- IMD Business School

How to be an inclusive leader & embracing inclusive leadership in your organization

Diversity and inclusion have shifted from nice-to-have ideals to critical components of organizational success and innovation. Leaders are now tasked with the challenge of not just embracing diverse perspectives but actively leveraging them to enhance performance, creativity, and resilience.  

The solution? Inclusive leadership. This leadership style goes beyond traditional norms to actively seek, value, and incorporate the insights and contributions of all team members. 

  1. What is inclusive leadership? 
  2. The clear business case for inclusive leadership 
  3. Real-world examples of inclusive leaders 
  4. How to become an inclusive leader? 
  5. Fine-tuning your inclusive leadership approach 
  6. How to encourage inclusive leadership within your organization 
  7. The future of inclusive leadership 
  8. Embracing inclusive leadership

This article is your guide to understanding the importance and practical application of inclusive leadership, as well as the emerging trends shaping its future. By the end, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge to navigate today’s business complexities with inclusivity as your guiding principle, ensuring your leadership is not only ethical but strategically sound.

What is Inclusive Leadership?

Inclusive leadership is a leadership style that actively seeks to include the contributions and perspectives of all team members, especially those from underrepresented or marginalized groups. This approach is grounded in empathy, respect, and an understanding of diversity—not just in terms of ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, but also in experiences, thoughts, and perspectives. Inclusive leaders strive to create an environment where every employee feels valued, understood, and empowered to contribute their best work. 

The clear business case for inclusive leadership 

The advantages of inclusive leadership are well-documented. Studies indicate that companies prioritizing diversity and inclusion are more likely to outperform their competitors. These statistics underscore the tangible benefits of diversity and inclusion in the workplace from performance and innovation to employee satisfaction​​​​. 

  • Increased productivity: According to the Harvard Business Review, inclusive leadership is directly correlated with increased employee productivity. 
  • Market expansion: A CEPC whitepaper revealed that organizations prioritizing inclusive leadership and diversity are 70% more likely to break ground in new markets than their competitors. 
  • Profitability: Research by McKinsey & Company shows that companies with diverse executive teams were 33% more likely to see better-than-average profits. 
  • Better decision-making: Korn Ferry Research found that organizations championing inclusive leadership are 87% more likely to make better decisions compared to their peers. 
  • Performance outcomes: A study by Deloitte discovered that inclusive teams outperform their peers by 80% in team-based assessments. 

Real-world examples of inclusive leaders 

So we’ve seen how inclusive leadership is good for employees, teams and businesses as a whole, but what does it look like in practice? Let’s take a look at some key figures that bring the inclusive leadership style to life.  

One example of inclusive leadership in action is Satya Nadella’s tenure at Microsoft. Under his leadership, Microsoft shifted towards a culture of learning, empathy and innovation, which has had a significant impact on the company’s market value and product development. Nadella’s leadership approach, which focuses on growth mindset, empathy and the inclusion of diverse perspectives, has been instrumental in Microsoft’s resurgence as a leader in technology and innovation. 

Indra Nooyi, who served as CEO of PepsiCo from 2006 to 2018, is known for her visionary leadership and commitment to building a diverse and inclusive workforce. She actively worked to ensure that PepsiCo’s leadership and workforce reflected the company’s global consumer base. Under her leadership, PepsiCo expanded its product line to include healthier options, responding to diverse consumer demands and contributing to the company’s sustained growth and innovation. Nooyi’s focus on diversity and consumer insight was instrumental in positioning PepsiCo as a forward-thinking, adaptable company. 

Another interesting example is Rosalind Brewer at Starbucks and later at Walgreens Boots Alliance. Her commitment to diversity and inclusion through the implementation of training programs and initiatives aimed at reducing bias and fostering an inclusive culture has set a benchmark for other leaders in traditionally non-diverse industries. 

How to become an inclusive leader? 

Becoming an inclusive leader isn’t about grand gestures or buzzwords; it’s about the real, everyday actions that make everyone on your team feel seen, heard, and valued. Let’s break it down into practical steps you can start applying today. 

Step 1: Embrace authenticity 

Action: Start with a good look in the mirror. What are your core values? What challenges have you faced? Share these with your team, not as a boast, but as a way to say, “Hey, we’re all in this together.” 

Benefit: This isn’t just about being open; it’s about building a foundation of trust. When people see you’re genuine, it encourages them to speak up and share, making for a richer, more creative workplace. It’s about turning “me” into “we.” 

Step 2: Prioritize equity in the workplace 

Action: Look around your office (or your Zoom room). Are your policies and practices fair for everyone? Maybe it’s time to rethink those rigid work hours or to introduce more flexibility for parents in the team. Spot the gaps and address them. 

