiry is as important to the inclusive leader as outward inquiry.

Inclusive leaers combine diversity knowledge, skill and awareness (‘diversity literacy’) with other leadership skills to promote an inclusive culture: this requires courage and commitment; and the ability to show thought leadership, whilst addressing unconscious bias and assuaging anxieties to bring others along.

Inclusive leaders are effective leaders: they understand the strategic value of diversity to both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ aspects of the business – from attracting and retaining talented people to delivering profit. They are good at welcoming and ‘mining’ difference, and at communicating common purpose (the glue that holds diversity together).

Inclusive leaders understand the depth and the breadth of the case for diversity: they recognise and address institutional exclusion within their system because it’s rooted in their values; because it creates a more humane workplace for employees; because it’s good for business; and because it’s lawful and reduces the risk of litigation. All four ‘cases for diversity’ figure on their radar in the short, medium and long-term.

Inclusive leaders instinctively know that inclusion can only be achieved through collective responsibility, effort and inquiry: they articulate a clear and transparent case for measures to promote fairness, and so increase and harness diversity. They understand the complexities of the system in which they operate, their place in it and how and with whom they need to engage to be strategically effective.

Inclusive leaders recognise that diversity rewards those who can ‘get stuck into it’ every level – personal, interpersonal, team, and corporate: they also know it has wider political, social, historical and global implications, and that it cannot be ‘ticked off’ the list with a single initiative. And why would you want to? The ongoing work of harnessing diversity for the business and its customers pays great dividends – one off initiatives are quickly forgotten, and can create disillusionment.

In this post-command-and-control era, we believe that businesses are better considered as living systems rather than machines. This means seeing them as complex, non-linear, and possessed of different levels of ‘consciousness’ – a significant proportion ‘below the waterline’ of ordinary awareness.

Our approach is holistic i.e. we have a working assumption that every level of reality functions as a complex whole: from the individual to the team, to the business as a whole in the wider sector, to the wider world. In order for each level to ‘think’ and to grow or transform, it has to have a conversation with itself, in which information which was previously out of ordinary (or common) awareness is brought up and somehow expressed, answered, resolved and integrated. This in turn enables the ‘wisdom of the whole’ to shine through.

We think it essential to encourage leaders to reflect upon who they are, what they stand for and how their actual behaviour in the world measures up to their self-publicity i.e. the degree to which they ‘walk their talk’ (or conversely suffer from a ‘credibility gap’). There are many ways to achieve this, but all at some point require the willingness to open ourselves to others. As a species we need each other just to see ourselves. None of us has the whole picture – the ‘other’ supplies the missing pieces: nowhere is this truer than in the terrain of diversity. That’s why engaging in a collective inquiry – whether among a group of colleagues in a leadership team, or among a group of peers from different organisations and sectors who have never met before – can result in leaders gaining insight into what they are really made of, as well as the inspiration to forge a more effective strategy for fairness, diversity and inclusion.

The Equality Academy next two-day residential open Inclusive Leadership Masterclass on 1st & 2nd December 2016 at Highgate House, Northampton. For further details about this or in-house intensive workshops please contact Razia Aziz or Jonathan Heath at