Nine Attributes of an Inclusive Leader


In recent weeks, we have been powerfully reminded of the need for inclusive leadership by every news broadcast and radio station, political discussion, social media post, and dining room table discussion from coast to coast. 

We recently invited a select group of clients to engage in what proved to be a heartfelt discussion about inclusive leadership. We wanted to know, what it is, what it looks like, and what behaviors inclusive leadership requires. In the course of our conversation, we asked what specific leadership behaviors ensure all team members have opportunities to grow, have a sense of belonging, have a voice, and feel accepted and valued for who they are. 

We discussed the lessons learned from the push for diversity within our teams and organizations. How we once felt that bringing together the collective capabilities and experiences of people of different cultural heritage, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, religions, political beliefs, and generations would be enough - and how we have learned that merely mixing people together did not resolve the challenges we are confronting right now. 

It also didn’t deliver on the promises of greater innovation and higher performance. We know now that being in the room is not enough. Every team member must feel as though they belong in the room and that their presence is desired. 

The group navigated through uncomfortable emotions and realizations, a shared sense of uncertainty, and a commitment to the importance of inclusivity. Chances are, if you lead others, you have been having similar thoughts and discussions. 

In the end, we determined that there are nine critical attributes of inclusive leaders - and that ultimately, each one is an attribute of exceptional leaders. 

1. Commitment

Inclusive leaders are comfortable in genuinely articulating their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). They challenge the way things have been done in the past, hold others accountable, and ensure DEI is a part of their personal and corporate values and priorities that are practiced daily as opposed to grand gestures every so often.

2. Awareness

Inclusive leaders are self-aware, and they act on that self-awareness. They seek feedback on whether others perceive them to be inclusive, especially from individuals who are different than they are to identify blind spots, strengths, and development areas.

They also acknowledge that their organizations, despite best intentions, have unconscious bias, but work diligently to put in place processes, policies, organizational and individual performance measures, and structures to mitigate the unconscious bias.

3. Humility

Leaders that are inclusive are humble about their capabilities, own up to mistakes, ask for feedback, and create the space for others to contribute. They are vulnerable about their weaknesses and share the efforts they are taking to improve. Inclusive leaders schedule regular check-ins with team members to ask how they make their team members feel. Team members want to know that their leaders are determined to address their biases.

4. Curiosity

Highly inclusive leaders demonstrate an open mindset and deep curiosity about others, listen without judgment, and seek with compassion to understand those around them. They have a hunger for the views of others to gain diverse perspectives and to optimize decision-making.

5. Collaboration

Perhaps one of the strongest links to foundational shifts, innovation, and customer responsiveness is collaboration. Inclusive leaders empower team members, value diversity of thinking and psychological safety, champion the uniqueness that each person brings to the team, and create an environment for team cohesion and thinking to flourish.

6. Cultural Intelligence

Leaders with high cultural intelligence can function effectively beyond cross-cultural situations. They are sensitive to a person’s culture and adapt as required. This includes understanding how their own culture might impact their worldview, how stereotypes and cultural assumptions might influence their expectations of others, and they adapt their behaviors appropriately. The Cultural Intelligence Center offers a wide selection of books and resources.

7. Empathy

Team members are looking for leaders that try to understand their viewpoint and experiences. Influential leaders listen, strive to understand and leave them feeling heard. Empathetic leaders are approachable, trustworthy, and show eagerness to help team members feel included.

8. Fairness

Inclusive leaders do not play favorites and do not manage from the top. They value and appreciate those they lead for who they are. They involve everyone and facilitate great ideas. They also understand that fairness and equality are not synonyms. 

An inclusive leader recognizes that they cannot give equal attention to all team members, but they humbly try to match needs and resources appropriately. They avoid subtle words and address acts and behaviors of exclusion by other team members and leaders.

9. Courage

Inclusive leaders need to be courageous! It requires courage to realize that we are never finished learning and developing as humans and as leaders. A fundamental behavior of an inclusive leader is the courage to speak up and challenge the status quo. It takes courage to admit that in order to be part of the change, we must be willing to confront our own unconscious biases. 

If we are to harness the superior performance of diverse teams, leaders must actively develop the above nine attributes in addition to championing inclusive leadership. By becoming determined to learn, adapt, and evolve your leadership skills you will be a critical role model for inclusive leadership within your teams and organizations. 

About the Author:

Tyra Bremer is a thought leader and visionary with the ability to connect with individuals at all levels within an organization. She serves as an Executive Coach and Director of Business Development at Stewart Leadership, an award-winning human capital consulting firm that has been enabling organizations to achieve optimal people results with a proven approach that aligns talent, culture, and strategy. Connect with her on LinkedIn.