Benefit: When you tailor your environment to meet diverse needs, you’re getting the best out of everyone. It’s about leveling the playing field so that everyone can bring their A-game. 

Step 3: Commit to continuous learning 

Action: Keep your door and mind open. Dive into resources on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Make it a point to have regular chats with your team about these topics—yes, even the uncomfortable ones. 

Benefit: This is how you stay ahead of the game. By constantly learning, you’re fostering a culture where diversity is genuinely appreciated and leveraged. 

Step 4: Ensure equitable opportunities 

Action: Take a hard look at how opportunities are given out in your team. Who’s getting to lead projects? Who’s being mentored? If you see imbalances, it’s time to shake things up. 

Benefit: Fairness in opportunity means everyone gets to shine and grow. It’s good morality and it’s good business. Teams where everyone gets their shot tend to be more innovative and resilient. 

Step 5: Share the responsibility for inclusion 

Action: Make inclusion everyone’s business. Encourage your team to come up with ideas and lead initiatives that make your workplace more welcoming. And yes, we’ll dive deeper into this soon. 

Benefit: When inclusion is a team effort, it becomes part of your team’s DNA. It becomes a collective push towards making your workplace better for everyone. 

Fine-tuning your inclusive leadership approach 

After exploring the traits and actions that define an inclusive leader, how can you apply these concepts in your day-to-day leadership role? Here’s how to solidify your personal inclusive leadership strategy: 

  • Reflect on your leadership style: Take a moment and think about how you lead. Are you the empathetic, open-minded leader you aim to be? Could you improve in terms of empathy, humility, and backing diversity and inclusion? 
  • Set clear goals: What does success look like to you in creating a more inclusive environment? Get specific and set goals that are as clear as a sunny day. Maybe it’s launching a mentorship program for underrepresented team members or setting up regular diversity training sessions. Whatever it is, write it down, make it measurable, and get moving. 
  • Seek feedback: Now, this is key: ask your team how you’re doing. And I mean really ask them—create a space where they can be honest without fearing any repercussions. Their insights might just be the gold dust you need to refine your approach and make your workplace truly inclusive. 
  • Lead by example: Talk is cheap if it’s not backed up by action. Show your team what inclusivity looks like through your everyday actions. Be the first to challenge bias, celebrate diversity, and champion equity. Remember, your team is watching and learning from you. Set the standard high. 
  • Celebrate diversity: Make it a regular thing to highlight and celebrate the different experiences and perspectives in your team. Don’t just tick boxes, truly appreciate the richness that diversity brings to your team and let that enthusiasm show. 

How to encourage inclusive leadership within your organization 

Having explored the essential steps individuals can take to embody inclusive leadership, it’s time to widen our lens. The journey from personal development to fostering an environment of inclusivity across an entire organization represents a significant leap. It requires not only personal commitment but also systemic changes that embed these values into every aspect of organizational culture and policy. 

As we shift focus, remember: the transformation to a truly inclusive organization doesn’t happen in isolation. It’s the collective effort of every leader and team member, amplified by structured policies and practices that promote diversity and equity at every level. Here’s how your organization can transition from encouraging individual inclusivity to championing inclusive leadership as a foundational principle: 

Step 1: Implement comprehensive DEI training 

Action: Develop mandatory Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) training for all employees, tailoring additional, in-depth sessions for those in leadership positions. Tackle the nuances of unconscious bias, microaggressions, and inclusive communication head-on. 

Example: Companies like Starbucks and Google demonstrate that making DEI training a universal requirement can significantly elevate a company’s culture, setting new standards for what it means to be an inclusive workplace. 

Step 2: Promote meaningful cross-cultural interactions 

Action: Design programs that facilitate genuine connections among employees from diverse backgrounds. Through mentorship, cultural exchanges, and team activities, aim to foster a deeper understanding and empathy across the board. 

Example: Ernst & Young (EY) pairs employees from diverse cultural backgrounds in its mentorship programs, facilitating mutual understanding and knowledge exchange. 

Step 3: Revise policies to support equity and inclusion 

Action: Conduct a comprehensive review of your policies to ensure they actively support equity and inclusion. Adjust work arrangements, parental leave policies, and hiring and promotion criteria to ensure fairness and transparency. 

Example: Salesforce’s approach to conducting regular pay audits to identify and correct pay disparities showcases a proactive stance on equity. 

Step 4: Be accountable for DEI goals 

Action: Integrate DEI objectives into the performance evaluations of leaders, holding them accountable for making progress in diversifying teams and creating an inclusive culture. 

Example: Accenture has set public DEI goals and incorporates these objectives into leadership reviews, promoting accountability and progress. 

