Despite advances in diversity that have occurred in the past, women continue to be excluded from top leadership positions in the corporate environment. Today’s diverse and constantly changing environment requires more than masculinity as the norm and a command and control leadership approach. It needs a leadership style that will advocate for the inclusivity of traditionally excluded voices in leadership. It needs a leadership style to enhance the four critical processes that leadership mobilizes (setting a mission, actualizing goals, sustaining commitment, and responding to change) (Raelin, 2003).
In this paper, I will explore the tenets of the inclusive leadership style and its distinct characteristics and demonstrate its ability to have “all voices on deck” in top leadership. I will also explore potential barriers to effectively applying inclusive leadership.
As a millennial woman of color from the African New American community in the United States, inclusivity in leadership is deeply personal. It is an issue that I constantly struggle with, and in helping others not feel like it’s a “solo struggle.” The reality is that African refugee woman in America is a rare commodity in higher management, given that women, in general, are already underrepresented.
Additionally, the representation of leaders is inherently gendered in the current leadership landscape. Leaders are judged based on stereotypes and expectations grounded in “masculinist perspectives about leadership” (Shea & Renn, 2017, p. 84). This reality shapes my leadership opportunities and how I would choose to participate. I hope the inclusive leadership style will expand the discussion beyond just the gendered idea of inclusion to include other minorities, particularly the newest member of the U.S. society, refugee/immigrant leaders.
What is Inclusive Leadership?
Inclusive leadership is about including everyone. This leadership style focuses on “having the courage to take conscious steps to break down barriers for people at risk of being excluded from society ” (Bortini, Paci, Rise & Rojnik, 2016, p. 19). African refugee/immigrant women are among the groups at risk of exclusion in top leadership, representing different backgrounds, experiences, and abilities. The inclusive leadership approach appreciates diversity and the contributions of everyone. Furthermore, this leadership approach encourages full engagement in all aspects of organizational functioning. The objective, the authors added, is “to create, change and innovate while balancing everybody’s needs” (p. 9). Essentially, inclusive leadership is centered around relationships and valuing differences.
Feelings of exclusion are common in my leadership journey and for many other women, people of color, immigrants, and refugees. I struggle to fit in and, when unsuccessful, feel cut off from full involvement. According to Bortini et al., “one of the primary needs of individuals at risk of exclusion is to be accepted as they are and not to be regarded as an equal, able to contribute with all of their abilities” (p. 14). Immigrants and refugees can face additional barriers to inclusion, including cultural (language, social life, religious) differences. Structural and socio-economic barriers are also contributing factors to exclusion practices. Feeling left out can be exacerbated by a hostile environment in leadership.
Inclusive leadership is necessary for all sectors of society and all individuals, particularly those in top management. Inclusive leadership challenges and empowers people because it is based on everyone’s inherent worth, human rights, awareness of interconnectedness, recognition that power influences inclusion efforts, and shared responsibilities (Bortini et al., 2016).
What Do Inclusive Leaders Do?
Dillon and Bourke (2016) identified six key characteristics that distinguish inclusive leaders. The first characteristic is commitment.
Champions of inclusive leadership are motivated by their values, including a “deep-seated sense of fairness that, for some, is rooted in personal experience” (p. 3). Inclusive leaders hold themselves accountable for creating a welcoming culture in their organizations. They devote time, energy, and resources to nurture an inclusive workforce.
Courage is the second characteristic found in inclusive leaders. They demonstrate courage in challenging organizations to think beyond homogeneous attitudes and practices. Another way they show courage is by not being afraid to exhibit humility; courage and humility allow leaders to accept their limitations and seek guidance from others in overcoming them. They admit to not having all the answers, which for some leaders is very difficult (Dillon & Bourke, 2019).
The third characteristic that distinguishes inclusive leaders is cognizance of bias. Inclusive leaders understand that personal and organizational biases can negatively impact diversity and inclusion. As a result, they implement policies, processes, and structures to prevent the infiltration of such biases in the workplace or any organization. The fourth characteristic found in inclusive leaders is curiosity. This includes being open-minded and having a passion for learning, and a desire for exposure to diverse perspectives. “Inclusive leaders’ ability to engage in respectful questioning, actively listen to others, and synthesize a range of ideas makes the people around them feel valued, respected, and represented” (Dillon & Bourke, 2016, p. 4.).
