The key to success in today’s technology-saturated, complex, and adapt-or-die environment is cohesive and disciplined teams. Standard chain of command, pyramid-shaped organizational structures are no longer sufficient. We need people and teams to adapt, act on disciplined initiative, and solve and prevent problems at their own level. And today’s cohesive teams are inclusive teams.

Today’s leaders need to be inclusive ones. So, regardless of rank, position, or industry / field, we need to talk about inclusive leadership.

A note about the structure of this article: You’ll notice numerous bulletized lists throughout the below sections. We’ve structured it this way to keep points concise to maximize the ability to address robust sets of ideas while not overburdening readers with an unnecessarily long piece.

Why Inclusive Leadership Matters

To dive further into why inclusive leadership matters towards building cohesive teams, we encourage you to consider a few additional points:

  • Today’s generations require increased socialization investiture: Despite any personal opinions on today’s emerging generations (Millennials and Z), the fact is they desire to bring more of themselves to the organizations and communities they join. When socializing (or onboarding) new members to our teams, they desire to bring more of their existing skills, values, and attitudes to the team, rather than be stripped (divestiture) of those to be fully remade (more like the military). Leaders must be inclusive to the who they bring to the team and what they bring.
  • Hire, develop, and retain talent: Many leaders and organizations struggle because they seek out and hire quality talent, only to limit that talent through restrictive processes and guidance. Many people join organizations and teams for their reputation and ideals, but leave them not because of issues with the organization, but because of issues with leadership. Inclusive leaders are a key way organizations better retain the quality talent they hire and develop.
  • Psychological safety: People who feel more included and valued are more willing to speak up, commit, and collaborate within and across the team. Inclusiveness reduces psychological barriers to collaboration and problem-solving. You can also learn more about leadership and psychological safety HERE.
  • It enables team adaptiveness: Inclusiveness is a critical capability to adapt to diverse people, environments, and incoming talent.

Who Inclusive Leaders Are

We often conceptualize leadership into attributes (who leaders are) and competencies (behaviors, what they do). I see that model applicable in defining inclusive leadership as well. This is true because inclusive leaders must be authentic, not being merely motivated to be inclusive as a mechanism to improve performance results or to be culturally relevant today. Inclusive leaders internalize genuine attitudes and care for others – it is ingrained in who we are. Inclusive leaders are:

  • Self-aware about biases: We all have unique perceptions and biases imprinted on our DNA. We were born with some of it and learned the rest through life-long socialization. But the more we become personally aware of the unique lenses on how we view life, the more effective we can be at leveraging or mitigating them. Inclusive leaders actively seek to become more aware of our biases to become more effective at leading and influencing people. We can do that through knowledge gleaned from surveys or from soliciting feedback from others.
  • Humble: I love C.S Lewis’s definition of humility when he said, “it is not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less.” Humility encourages our people-orientation and love for others. As leaders, we recognize that we are not the center of attention or the object of others’ service. Humility encourages others to speak up.
  • Curious: The bottom line is that people are interested in those that are interested in them. Inclusive leaders are genuinely curious about others and their ideas. We have an open mind, listen to better understand, and listen without judgement. We are curious about ideas too, recognizing that people have good intentions when they share their ideas.
  • Empathetic: This improves the intimate bond between leader and their people. I always go back to the cliché saying of, “no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Empathy is a critical path toward earning the willing trust of others. Empathy creates hope in our people that we, the leader, care and are willing to take action to do something when needed.
  • Cross-culturally competent: Knowing or being willing to learn about others’ backgrounds is an important way to show respect for them. Recognizing and appreciating the customs, values, and norms of other cultures is an important attitude for inclusive leaders. This can certainly apply to international cultures but should also apply to societal culture differences in our own communities.

What Inclusive Leaders Do

Obviously, our inclusiveness cannot simply be attitudes or personal attributes. We must put these intentions into action to actually have an impact on others and our team. I think there are a number of things that inclusive leaders do:

