The Case for Inclusive Leadership

Inclusive Leadership  by Anna Wesson and John Maxwell 

No Limits  

Inclusive leadership is a hot topic. In both business and society, we see leaders facing multiple demands to adapt their approach to be more inclusive. The Covid pandemic has changed the way we work, accelerating changes that might previously have taken 10 years. Leaders are being challenged to adapt at the same pace, and the consequences of not adapting are significant. Top performers leave, staff burn out, and claims of harassment and bullying increase, all contributing to lower employee engagement. These outcomes will be obvious to clients and show up in financial performance.

This is not business as usual. To succeed, leaders must remove limits on their thinking and look to the future. We believe the way forward focuses on inclusive leadership.

What is inclusive leadership?

Inclusive leadership is an approach that ensures all voices are heard. It means being simultaneously curious and self-aware around difference. It involves fostering high levels of trust, articulating a clear purpose, and seeking out different views to inform better decision making. Inclusive leaders create psychological safety which enhances motivation and drives business performance. 

We believe that inclusive leadership will replace command-and-control as the dominant approach to leadership over the next five years. This outcome relies on establishing a clear model for how to be an inclusive leader and the ability to measure inclusion, as well as holding leaders accountable for creating the organisational climate, not just financial results. 

Why is it important?

Better outcomes for everyone

The case for employees to be treated equally and with respect should not require a performance justification, but for many CEOs and boards, it does require a business case. 

Inclusion is good for business. Companies who treat people as people have seen this repeatedly, as this list illustrates (FT list of most inclusive companies). Employees who work in a climate of inclusion are more connected to their work and have a greater sense of belonging. This leads to higher levels of wellbeing and resilience across the organisation, which are key inputs for the sustainability of business performance. 

 Studies by McKinsey point out that inclusion is the key to achieving high performance in already diverse organisations. 

 Even relatively diverse companies face significant challenges in creating work environments characterized by inclusive leadership and accountability among managers, equality and fairness of opportunity, and openness and freedom from bias and discrimination.”  Diversity wins: McKinsey

The responsibility for creating an inclusive workplace lies with senior leaders. They must be role models in their organisations. Satya Nadella, CEO at Microsoft demonstrated this clearly when he said:

“We are at our best when we actively seek diversity and inclusion. If we are going to serve the planet as our mission states, we need to reflect the planet. Inclusiveness will help us become open to learning about our own biases and changing our behaviours so we can tap into the collective power of everyone in the company.”  Herminia Ibarra and Aneeta Rattan 

Psychological safety – the leader matters

Bourke and Espedido found that the most critical element determining whether an individual feels included in the team is the leader’s behaviour. A recent McKinsey study of 15,000 professionals found that when employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative social consequences, organizations are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change—all capabilities that have only grown in importance during the COVID-19 crisis.” Creating psychological safety is a key element of inclusive leadership. 

Why now?

Time for talk to become action

The Covid pandemic has disrupted the way we work and live. People are searching for meaning and grasping for certainly which is nowhere in sight. Disruption is going to continue with climate change as an increasingly clear existential threat. This is a perfect storm for leaders, and the tried and tested methods of leading business will be found wanting. 

The search for what comes next in leadership is important. Let’s take a lesson from the recent failures of the command-and-control approach which have contributed to disasters from the emissions fraud at VW to the global financial crisis (GFC) in 2008. It is not a stretch to say that these may not have happened if employees/teams at all levels had felt able to speak up and leaders had been actively listening. 


What does inclusive leadership look like?

The model 

There are 4 key drivers in our model, divided among 8 measurable factors.

Climate: Establishing the base conditions for success 

Motivation: Providing the “why” for everybody, developing a compelling reason for the work 

Connection: Creating a psychologically safe environment 

Performance: The key drivers of how people deliver business results


The model


Being able to measure inclusive leadership is vital. We have established 8 measurable factors that provide insights into leaders’ thinking and behaviour. These insights can then be used as the basis for increasing inclusivity in leadership.

This is just the start and we are building a set of tools for leaders and coaches to bring inclusion to the forefront of their leadership. Connect with us if you would like to participate in our first global survey of inclusive leadership.