The conversations in diversity and inclusion (D&I) are reinforced with the recent global events.  Organisations are showing a stronger interest on how they can better foster, support and develop all talent groups. Success in D&I won’t happen in the vacuum, it requires a strategy and more importantly, inclusive leaders at all levels of the business.

In recent weeks, there has been an outpouring of grief and activism around the globe about the issues of racism, inequality and discrimination. All of this is happening in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken a disproportionate toll on underrepresented groups. Women for instance, have lost more hours and more jobs than have men during the crisis. Young people and other minority groups, who make up a large chunk of the industries hit hard by the pandemic - such as retail, hospitality, events, fitness and entertainment industries – have also been more susceptible to losing their jobs and having their hours reduced.

It’s no surprise then that organisations are showing a renewed and, in some cases, unprecedented interest in reshaping their D&I practices to create a more diverse and equitable workforce.

Diversity and inclusion have been championed in businesses for years now.  Many employers in all sectors have a genuine concern for ensuring their talent feels valued, respected, and safe. They seek to have equitable organisations where disparities at any level including in access, opportunity, support, and reward, don’t exist. Yet, the stark reality is that in many countries, those from underrepresented groups are still not treated equally and do not feel they have a voice.

The D&I crisis requires a new type of leader.

There is greater diversity in the workplace today—by gender, ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation—than five or ten years ago at the entry and supervisory levels. Today, women are nearly at 50% parity in the workforce with men given greater level of education and advancement. But many organisations are still struggling to create an environment where diverse talent can thrive and advance to positions of leadership and influence.

Inclusive leaders are essential to closing this gap between diversity and inclusion, or, in other words, policy and practice.

What do those inclusive leaders look like?

While there are studies which show that fostering diversity and inclusivity within an organisation improves the bottom line, this usually isn’t the main reason why leaders embrace an inclusive culture.  The impetus to drive an inclusive culture invariably comes more from the heart than the head. 

There are many admirable bosses out there but being a good leader does not automatically make an inclusive leader. To map out a clear profile of an inclusive leader, we engaged our statisticians and psychologists from the Korn Ferry Institute to identify inclusive leader traits and competencies. Our research was based on a thorough analysis of Korn Ferry’s database of over 3 million leadership assessments.

An interesting finding of the research is that yes, inclusive leaders have certain traits and competencies that differentiates them from their less inclusive counterparts, in addition, we have also identified a vital element that gives inclusive leaders an edge: the experiences of each leader’s biography.

We have identified a vital element that gives inclusive leaders an edge: the experiences of each leader’s biography. Click To Tweet

Before we discuss the leader’s biography, let’s first take a look at the traits, or the inner enablers of inclusive leadership.

Traits are generally hardwired. They include an individual’s personality, sense of purpose, and values. They also indicate preferences and the leader’s disposition toward differences. The core enabling traits of an inclusive leader uncovered by our research are:

  1. Authenticity: requires humility, setting aside ego, and establishing trust in the face of opposing beliefs, values or perspectives.
  2. Emotional Resilience: requires the ability to remain composed in the face of adversity and difficulty around differences.
  3. Inquisitiveness: requires openness to differences, curiosity, and empathy.
  4. Self-assurance: requires a stance of confidence and optimism.
  5. Flexibility: requires the ability to tolerate ambiguity and to be adaptable to diverse needs.

While the traits outlined above are foundational for inclusive leadership, they need to be translated to observable behaviours for a leader to lead inclusively. Our research has identified the competencies that are essential to this. We call these The Five Disciplines of the inclusive leader:

  1. Builds Interpersonal Trust: is honest and follows through; establishes rapport by finding common ground while simultaneously able to value perspectives that differ from own.
  2. Integrates Diverse Perspectives: considers all points of view and needs of others; skillfully navigates conflict situations.
  3. Applies an Adaptive Mindset: takes a broad worldview; adapts approach to suit situation; innovates by leveraging differences.
  4. Optimises Talent: motivates others and supports their growth; joins forces for collective success across differences.
  5. Achieves Transformation: willing to confront difficult topics; brings people of all backgrounds along to achieve results.

Surrounding the Five Disciplines model are the individual’s biography - experiences that help open a leader’s eyes to the fact that employee needs are not all the same and cannot be effectively addressed the same way across the board.

Some of these are early experiences that expose leaders to a range of geographies, people, and contexts. Some of these experiences include: Growing up in a different country or region from the one they live and work in today; having parents who have done an overseas stint in business, not-for-profit, government, military, or missionary organisations; experiencing being in the minority or majority or in a fully racially or ethnically mixed environment. 

Not all leaders know how to leverage their biographies to lead others inclusively, this is a skill they have to learn and, those who do, gain an edge in their inclusion journey. And for those who did not have these early life events, they can seek out opportunities to immerse themselves in uncomfortable or new situations which expose them to diverse stakeholder groups. For example, stakeholders from different work units or across regional and global offices.  Communicating with an inquisitive approach in such exposures help to expand horizons, disrupt pre-conceived ideas and accelerate an inclusive mindset.   

It’s clear that the social challenges and uncertainty in the market are driving organisations across the globe to reassess the critical skills necessary to successfully lead and engage teams today.  But success will not happen overnight. It will take a comprehensive plan, grounded in the assessment and development of key leadership traits and competencies, and a mindset shift throughout the organisation.

Learn more about inclusive leadership. Read our new report: The 5 Disciplines of inclusive leaders.

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About the contributor

Lee Yen works with clients building organisation's capacity to manage change through the alignment of strategy, defining leadership behaviours, and empowering leaders and individuals. She brings two decades of diverse industry experience and business acumen, to translate and crystallise organisational requirements into concrete solutions. She is recognised for her pragmatism and creative collaboration to generate value and impact.

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