Cultural intelligence is the fifth characteristic identified in inclusive leaders. These leaders understand that knowledge of other cultures is fundamental in fostering inclusiveness. Cultural intelligence allows a leader to respond better to different cultural norms and behaviors and enables leaders to adjust their style accordingly. Additionally, they understand how culture can shape world views and stereotypes. This is very important in setting and communicating expectations in any organization. Lastly, inclusive leaders are collaborative and able to share ideas willingly. A psychologically safe environment is critical to successful collaboration where “people feel empowered to express their opinions freely with the group” (p. 5). According to (Raelin, 2003, p. 131 ), “to create an environment that offers psychological safety is a high task,” especially “when covering up has been the dominant reaction to contrary or contradictory information.” Furthermore, leaders pay attention to team processes to allow diverse thinking to occur.
Potential Barriers to Inclusive Leadership
Although the benefits of inclusive leadership are clear, more competent teams, better decision making, effective problem solving, better financial gains, and customer satisfaction, to name a few, common barriers can hinder an organization’s ability/efforts to implement inclusive leadership practices. These barriers can prevent companies from becoming inclusive and prevent them from making the most of any diversity within their organization. According to Gully and Phillips (2012), common obstacles are the “like me” bias, stereotypes, the perceived threat of loss, and ethnocentrism. As described below, these exist in many organizations and can get in the way of organizations’ efforts to maximize their diversity. The authors noted that these barriers can arise from decision-making, psychological factors, and employees’ lack of awareness. Therefore, organizations must understand and proactively address these barriers to minimize their impact and enhance inclusion.
Although it is human nature to associate with those like ourselves, the “like me” bias tendencies can negatively impact recruitment by focusing solely on people who look like the existing staff. This can contribute to the unwillingness to employ people of different backgrounds, creating a culture of ingroup and outgroup dynamics in an organizational setting. The result is a homogeneous work environment. This can be a disservice to efforts to increase diversity and inclusion.
According to Gully and Phillips(2012), stereotypes, “beliefs about individual or group based on the idea that everyone in that group will behave the same” (p. 52), have the power to diminish inclusion opportunities for minorities, women, individuals with disabilities, and older workers. Stereotypes are incredibly harmful due to the judgemental tendencies implied and the lack of consideration of individual uniqueness. Sometimes, the results can be subtle racism, sexism, prejudice, and discomfort. These beliefs can determine what makes good/poor employees, control the distribution of employment opportunities, and undermine diversity efforts.
Another common setback can come from those who perceive inclusive efforts as threatening their career opportunities. The authors further noted that this perceived threat of loss could lead members of groups traditionally the predominant employees of a particular workforce or occupation to grow anxious or angry. The need to protect their prospects can impede those of others (Gully and Phillips, 2012). The authors also noted that the perceived threat of loss “influences employees’ willingness to help mentor minority employees, recruit diverse candidates for positions, and support diversity initiatives” (p. 52).
Ethnocentrism, a belief that one’s language, native country, and cultural rules/norms are superior to all others, is similarly impactful in a negative way to an inclusiveness attitude. Organizations are susceptible to these challenges, especially when advocating for inclusive leadership practices. However, the extent to which an organization will succeed in its inclusive efforts is due to consistent efforts to be vigilant about these challenges.
Inclusive leadership is a promising model for capitalizing on the existing diversity in the modern workforce. This model helps leaders to lead innovative teams and, at the same time, create an environment where people feel they can bring their whole selves to work. Acting inclusively is linked to employees’ increased satisfaction, performance, commitment, motivation, creativity, innovation, engagement, and well-being. These outcomes benefit both employees and organizations.
Additionally, inclusive leadership has the potential to positively contribute to efforts to engage groups that are traditionally excluded from senior leadership. When the organization recognizes the value of its senior leadership team reflecting its workforce’s diversity, inclusivity principles need to be embedded and implemented throughout the employment environment. For employees of a more diverse workforce to follow and respect an organization’s leadership, the inclusive leadership model is more likely to achieve that result.
Bortini, P., Paci, A., Rise, A., & Rojnik, I. (2019). INCLUSIVE LEADERSHIP: Theoretical Framework. Retrieved 10 August 2019, from https://inclusiveleadership.eu/il_theoreticalframework_en.pdf
Dillon, B., & Bourke, J. (2016). 6 Characteristics of Inclusive Leaders. Retrieved 20 August 2019, from https://deloitte.wsj.com/cio/2016/05/04/6-characteristics-of-inclusive-leaders/
Elliott, Carole & Stead, Valerie. (2008). Learning from Leading Women’s Experience: Towards a Sociological Understanding. Leadership. 4. 159-180. 10.1177/1742715008089636.
Phillips, J. and Gully, S. (2012). Organizational Behavior. 1st ed. Mason: South-Western Cengage Learning.
Raelin, J. A. (2003). Creating leaderful organizations: How to Bring out Leadership in Everyone. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler
Inclusive Leadership. By Bahati, B. (2019) Content and user contributions on this site are licensed under CC BY: Attribution with attribution required.