Most people think of leadership as a formal role that entails being in charge and having power over others, having a high professional status, and a successful career. This makes leadership rather exclusive, and by definition, there must be a small number of leaders relative to the much larger number of followers, subordinates, etc.
While all this is true, scientists tend to think about leadership in a different way. Fundamentally, they view leadership as a psychological process that enables individuals—who may or may not be formally in charge—to improve collective actions. According to this view, leadership is the ability to influence others so they can set aside their individual or selfish agendas and unite with others to work as a cohesive unit, achieving something they wouldn’t be able to achieve alone. In that sense, good leadership is in the DNA of any effective group, team, or organization, even societies at large.
It also means that the essence of leadership is inclusive rather than exclusive. To be an effective leader, you have to be able to create a strong synergy out of diverse, even opposite, individual elements. In many parts of the world, diversity is a given today. Demographic heterogeneity is increasing. It’s been a universal trend for decades in global cities and organizations. Leaders will have no alternative other than to manage for diversity. The main challenge companies face today is not so much to attract people who are different, but to ensure that those people are treated fairly and respected. Ideally, differences are not just tolerated but celebrated. This won’t happen if they focus on hiring for “culture fit” unless their culture embraces uniqueness.
No factor plays a bigger role in creating a company’s culture than its leadership. This is why savvy organizations have realized that developing inclusive leadership is the best way to create a workplace in which diversity is turned into a competitive advantage, fueling creativity and innovation, and upgrading both meritocracy and social justice in society.
Obviously this can’t happen overnight, and you can’t just press a button to make all of your leaders master inclusivity, which in effect means becoming supercompetent and talented at their job. As I noted in my last book, when it comes to leadership, competence is the exception rather than the norm.
There are really just three key factors necessary for building a sustainable and long-term inclusive leadership culture.
Focus on critical, foundational qualities
Companies spend much more developing rather than selecting leaders. But the biggest determinant of development—how much you can train or coach people—is how much potential they have to begin with. When leaders are selected for the right foundational qualities, both internally and externally, it will be much easier to develop them.
The critical foundational competencies are humility, curiosity, empathy, altruism, and integrity. Leaders need to be open-minded, not assume that they are always right and others always wrong, and able to connect with others on an emotional level. All organizations are different, and every leader is a unique human being. Yet the ones who are interested and able to unlock and create an inclusive climate in their teams and organizations have a significantly higher probability of having these qualities.
Leverage the power of data-driven feedback
Even if you are not naturally prewired for humility, curiosity, empathy, altruism, and integrity, there’s always a chance to develop these traits. You can—if you want to, and if you have the opportunity to receive data-driven feedback on your potential and performance—make significant gains in all these competencies.
As scientific reviews have highlighted, the best way to develop these leadership competencies is by (a) understanding your natural personality (so you know what your default tendencies are) and (b) getting a sense of how your peers and employees see you. If you, for instance, have a natural tendency to be arrogant and self-important, and your 360-degree feedback suggests that you rarely listen, always talk, and dismiss people who don’t agree with you, there’s an opportunity to develop some humility. Coaching is key to succeeding, but a bigger key is to have the will to change and get better. The old joke in coaching is: “How many psychologists do you need to change a lightbulb?” The answer: “One, so long as the lightbulb really wants to change.”
Use culture as a reinforcer
Getting the right people who have potential into leadership roles, and coaching them to be more empathetic, humble, honest, etc., is only half of the equation. The other half is to reward those who drive progress and sanction those who hinder it.
You get what you measure, so unless you have clear metrics in place to reward leaders for having higher levels of trust, morale, fairness, integrity, and productivity, there’s no point pretending to care about inclusive leadership, or leadership competence more broadly. Fortunately, the most talented people in the world will probably want to work in places where diversity is a genuine cultural strength. They want to be in places where individuals can learn from those who are very different from them, and where fairness and justice coexist with excellence and innovation to eclipse nepotism, unfairness, and elitism.
There’s no question that, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, there’s a lot of room for improvement. I’m not sure we can find a single organization in the world that is a paradigm for unbiased meritocracy, just like there’s no culture (in organizations or nations) that is free from prejudice or bias. And sometimes change happens for the wrong reasons, as when companies feel the pressure to act in certain ways because not doing so will make them look bad. But that in itself is indicative of how much culture has shifted over the past few decades.
Hopefully, in the future, when people look back at our current times, they will find us totally backward, racist, and sexist. That will mean that we’ve continued to evolve. Of course, the real hope is that the right leaders will make this happen much sooner.