As a leadership consultant I help leaders to be thoughtful and strategic about designing inclusive organizations. There is intense discussion, debate, research and experiment going on in this space. I challenged myself to identify the single most impactful lever – or a super power – to implementing inclusive practices in organizations. I recently shared what I came to realize at the TechInclusion Conference in Seattle, and now I want to share my insight with you here.
Inclusive leadership is made out of two equally challenging parts, “inclusion” and “leadership” – so, let’s first explore some key characteristics of each of them.
There are two aspects that are always present in leadership: the Self and the Other. In other words, while leadership can only occur in relationships, it can also be considered a life-long self-development project. Leadership reveals a leader’s thought process, beliefs and attitudes in their interactions with others. What is in a leader’s mind affects the way they perform; therefore, it behooves leaders to do serious soul searching and understand their impact on others.
All this “mind-stuff” manifests in the ways they operate, behave and communicate. For example, imagine two leaders with different mindsets: one who believes that people are inherently trustworthy and have good intentions and another who believes that people are out to get each other and operate with hidden agendas. It’s likely that the way they interact with their employees is different. One might be more prone to develop more personal, transparent and open interactions, whereas the other might be more reserved, holding back information and emotional involvement in their relationships.
It is widely accepted that diversity is vital for innovation and business. However, in the last couple of decades the intent to increase diversity in organizations (whether for business or moral purposes) has in many cases resulted in tokenism and/or diversity training. Both have produced disappointing – and even negative – results. We now realize that diversity efforts fail without people consciously choosing to implement inclusive practices, or creating cultures of inclusion.
When pursuing inclusion, leaders need to create a culture where two – almost opposing orientations are simultaneously present: belongingness and uniqueness. People flourish when these two basic needs are being fulfilled. Humans have a primal need to find our “tribe” while at the same time be valued for our unique gifts. Inclusive leaders make sure that in their organizations people feel that they belong and that they are recognized and appreciated for their uniqueness. In an inclusive culture, the data about how people feel is taken seriously.
Inclusive leadership is about “being fascinated”
When the goal in an organization is to develop more inclusive cultures (not only because it is a right thing to do, but it makes business sense) the work has to begin at the top, with the senior leadership. Inclusive leaders are aware of their impact in relationships – how they make others feel. Inclusivity implies partnership and reciprocity. The best partnerships are founded in understanding and complementing each other’s strengths, skills and needs. Developing such partnering requires intentional interaction to learn about each other. Asking questions is a great tool for this!
A team coach’s value to an executive team is in the inquiry, the questions they ask from an external observer’s perspective. Coaches can ask curious questions that can illuminate layers of assumptions and “unspeakables”. By amping up their curiosity and “being fascinated”, coaches create non-judgmental space for exploration for their clients.
“Being fascinated” is not just a secret weapon for coaches. Choosing to operate from the perspective of “being fascinated” makes you also a better leader. Realizing this, led me to an insight that the single most powerful and effective way to become an inclusive leader is to pursue a mastery of Curiosity on steroids. This kind of curiosity is about living one’s life with a mindset of “being fascinated”.
After years of coaching leaders I have come to think of it as a superpower. By simply adopting the attitude of fascination, leaders almost naturally begin to embrace three practices that produce more clarity, empathy, and courage in their teams – which, in turn, increase inclusion, productivity, and innovation.
First of all, be fascinated about yourself. Develop a life-long commitment to the ancient call to “Know Thyself”. The better you know yourself and can describe your thought-processes and decision-making, weaknesses and passions to others, the easier you make it for them to understand and follow you. This is at the core of being clear about yourself and creating clarity, not confusion, for others. Here are some key questions for that journey of self-discovery: Who are you really – what is your life purpose? Where do you shine? What parts of yourself do you have a hard time accepting? What can people count on you for? Where do you need help from others? How can you be your best and the highest self? How do your beliefs affect others? What are you learning from soliciting feedback?
Secondly, be fascinated about others. Focusing on the needs of others with an open mind creates opportunities for exhibiting empathy – a key characteristic of an inclusive leader. In inclusive environments it matters how you make others feel. Do people feel seen, heard and appreciated around you? Do people you work with enthusiastically share their ideas and information with you? When you choose to approach others with fascination about them, you will naturally drop your judgmental thoughts; instead, you will arm yourself with humility and respectfulness – both vital parts for inclusive leadership.
A leader is exhibiting humility when she/he reveals their vulnerability by admitting their own shortcomings, mistakes and not-knowing; and when they acknowledge that most of the time a multitude of truths can be present. A leader shows respect when they acknowledge the differences between people but assume positive intent of those different from themselves. When leaders express both humility and respect simultaneously, and approach others with fascination, they will create space for others to step up and show up. This will lead them to learn something new and their lives will be enriched.
A word of caution: Although as a leader you may have had a fascinating life path and you love to tell others about your adventures, it is paramount that you choose to speak more fascinatedly about others than yourself. In order to accelerate implementation of inclusive practices in your organization, be known as a leader who listens more than tells and directs, a leader who is known for “being fascinated”.
Finally, be fascinated about the relationship. Leadership does not exist in a vacuum or isolation, it can only occur in a relationship. It is the leader’s job to make sure they enter in relationships with the willingness to co-design them with their teams. Inclusive leaders are willing to create the “right relationship” by inquiring about the conditions under which everyone is able to respectfully say what needs to be expressed. In other words, they trust that when everyone feels safe to say what they think has to be said – even when it’s risky – the commitment to higher level performance follows. This kind of co-created courageousness on a team provides a foundation for inclusive and innovative work.
Making relationships safe for all in a team creates trust when it is matched with accountability. It’s a leader’s job to hold herself/himself accountable by role-modeling follow-through and keeping of promises. However, it is not a leader’s job to hold others accountable. Instead, the best leaders hold others able and capable. This, in turn, will help team members take responsibility for the team’s success, and show up courageously with a sense of accountability.
If you consciously develop your skills in these three practices described above, you will, no doubt, increase your team’s inclusivity and innovativeness.
Or, you can simply adopt the “Be Fascinated” approach, and it is very likely that you soon begin practicing: 1) The Practice of Clarity through a life-long self-awareness and growth campaign, 2) The Practice of Empathy through focusing on others with humility and respect, and 3) The Practice of Courage through designing and creating safety for people to respectfully say what needs to be said and holding people able and capable.
In conclusion, I’d like to challenge all leaders and aspiring leaders to focus on designing and creating cultures where “being fascinated” is an everyday practice for all. Begin with yourself and choose to live fascinated!