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Inclusive leadership in action

19 October 2021

To be a truly successful leader in the 21st century you need to be an inclusive leader. We take a look at what inclusive leadership means and how to put it into action in this article.

There should no longer be distinction between a leader and an inclusive leader. If we make inclusive leadership an add-on or extra credit to leadership, we are playing into the misconception that D&I is something that’s ‘nice to have’ or what leaders work on when the ‘real’ job is done. This is true whether you are leading an entire organisation or leading a legal team.

Understand your blind-spots

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 there was huge uptick in organisations seeking D&I professionals. That may have had positive aspects but in some cases, this meant outsourcing the need to be an inclusive leader to the person with the D&I job title. That’s wrong; all leaders need to think about how they can be more inclusive. If you don’t think that there’s a job to be done, then look again – you probably have blinkers on! These may be hard for you to see because your background, upbringing and life experiences have firmly welded your blinkers to your head.

The best way to see your own blind-spots more clearly is to listen to a whole range of your employees and understand the diverse perspectives of others. It can be particularly enlightening if you focus on understanding behavioural examples, especially around micro-aggressions in everyday interactions. You need to be able to be self-reflective and understand your own biases, but in both hearing others and understanding yourself, empathy is key. 

Understanding to action

Further to the above, understanding alone will never be enough, to become an inclusive leader you need to be able to translate this understanding into actions and behaviours. These need to be constantly reinforced so that over time they will seem natural. Don’t feel that you must do something earth shattering – simply looking at smaller day to day hacks such as how meetings are run can be more compelling as that leads to constant reinforcement of inclusive values. Inclusive meetings allow everyone to feel comfortable that their ideas can be heard. This is where empathy and listening will be key for leaders to figure out what that means across the team and in new hybrid working environments.

No struggle, no progress

It’s also important for inclusive leaders to know that inclusion does not mean making everyone happy. Frederick Douglass the 19th century US social reformer said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

To create a culture which places D&I at its core, leaders will need to make difficult decisions and some of these may disadvantage those who have traditionally had more advantages. Inclusive leaders may need to make some hard decisions and be prepared to ride out the discomfort. Large scale changes will be more difficult. If we look back at the civil rights movement in the US with the luxury of our 2021 perspective, it seems logical that Black people should have equal rights and desegregation should be abolished. But if we read the stories of the schoolchildren like Ruby Bridges who became the first Black child to attend an all-white school in Louisiana, that victory was traumatic and hard won and certainly not making everyone happy. Bridges was greeted by crowds of protesters, including a woman carrying a miniature coffin with a black doll in it. She had to be guarded by federal agents and for many years only one teacher would agree to teach her.

By trying to keep everyone happy, particularly those who have historically benefitted from our societal and organisational systems, positive change will not happen. This can be difficult for general counsel, who may be inclined to avoid risk or change but without questioning the status quo, whether in your own team, wider organisation, or suppliers your culture cannot become inclusive.

This is perhaps one of the hardest lessons for leaders, including legal leaders, in trying to be inclusive leaders – realising that there will be discomfort in creating new ways of behaving.
But if you are going to be an inclusive leader you must be wholly committed to that change. 

Stuck in the middle?

You also need to have a zero-tolerance approach to those who do not comply to your vision of an inclusive culture. An easy mistake which many leaders fall into is assuming that because they value inclusivity all their direct reports will be inclusive leaders as well.

A report from Wharton School of Business in June this year showed that middle managers are the lynchpin in success or failure of D&I as they: “are responsible for the daily operation of the enterprise and are tasked with carrying out policies that directly affect the lives of employees. That discretion over policy, along with their close interaction with employees, gives them great power in dictating workplace culture.”

Leaders need to ensure that D&I is permeating throughout their organisations and teams and does not get stuck at this middle level. If it does, that makes a disconnect between what leadership says and the lived experiences of many diverse employees. 

D&I is at the core of a successful company because it produces more ideas and satisfaction; together those two qualities create more innovation and competitive advantage and that’s something every leader should aim for.

Author: Dr. Catherine McGregor

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