Addressing inequities has become the defining challenge of our time. Over the past few years, our foundations as a society have been shaken in fundamental ways. Weathering a pandemic and witnessing too many instances of social and racial injustice have exposed just how deeply discrimination and inequities are embedded in every aspect of society.
The future could intensify already existing disparities, but there is also an opportunity to finally get it right—to dig in and deconstruct the systems of inequity that have spread through our communities for far too long. The need for change is urgent, and we all have a stake in this work. But I have found that those in the position to make change happen are often either unaware there’s a problem, in denial that inequities exist, or throwing their hands up about the supposed complexity—or cost—of fixing the problem. With this mindset, we are not even scratching the surface of what’s possible.
To build a more inclusive and equitable future, leaders in positions of power and influence must grasp the urgency of their role in disrupting the status quo. There is no room for complacency. Business leaders who aren’t making an effort to become more inclusive, accountable, and socially responsible will fail to meet the needs and expectations of employees, customers, and society.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE AN INCLUSIVE LEADER
To be a leader in today’s ever-changing landscape requires learning, reflection, and most importantly, altering old habits and mindsets. Inclusive leaders lead with additional care, vigilance, and intention. They operate more personally, building connections with people at all levels and from all identity groups. They deeply understand that the status quo only works for some people, and that many other people have radically different workplace experiences.
Inclusive leaders understand their identities, privileges, and biases, and recognize how they have shaped how they view the world and the people around them. They employ that understanding to take a staunch stance against even the subtlest forms of prejudice and discrimination. They model the way for others to stand up to discrimination and inequity through their words and actions. Inclusive leaders are committed to the work of allyship. They align themselves in solidarity with marginalized groups and use their resources and social capital to help speed their impact.
But all of these actions start with a spark—that initial desire to evoke change, to do better. When you have that spark—that internal commitment to become a more inclusive leader—you start to see all the opportunities to support others unfold. You want to do more to contribute to lasting change. The hardest part about becoming an inclusive leader can be that initial work to switch the pilot light on, to become aware that you are already equipped with the ability to make a difference, and to grasp just how much your efforts are needed. To ignite that spark, you must look within to uncover your prejudices and biases and understand how they may contribute to systemic inequities. You must learn to overcome them. This can be a humbling journey of self-discovery that’s not always easy.
But leadership is uncomfortable by nature. If you aren’t pushing yourself to do more and encouraging others around you to do the same, then chances are you aren’t doing enough. One of the most important qualities of an inclusive leader is resilience—persisting in the face of risk. The true measure of leadership is not how an individual performs during the good times, but rather the strength, fortitude, and courage they display during times of crisis and uncertainty.
If you are a leader in your organization, you need to be willing to investigate what it means to lead in these times. Your skills, approach, and mindset will likely need to shift to address this new landscape. As leaders, if we don’t unpack and process how we are showing up at this moment in time, we will be unable to contribute in all the ways we are capable of.
Creating workplaces that are more equitable and inclusive is needed now more than ever. We have a unique opportunity to construct a different, better future. I believe that we each have the capacity to effect change, especially if we are leaders and have been sitting on the sidelines. Every single one of us is needed—not just to register our good intentions on paper or social media, but to actually do the work necessary for real change. We each have spheres of influence, and we leave much on the table every day when we don’t see our role in driving change.
It’s also important to remember that change takes time. Leaders love shortcuts and quick fixes, but change doesn’t always work like that. If you’re actively working to drive change, you have to be patient. I think a lot about failing forward, the agility and flexibility of getting feedback, adjusting, and trying again. What’s most important is to keep trying, to keep moving forward. Inclusive leadership isn’t a goal or a destination; it’s the embracing of a journey, where skills are built, day by day, experience by experience.
Jennifer Brown (she/her/hers), Wall Street Journal Best-Selling Author, Speaker and Founder & CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting