Chapter 2: Lead and Learn: Inclusive Leadership | The Diversity Playbook

“Reach in for the stars; go within yourself and search for the hidden, latent, buried and unknown talents that you can bring out and use to lighten, brighten the darkness or minimise the setbacks of people around you”

Dr Christiana Ayoka Mary Thorpe

When it comes to leading, we must always keep developing.  Leaders who want to see inclusion and diversity progress in their organisation understand that the process starts with them.  For example, when Satya Nadella came into his role as CEO of  Microsoft in 2014, he was determined to enhance the organisation with a culture of learning, especially in the areas are of inclusion and innovation. The encouragement he gave to the company was to  “always keep learning. You stop doing useful things if you don't  learn.” Too often the inclusion and diversity agendas are limited to the HR departments of companies, rather than the strategic growth and innovation domains where they also belong. The C-suite and boards who take personal ownership of inclusion and diversity are the ones who see real and tangible progress made in their business.  Unfortunately, it often takes something going wrong, such as a  sexual harassment lawsuit, or negative press coverage, before the need for change is acknowledged. The reputational, financial and personal risks of homogeneity and exclusion are issues that smart leaders take seriously and anticipate. They also see the multiple business opportunities that an inclusion and diversity lens can bring to their business. Leaders set the tone for other people to follow. If you can be a more authentic leader, you will naturally create a more inclusive business that can optimise diversity. 

Representative Leadership 

When it comes to leadership: how you lead is as important as who is leading. Progress on inclusion and diversity can be made when the leader at the top becomes more inclusive, even if they are from a dominant group. Much has been made about who is leading an organisation, given the continued under-representation of women and ethnic minorities at the top.

The need for representative leadership that reflects the communities,  consumers and stakeholders in our society has never been greater.  However, representation doesn’t necessarily lead to inclusion. From recent research at Equality Group on stereotypes in leadership, they found that a quarter of UK women felt that female bosses express more gender bias towards women than male managers.8 This counterintuitive trend has also been shown in research by Dolly Chugh at NYU Stern. Women, as a whole, show stronger implicit gender bias than men and black Americans are as likely to show pro-white implicit race bias as pro-black implicit race bias.9 However, it is worth keeping in mind that White people very reliably show pro-White implicit bias, while Black people are more even on their results – being about as likely to show pro-White as pro-Black bias. 

Bias and Balance 

One of the reasons for greater gender or racial bias in certain groups is the pressure to assimilate into the dominant cultural narrative.  Equality Group research shows that a fifth of UK women feel they have to present themselves in more stereotypically masculine ways to succeed in their jobs. To be accepted in the traditionally masculine world of work, women not only have to play by the rules of the game, they have to excel at the game. Yet, this pressure on women to cultivate traditionally masculine qualities while remaining inherently female is a double standard with unexpected benefits.  It has taught female leaders to be more resourceful, notes Bobbi  

Thomason at the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School. Aware of facing greater scrutiny, women are more likely to consult a wider network when making decisions while ensuring they are backed up by evidence. As women in business have learnt how to be more like men, perhaps we need more men in business to learn how to be more like women. A combination of the best of masculine and feminine traits is one that takes us closer to an inclusive form of leadership. 

Inclusive Leadership Traits 

What are the core characteristics of inclusive leadership? There are many different frameworks. The models used by some companies list twenty-plus behaviours.10 The most effective are memorable and meaningful enough to be implemented daily. As a starting point,  let’s explore six core characteristics of inclusive leaders. These are outlined below but can be adapted to the values and language of any organisation. 

  1. Positive commitment; taking personal responsibility for change, based on the business case for diversity and inclusion,  and a deeply rooted sense of fairness. 
  2. Courage and humility; fearlessly challenging attitudes and practices that yield homogeneity, while acknowledging personal limits and seeking input from other people. 
  3. Awareness of bias; continually making an effort to identify blind spots and ingrained assumptions that get in the way of objective decision-making. 
  4. Curiosity and active listening; institutionalising open-mindedness by listening carefully to different perspectives so all employees feel valued and respected.
  5. Emotional and cultural intelligence; developing enough self-awareness to respond with sensitivity to different personalities and cultural contexts.
  6. Collaborative and generous; understanding that teams work best when people feel empowered to share their opinions while encouraging diverse perspectives.

At Microsoft, Satya Nadella emphasised the qualities of emotional intelligence and active listening. These are two traits that might traditionally have been referred to as feminine qualities. Early on in his leadership journey, Satya identified them as key competitive advantages. One of the experiences that he believes contributed more than anything to strengthen his sense of empathy was when he became a parent. His first child, born when Satya and his wife were 25 and 29 years old respectively, suffers from Cerebral palsy which prevents him from speaking and moving his limbs.  Nadella has said; “At first, I did nothing but ask myself; Why did this happen to me?, then I began to understand that absolutely nothing had happened to me. In reality, this thing had happened to my son and for me, it was time to see life through his eyes and to do what I was supposed to, as a parent and a father”.11 This lesson in greater empathy at home, then translated further into his work and became a priority in business for him every day. 

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