Six Inclusive Leadership Characteristics and All You Need to Know About Them

What makes people feel included in the workplace? Is it being treated respectfully, being surrounded by great colleagues, or feeling like their work makes a difference? Or maybe it’s a combination of all these things. There are many factors that contribute to a great workplace, including the company’s mission, goals, policies, and the people that work in it.

We always reach the point of talking about managers. Do they communicate well, do they treat their staff fairly, are they open to feedback? I’ve had people close to me who’ve quit their jobs because they don’t feel appreciated or like they don’t get along with their boss.

As per a report from Harvard Business Review, what leaders say and do makes up to a 70% difference in whether employees feel included. This feeling spreads across the board – when people feel included, it’s more likely for them to go the extra mile, they care more about their work, they become more collaborative, and they don’t fear stating their opinion. The combination of all those factors leads to an organization that performs better and achieves greater results.

Because of that, we can safely say that inclusive leadership is becoming a unique and vital part of every organization that wants to adapt to the world in the 21st century. Inclusive leadership characteristics are what help companies adapt to the ever-changing environment, to diverse customers, to up-and-coming markets, and to new technology.

Having said all that, in this article, we will explore inclusive leadership’s characteristics – what they are, how they can become a part of your company’s future, and why they will be vital for any organization that wants to adapt to the future.

What Makes a Leader Inclusive? Six Leadership Characteristics

Inclusive leaders are ones who are aware of their own biases and so actively try to consider the perspectives of others in order to improve their decision-making and collaborate better with others.

Inclusive leadership is all about committing to and ensuring that all team members are treated equally and with respect, that they feel a sense of belonging, and they also have all the resources and support they need to progress in their careers and do their very best in the current position they’re in.

According to the Harvard Business Review, there are six signature inclusive leadership characteristics:

  • Commitment: They are able to show that they’re genuinely committed to the task of holding others accountable, making sure that the team expects diversity, and are willing to do their best to adapt to changing environments.
  • Humility: They show modesty when it comes to their knowledge and abilities; being able to say “sorry” and admit mistakes helps create a more open and safe workplace for everyone.
  • Awareness of biases: They are aware of their personal “blind spots,” they know that there are flaws in the system, and they admit them.
  • Curiosity regarding others: They show an open mindset, are curious about others, have the ability to listen without judging, and seek to empathize with those who have had a different life experience.
  • Cultural intelligence: They are aware of different cultures and do their best to adapt to them.
  • Effective collaboration: They do their best to empower their employees, they pay attention to the opinion of the entire team, and they create an environment that accepts different views.

Since this is quite a long list, people often ask, “Okay, but which quality matters most?” The answer depends on who’s asking. If you’re the leader, commitment is the most crucial trait. Without it, the others are impossible to develop. However, if you’re the employee working around the leader, then the single most vital trait would be for the leader to be visibly aware of bias. In close second come two other additional qualities: humility and empathy. What makes these two characteristics so important? Well, humility is what encourages others to share with the leader. Empathy and perspective-taking are what give employees the belief that their leader cares about them and what they think and takes their opinions into consideration, rather than just doing whatever the leader feels is best. But more than that, having empathy and showing it is fundamental in creating a personal connection between the leader and the employee makes both sides work harder to reach mutual decisions instead of standing ground and believing in only his or her own point of view.

An In-depth Look into the Six Signature Traits of an Inclusive Leader

It’s important to remember that while there are some leadership characteristics that matter more than others, only the combination of all six will breed a truly inclusive leadership environment. Let’s take an in-depth look into all six to gain a better understanding of what it is that makes them so vital.


Leaders who are inclusive are committed to diversity and inclusion, not because someone is forcing them, but because of a genuine belief that these things matter and actually bring substance to the business. Of course, being inclusive of diversity is an enormous challenge. It takes time and energy, something that most leaders lack. That poses the question as to why some leaders are committed.

There are two possible reasons. Either they’re sure that this commitment will bring long-term performance benefits to the organization or they value fairness and equality personally. It can be true that a leader believes both things simultaneously, meaning he or she is aware of the benefits that come from an inclusive environment while also genuinely believing in the importance of being fair.

This combination of “head and heart” – head meaning knowing the benefits for the business and heart representing the care about the emotions of other human beings – is quite unique, and so it truly works. It makes employees trust their leaders and makes them more motivated to work because they believe they’re employed at a company that cares not only about profit but about people as well.


As a leader, it’s quite easy to start believing you’re above everyone else, you’re better and smarter, and so you have earned the right to dictate how things are being run. If people see that you’re that type of leader, they will fear you, maybe respect you, and definitely dislike you. In the long run, that will turn into a disaster – employees quitting, working less, not giving their full efforts, and so on.

