It seems that inclusive leadership is all the buzz these days. For many organizations, it is a concept on which all their leadership development programs are founded. But what is it, really, and how do you create it?

As leaders, our job is dual: To maximize results today and, at the same time, to create a strong, sustainable future. And all this in a context of a marketplace already reeling with social and political agitation, disruptive technological innovation and transformation, and workplace dynamics that keep shifting as new generations enter the workplace.

We all look to our leaders — in organizations as well as in our society — to help us make sense of the world. We all want to feel like we belong, like what we do matters and is valued, and that our contribution can make a difference, regardless of our background.

When you put all these elements together, it’s easy to see that a leader today has to manage an unprecedented wide range of issues and problems. But no one person is an expert, no single person has the experience and skills to deal with tomorrow’s changes and problems alone.

We are, therefore, seeing a shift in the leadership model: from the leader being the person who was the most expert or experienced, who could “command and control,” to those who also have an engaging vision for the future and are able to inspire and mobilize people from different generations, countries, cultures and other demographics to work hard toward that vision. The ability to identify and interpret even the weakest signals, coming from a huge variety of different sources and people, has become one of the most important skills for anyone in a leadership role today. While the leader is no longer the “smartest person in the room” in all areas, they need to be able to ignite those that are.

This is the core of inclusive leadership: a way to lead that allows leaders to harness collective knowledge, perspectives and wisdom, to spark innovation and to mobilize and focus effort toward a shared vision.

Working with my clients over the years, I have seen five traits that inclusive leaders all share, including:

  1. Humility. While this sounds obvious, many leaders struggle with accepting and really understanding that despite all they have achieved, the world is changing so fast, and they have to continue to learn and grow and change — sometimes from people who are younger than you, or from people with a different background or more skills in certain areas. It is difficult to admit when you are wrong, ask for feedback to improve and change with agility, but today it is critical for leaders to be able to do so, and show that they are doing so.
  2. Accept that they have invisible and biases themselves. This is one of the most difficult things I see leaders come to terms with – to accept, at a visceral level, that they have biases, preferences, ways of being that make them naturally want to listen more to some ideas and less to others, to give more share of voice to some and not so much to others.  Inclusive leaders work incessantly to expand their frame of references, and to remove their biases in processes and systems because they know that all individuals have blind spots that are almost impossible to eliminate.
  3. Actively create psychological safety. If you look at organizations that have to perform in high-stress environments — from emergency rescue operations to high-stakes sports, a key tenet is that anyone who has an idea can be heard. Rank or position does not matter. In a corporate environment where teams are multigenerational, multifunctional and multicultural, leaders need to ensure they are creating environments that foster the open sharing of, deep listening to, discussing of and even disagreeing with different ideas. Organizations need to engage their employees in meaningful ways so that good ideas can be picked up and built upon. Leaders have to ask themselves, “How do I create this space where people can speak up, hear/offer disagreement without it being a put down?”; “What do I need to do so my team feels they can take risks and make mistakes and not be judged?”
  4. Visible and genuine commitment to listening, learning, and sharing with a diverse range of people. Inclusive leaders spend a lot of time listening and learning. They are constantly curious about why people think the way they do, and are deeply empathetic to those surrounding them. They are able to listen to a huge variety of sources without judgement, and are able to bring people together and help create meaningful connections. They are able to consistently and regularly articulate authentic commitment to diversity, show vulnerability, challenge the status quo, hold others accountable and make diversity and inclusion a personal priority.
  5. Courageous. They are able, with kindness and care, to have difficult conversations; they are not afraid to say they don’t know something or don’t understand something; they are not afraid to say they need more time and ask for input. This modelling is key to facilitating open environments and normalizing this behavior for the entire organization.

Is there one trait more important than the other? The simple answer is: it depends. Like so many other things, behavior is contextual, and so which specific trait gains ascendancy will depend on the situation. However, what I have found is that the first three are the drivers of everything else. I have found that when leaders genuinely and visibly are humble and aware of their growth areas and vulnerabilities and they speak about and visibly work on them, they generate a sense of acceptance and engagement from employees.

Seems easy, right? Unfortunately, research shows that there is a gap between how inclusive a leader is perceived to be, and how they inclusive they perceive themselves to be.  So, how can you close this gap?

While there are many ways, here are some of my favorites:

  • Share the feedback you have received with your teams and organization.
  • Visibly and actively seek out perspectives different from yours — whether solving for big problems or small ones.
  • Create opportunities to meet and speak to people of different levels, functions and backgrounds. Listen to them.
  • Be grateful and remember to thank people for their work. Yes, thank them.

Today, leaders cannot leave this up to chance. Inclusive leadership, the ability to make people feel listened to and valued, is critical to anyone who would like to harness the talents of our increasingly rich and diverse talent pool because the more people feel included, the more they will share their ideas, work seamlessly with others and go the extra mile for you — all of which we need to move organizations forward successfully.