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Promoting Diversity Through Inclusive Leadership

We need diversity; diversity drives innovation, and diversity is key to our growth as individuals, and as organizations. There is a strong business case for diversity, but to make it sustainable we also need inclusion. It is not enough to bring different people together, but we must create an inclusive environment that embraces people’s differences and allows every person to thrive. As individuals, we can promote increased diversity through inclusive leadership, without necessarily having the formal title or role of a leader. The first step can be to become aware of our own biases, and make a conscious effort to not let those biases impact our actions.

The benefits of diversity

An organization needs diversity to stay relevant, and a smart organization leverages internal differences as a competitive advantage. For organizations, whether they are for-profit or not, diversity is especially important when talking about innovation and adaptation.

Are there any benefits of diversity for the individual? Interestingly enough, there is research that suggests that diversity makes us smarter. Working in a diverse group actually forces us to work harder, and to critically review our work, thinking of alternative ideas and solutions before presenting it to another group member. We would be less inclined to engage in such scrutiny in a homogeneous group where we would anticipate no disagreement. I would also argue that working in a diverse organization is more stimulating and interesting, but there is no question that diversity is hard and can create conflict too.

Inclusive leadership

I think of diversity as having different pieces, and inclusion as bringing those different pieces together and creating one whole.

“ Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Inclusion is about creating an environment that supports and encourages diversity; an environment where everyone can thrive and be happy. Unfortunately, diverse environments are not automatically inclusive, but it takes leadership to make them inclusive. Inclusive leadership, on the other hand, drives diversity. An inclusive environment will attract different people with different strengths, and different weaknesses; people who complement each other and make the group stronger. Most organizations are probably more diverse than they are aware of. The question is what they are doing to embrace it, and to capitalize on it.

Being an inclusive leader

A leader is someone who people choose to follow. You cannot be a leader without followers, and you cannot decide for people whom they should follow. That is, in my mind, the beauty of leadership and being a leader: you must earn it and you can lose it at anytime. To me, a leader is not a manager or a supervisor. I think of a leader as a spokesperson that speaks on behalf of their followers, making sure their voices are heard and their interests safeguarded. A leader is someone who advocates for their group while providing direction, support and encouragement. A leader is a guide that helps their followers explore new paths, pointing out interesting sights along the way and highlighting potential dangers.

What does it mean to be an inclusive leader? I think inclusive leadership hinges on two things: 

  • Providing a safe environment
  • Self-awareness in the leadership

To embrace diversity, we must ensure people are comfortable displaying diversity, and that will only happen in an environment that is safe, non-judgemental, and supportive. An inclusive leader must establish trust. Part of that is speaking up. If you see behaviour that is not inclusive you must speak up and act. You need to be the role model of inclusive leadership that other individuals mimic.

Being an inclusive leader also requires a high level of self-awareness. For example, we all have biases, but an inclusive leader must be aware of their biases and try to minimize the impact of them. An inclusive leader also needs to be aware of their leadership style: does your style only fit people who are like you? Increasing your self-awareness can be uncomfortable since we sometimes learn things about ourselves that we do not like. Try to be open to the good and the bad, and be kind to yourself. The purpose of feedback is not to make us feel good; it is supposed to help us grow.

Keep in mind that a leader is not a manager, and you can be an inclusive leader without having a formal leadership title. If you are a leader, take your followers down a path that embraces diversity and allows everyone to grow and be content. Make your inclusive leadership deliberate and purposeful.

Food for thought

I do not think leadership is something you achieve and then you are done; it is a continuous journey. There are two stops I would like to suggest that you make on your inclusive leadership journey:

  • Do Catalyst’s inclusive leadership self-assessment
  • Take the Harvard Implicit Association Test

The world is constantly changing, and if we want to have an impact on the direction of the change, we must be part of the change.

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