That’s why humility matters so much. Inclusive leaders aren’t afraid to speak up, but they’re humble about who they are – they know their strengths and weaknesses and are willing to accept both. These two things are significant, and they both take a lot of courage. It’s not easy to speak your mind and take a position – it requires strength and courage, especially if your position is an unpopular one. On the other hand, being able to say that you were wrong or that you’re sorry also requires bravery. That’s especially true when it comes to people who are in leadership positions, as many feel that being wrong and admitting it is a sign of weakness, when in fact, it’s a sign of strength.

When leaders talk like they’re perfect and never admit any mistake, their employees lose their trust in them. If it happens that they make a mistake that’s clear and undeniable, but they don’t admit it, they also lose the respect of their subordinates. However, if you’re an inclusive leader, you won’t fear making mistakes. You will know that you tried your best and maybe failed – that’s human. If you have the guts to say it out loud, to admit it, and stand behind it, your employees will respect you and likely also support you in your efforts to make up for the error.

Awareness of Bias

We are all full of our personal blind spots that are due to the way we were raised and the environment we spent most of our lives in. However, as an inclusive leader, you have to be very self-aware and know that you have these blind spots that may also lead to unconscious bias in the organization. Some examples of such biases include the following:

  • Implicit stereotypes: Whenever people get judged based on unconscious stereotypes (this includes beliefs such as “Asians are good with math” or “Women are better with people”).
  • Similarity-attraction bias: The tendency to work better with people who “look and feel” more like us.
  • In-group favoritism: Having two separate groups of employees – an in-group and out-group and favoring the first one.
  • Attribution error: When you give someone else as an example when trying to explain another person’s behavior.
  • Confirmation bias: Seeking only information that supports something which you already believe to be true.
  • Groupthink: When the desire to have a decision that pleases everyone overrides the more logical and rational approach.

Having many biases is the Achilles heel of every leader as they can potentially result in bad decision-making. Inclusive leaders need to be highly self-aware and have to be able to analyze their actions critically. They also need to know what their personal biases are so that they can prevent them from influencing their decision-making process.

Being Curious

Having an open mind, a desire to learn and understand more, and knowing how others see and experience the world are vital leadership characteristics. Inclusive leaders accept that their personal views have limitations and that they can overcome them only by taking an interest in the way others view the world. This want for continuous learning is what helps drive all other attributes associated with curiosity, including being open-minded and empathetic.

However, this is easier said than done. As a leader, both time and effort are required in order to engage with others and be able to understand their diverse views, but doing so results in greater trust and loyalty between manager and employee.

Along with that, this thirst for learning and knowing more is vital for pushing the organization forward. By listening to other people’s perspectives and showing an interest in their ideas, leaders can find inspiration for needed changes or for innovative services and products.

Cultural Intelligence

We live in a multicultural environment, and working with others requires inclusive leaders to be confident and well-versed in cross-cultural communication. For inclusive leaders, it’s not only vital to understand cultural similarities and differences but also to know how their own culture impacts their worldview and how cultural stereotypes can influence the way they perceive others.

Highly inclusive leaders strive to learn more about other cultures, especially if they’re working in an unfamiliar environment. Along with that, they’re actively working on minimizing their own cultural biases and learning how to build stronger connections with people from different backgrounds. Most importantly, they understand that being able to adapt doesn’t mean “becoming a native,” something that often causes leaders to lose sight and begin to overcompensate for cultural demands.

Effective Collaboration

Inclusive leaders are able to empower employees while creating diverse-thinking groups that work well together. It all starts by realizing that the new IQ is based on group intelligence – the old way was all about how smart a leader is, but the new one is all about how smart of a team a leader has. If a leader truly believes this, it will help him or her take the organization to the next level.

Collaboration is all about individuals working together and using each other’s thoughts and ideas to create something better. However, collaboration amongst people who think alike is easy, but working with a diverse group of people is difficult. Inclusive leaders know that and understand that in order for a collaboration to be effective, individuals must first learn to respect different perspectives. Instead of controlling the flow of ideas, inclusive leaders must encourage autonomy and should empower their teams to connect more and work on understanding each other better. In order for that to happen, leaders must promote group decisions instead of awarding people for their personal accomplishments. This will breed employees who don’t care about winning individual awards or getting recognized as a “hero,” but who instead do their best to work well with others and try to come up with the best possible solutions as a team.

Key Takeaways

An inclusive leader should be just another word for a role model. In order for inclusive leadership to exist, the leader should serve as a role model for everyone in the company. If you want to have an organization that’s diverse, modern, inclusive, empathetic, and more, the leader should be the first person to embody all of these characteristics.

If a company preaches values such as humility, empathy, and inclusion but has a leader that lacks all of three of these leadership characteristics, the employees will not believe the leader and will not align their actions with the organizational values. On the other hand, if you have a leader that has all these qualities, even if the company doesn’t state them as key values, they will spread amongst employees.

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