What Inclusive Leaders Do

If you look around conference rooms, corporate boardrooms, and leadership teams, it’s clear that despite continued lip service to diversity, most businesses today still prefer the status quo when it comes to senior leadership roles. Much of this can be traced back to comfort level: SHAMBAUGH has found that people often feel safer when surrounded by those who are like-minded.

Some of the aversion to inclusion can also be found in a mentality of, “It doesn’t appear to be broken, so why fix it?” Some leaders may feel that if their profit lines are currently working, there’s no need to change what they’re doing at the leadership level. The problem with this assumption, though, is that frameworks quickly become outdated. The thinking styles that got you where you are today won’t get you where you’re trying to go in the future.

That said, many companies are beginning to accept the importance of diversity at the highest ranks. I recently spoke at a leadership forum in Europe and it was unanimous: everyone understood and could engage in a robust and intellectual conversation on why it’s important to have a diverse workforce. However, at the end of the discussion, I was asked the million-dollar question, which happens quite frequently after my talks: “How do we as leaders become more inclusive?”

It’s one thing to talk theoretically about this topic and another to really make it a part of a leader’s DNA. Here are some key strategies for being an inclusive leader:

  • Help layered teams succeed. SHAMBAUGH’s research has revealed that unsurprisingly, senior leaders often initially feel more comfortable collaborating with those who share a similar leadership style and problem-solving approach. However, we’ve found that companies get better results when leadership supports a broad range of diverse thinking perspectives, since these can lead teams to breakthrough solutions. With this in mind, inclusion needs to go beyond just creating workforce diversity. Gender and other types of demographic differences are of course critical in diverse teams, but inclusive leaders need to reach beyond demographics to empower those who have different thinking styles and experiences. The goal should be to facilitate a culture of “cognitive diversity,” which supports all kinds of differences in how employees think about, respond to, and tackle challenges.
  • Mind your bias. Everyone is prone to bias, including leaders. We are all running fast in our day-to-day jobs and our brains are trained to take shortcuts to help us make the most of our pressured hours—but this can result in making hasty assumptions about a person or situation. To lead more inclusively, you must be on the lookout for your own brand of unconscious bias. If you look around and see you are surrounded primarily or exclusively by others who share your perspective, then it’s important to understand how your bias manifests with your employee teams and leadership groups. Inclusive leaders keep informed and maintain an objective and healthy perspective by tapping a wide range of different viewpoints. As tempting as it may be, it’s important for leaders to avoid assembling teams, networks, and boards that represent only a narrow range of perspectives. Draw on the insights of different types of thinkers. Be vigilant about how your decisions affect who gets heard and who gets excluded from the discussion.
  • Be open to alternatives. Is a traditional hierarchical structure at your company silencing some voices and keeping them “off deck”? Inclusion can’t thrive without the ability of everyone in the workplace to experience a sense of psychological safety. Yet leading from a hierarchical mindset makes this challenging to achieve. Instead, find ways to create opportunities for people to express their opinions even if they outrank you. Inclusive leaders not only remain open to hearing alternative approaches, but they are also willing to rethink their positions and change their mind when it’s warranted.
  • Prioritize company accountability. Inclusive leaders care about cultivating a culture of accountability from the top down. What’s key here is ensuring that leadership and management create and tap into cognitively diverse teams, while holding others in the organization accountable for inclusiveness. Managers should be required to consider a cognitively diverse slate of talented candidates for leadership opportunities and other types of challenges. Don’t forget to incorporate inclusive leadership competencies into all development and training initiatives.
  • Make room on the stage. Shift your viewpoint that leaders must dominate the environment and loudly take center stage. Inclusive leaders know the importance of encouraging others’ voices to be heard—including quieter voices—and creating opportunities for this to happen. If you want to help create the kind of culture where cognitive diversity and inclusion thrive, then start to share the spotlight more humbly despite traditional notions of command-and-control leadership.
  • Be courageous. The “people like us” mentality may feel good to the ego, but in the long run, it doesn’t foster the type of inclusive environment you need for business success. Letting go of your need for “mini-me’s” may be outside of your comfort zone, but it’s worth stretching on this one. You don’t want to screen out the diverse range of thinkers that fuel innovation. So be brave: by creating a work environment where all types of thinkers feel safe to take risks and fail, you can help your teams find their own sense of courage.

Inclusive leadership is simpler than you think. In a nutshell, it’s about giving everyone the opportunity to be heard. Bringing all voices on deck facilitates the emergence of leadership teams that can leverage diverse strengths, cultivate innovation, and become part of the cultural change that’s needed for work teams and organizations alike to succeed 

Build Inclusive Leadership Within Your Team or Organization!


 To learn more about SHAMBAUGH’s key offerings visit: www.shambaughleadership.com

Rebecca is author of the best-selling books It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky FloorLeadership Secrets of Hillary Clinton, and Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results. 


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Rebecca Shambaugh

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