Step 5: Strengthen employee resource groups (ERGs) 

Action: Facilitate the establishment of ERGs for underrepresented groups and actively support them with the resources and sponsorship they need to thrive.  Acknowledge their crucial role in providing insights into the diverse needs of your workforce. 

Example: IBM supports a range of ERGs, including those for LGBTQ+ employees, veterans, and people with disabilities, empowering these groups within the organization. 

Step 6: Cultivate a culture of continuous learning 

Action: Encourage an organizational culture that values ongoing education on diversity, equity, and inclusion, using feedback to refine and adapt strategies over time. 

Example: Procter & Gamble (P&G) leverages insights from its annual employee surveys to continuously refine its DEI strategies, demonstrating a commitment to adaptability and growth. 

Step 7: Leverage technology for inclusivity 

Action: Implement technological solutions like AI, to reduce bias in hiring and facilitate collaboration across diverse teams, ensuring that inclusivity benefits from innovation. 

Example: Unilever employs AI-driven tools in its recruitment processes to ensure a more diverse and inclusive selection of candidates. 

By tackling these steps, you go beyond paying lip service to inclusivity; you’re building it into the very bones of your organization. It’s about making every decision and policy a reflection of your commitment to a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace.  

The future of inclusive leadership 

As societal and technological trends continue to evolve, so too will the concept of inclusive leadership. The COVID-19 pandemic, social justice movements, and the increasing reliance on digital platforms are just a few of the factors that have challenged and are reshaping what it means to lead inclusively in today’s world. 

Here’s a glimpse into what the future might hold and how leaders can stay ahead of the curve. 

Embracing the global workplace 

The digital revolution has dismantled borders, creating a global workspace that is more interconnected than ever. Future leaders will need to navigate a world where teams are not just diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, and sexuality but also in cultural backgrounds, time zones, and working styles. Preparing for this means understanding the nuances of different cultures and embracing them to create a cohesive, global team spirit. 

Leading through empathy and adaptability 

Recent years have underscored the importance of empathy and adaptability in leadership. The leaders of tomorrow will need to go beyond traditional metrics of success, understanding the personal and professional challenges their teams face, from mental health issues exacerbated by the pandemic to the balancing act of remote work. This means creating flexible, supportive environments that acknowledge these challenges head-on. 

Leveraging technology for inclusivity 

Technological advancements will continue to play a pivotal role in shaping inclusive leadership. From AI-driven analytics that can help identify unconscious bias in hiring practices to virtual reality environments that simulate different perspectives, technology offers new ways to enhance inclusivity. Leaders will need to be at the forefront of adopting these technologies, ensuring they are used ethically and effectively to foster a more inclusive culture. 

Anticipating the unanticipated 

If recent years have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. The future of inclusive leadership will require a proactive stance on global issues, from climate change to geopolitical tensions, understanding how these macro challenges impact the microcosm of the workplace. This means that instead of just reacting to changes you anticipate them, ensuring that your organization is resilient and prepared for whatever comes next. 

Continuous learning as a core competency 

The only constant is change, and the leaders of the future will need to embrace this, staying informed about global trends, and adapting their leadership style in response to new insights. Executive education is an impactful way to equip leaders with the latest knowledge and strategies that will cultivate critical personal development and drive meaningful change. Executive programs ensure organizations remain agile, competitive, and creative in a diverse world. It’s about stepping up, leaning into the learning curve, and preparing not just to meet the future, but to shape it. Because in the end, the most powerful tool at a leader’s disposal is their ability to learn, grow, and inspire others to do the same. 

Embracing inclusive leadership

On our journey through the multifaceted landscape of inclusive leadership, it has become clear that this approach is not only an ethical imperative, but also a strategic one. From the compelling business case for diversity and inclusion to the inspiring examples of leaders such as Satya Nadella, Indra Nooyi and Rosalind Brewer, the message is clear: inclusive leadership is a key enabler of organizational agility, innovation and success. 

But recognizing the importance of inclusive leadership is only the beginning. The real change lies in deliberate, informed action — authenticity, equity, continuous learning  and shared responsibility for inclusion. These steps are not just for the individual leader, but are principles that organizations must embed at all levels to truly succeed in a diverse world. 

As societal shifts and technological advances continue to reshape the world of work, the future of leadership requires a proactive, inclusive approach. This means adopting global perspectives, leading with empathy, leveraging technology for inclusion and, perhaps most importantly, fostering a culture of continuous learning, through avenues such as executive education. 

The path to inclusive leadership is both a personal journey and an organizational strategy that requires constant commitment, reflection and action. When individuals and organizations take concrete steps towards inclusion, they drive performance and innovation, and contribute to a more equitable and just society. Let this article serve as both a guide and a call to action: lean into the learning curve, inspire and be inspired, and shape a future where inclusive leadership is embedded across the spectrum of global business.