  • Appreciate peoples’ worth: What defines another human being’s worth? I recently talked with some Cadets who were struggling to show empathy for other Cadets that struggled to excel in physical training. Our conversations circled around this point – does that (their lacking physical prowess) define their worth as a person? While we hold people accountable for failure to get results or meet basic established standards, sure, inclusive leaders recognize that they lead people – all with different strengths, weaknesses, challenges, and abilities. Inclusive leaders love people and strive to bring the best out in others.
  • Display visible & authentic awareness of & commitment to diversity: Inclusive leaders recognize and value diversity of thought, experiences, skills, and so on. We don’t do it to build social capital or leverage it merely as an organizational strategy. Nor do we shy away from or ignore diversity; “I don’t see color,” is not being an inclusive leader – it reduces what others bring to the table and parts of their identities.
  • Value, seek, and encourage dissent: Many leaders pay lip-service to dissent, claiming they want to hear the truth. But rarely are many leaders able to actually receive, process, and potentially integrate it into decision-making or systems. Inclusive leaders are confident and capable of hearing their peoples’ perspectives, even professionally and respectfully dissenting ones, and consider on how to apply it to improve the team and their results. Inclusive leaders can even go so far to assign dissent within their teams.
  • Cultivate collaboration: Inclusive leaders value collaboration, but they don’t simply stop there. They deliberately create processes within the team to cultivate it. For me, I’ve found that simply creating the time and space and offering specific prompts for discussion does just that. Doing this over time makes team collaboration a norm and not a novelty like many of us experience.
  • Ask questions: This simple concept is in fact the most complex one in this whole article. Leading with and through questions often becomes an integral part of an inclusive leader’s “leadership philosophy.” We ask questions without judgement to genuinely learn – seeking to understand before we aim to be understood. We don’t ask to respond or even explain, but to understand and appreciate. If looking to learn more on leading with questions (and more about appreciating dissent within the team), I encourage you to check out L. David Marquet’s book, Leadership Is Language. Also, I encourage you to always keep the WAIT acronym in the back of your mind when interacting with your people – Why Am I Talking?
  • Demonstrate the candor to “put issues on the table”: The process of team development and building cohesion often forces people to face sensitive topics and ideas. Being uncomfortable though, many leaders and teams can tend to sweep such issues under the rug unaddressed. But this can unintentionally alienate and isolate people unfortunately. Inclusive leaders are capable of taking on sensitive issues within the team, putting on those items “on the table” in a healthy way, and help guide the team through a professional conversation to address it to get resolve and clarity. Even simple questions like “what does this mean to you?” and “how do you see it?” can go a long way.
  • Are approachable & present: Our people need to feel comfortable and safe to talk to us. They first need to be able to find us. Inclusive leaders are present with their people, which means getting out of the office and dedicating time to people and team building. And merely being present with our people does not necessarily equate to “presence.” We need to take active measures to be present and approachable as inclusive leaders.
  • Enable others to fill “leadership space”: Ken Chenault, the American Express chairman, is credited with saying, “the best recognition I received was when someone said to me, ‘I trust your judgement, and you can make that decision.’” Inclusive leaders do not consume all of the leadership space within the team. We create space for others to fill and give them the opportunity practice filling it (i.e. the basics of leader development).
  • Show gratitude: Leaders expressing gratitude can do so much for the team. It’s a mechanism to allow people to feel valued and seen, enable them to see the bigger impact their efforts have, is an opportunity for feedback, and reinforces a positive and encouraging climate within the team. But gratitude felt is not gratitude expressed; inclusive leaders must ensure their gratitude is expressed…and expressed routinely. I highly encourage you to look into the book, Leading with Gratitude, by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton to learn more.

The Impact Inclusive Leaders Have on People & Teams

What does all of this get us? Well, beyond an effective and cohesive team, I think there are some additional benefits of being an inclusive leader that are worth exploring:

  • Create community & belonging: Cohesive teams and inclusive leaders help people feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves. We communicate perspective, showing others who we are, what we do, and why we do it are all important. There is a strong collective identity within the team.
  • People are valued & seen: When considering the whole “puzzle” of our team, inclusive leaders recognize the value of peoples’ individual roles – their unique “puzzle pieces” – and help those people see how their small piece impacts the whole puzzle.
  • People are appreciated: While people might be valued, I think there is a difference between that and being appreciated. People might know they are valued simply by how much they are relied on and become the go-to people. That can be draining though. Through inclusive leaders and cohesive teams, those people are recognized and appreciated – routinely and appropriately.
  • Commitment within the team: Through all of this, our people begin to choose a personal commitment to the team and its purpose rather than just complying to avoid consequences. There is a considerable difference between a team of committed, cohesive people and one of people bound by compliance mechanisms to squeeze out results by “them” (corporate, higher HQ, etc.).
  • Improved performance: Over time and an iterative process of improvement, these intangibles of inclusive leadership and cohesive teams begin to make a positive impact on the team’s performance. Inclusive leaders bring the best out of their people…and ultimately the best out of the team.
  • Team morale: I find that the most cohesive teams with the highest morale never actually spend time talking about morale or its issues. Build an inclusive team and I’ve found that you and your team will never be discussing morale as an issue.

When looking at these descriptors, I find it hard to believe that this wouldn’t be a team we would want to join…and stick with. This is why it’s critical to be an inclusive leader today.

Go on and lead well this week, friends. Take care.

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