What is inclusive leadership & how can it help you grow your business?

5 min read  |   13 July, 2022   By Laura Sands

Three colleagues sat down together at a table having a discussion. On the table is a laptop showing various bar charts.

Inclusive leadership – or leadership that practices inclusivity – is a much-needed skill that is sometimes deprioritised.

You don’t need to go far to hear about the importance of diversity. There are numerous studies telling us about the benefits of a more diverse workforce – such as the research from McKinsey which found that companies who focus on racial and ethnic diversity outperform their industries by 36%.

But what about inclusivity?


What is inclusivity?

If diversity is about making your organisation accessible to others, inclusivity is about making everyone feel welcome and appreciated. The inclusion expert Verna Myers perfectly expresses the concept of inclusivity when says, “Diversity is being asked to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”


What is inclusive leadership?

In a nutshell, inclusive leadership is a leadership style that actively embraces and facilitates inclusivity. But what exactly does that look like?

The employer’s network for equality and inclusion (ENEI) are something of an authority here. They state that inclusive leaders are “aware of their own biases and preferences, actively seek out and consider different views and perspectives to inform better decision-making.” Not only that, but an inclusive leader sees “diverse talent as a source of competitive advantage”. This means that inclusive leadership also focuses on inspiring diverse people to drive organisational and individual performance towards a shared vision.”

Breaking this down, inclusive leadership is about:

  • Treating everyone fairly. Instead of relying on stereotypes, the inclusive leader considers each person’s unique characteristics
  • Recognising individual contributions. The inclusive leader understands and values each person’s perspective while respecting them as part of the wider team.
  • Using everyone’s input. Diverse groups have more diverse ideas. An inclusive leader ensures they capture all perspectives for a competitive edge.

Why does inclusive leadership matter?

Inclusive leadership benefits organisations and the people who work in them. In fact, research indicates that inclusive organisations are 70% more likely to capture new markets. Here are some other ways that inclusive leadership can help you grow your business:

  • Reinforce a positive company culture. Organisational culture is often described as ‘the way we do things round here’. If leaders act inclusively, this inevitably trickles down through the business, quickly becoming ‘the way’ you do business.
  • Foster a more creative environment. No matter what your industry, creative thinking and innovation will set you apart from your competition. Inclusive leadership encourages input from all employees, no matter what their background or experience. And this diversity of thought can be the difference between so-so ideas and the next big thing.
  • Drive productivity. Happy employees work harder and research proves it. A study by the University of Warwick found that happy workers are 12% more productive than the average worker.
  • Improve customer satisfaction. Research shows that a team with a member who shares their client’s ethnicity is 152% more likely than another team to understand that client. Imagine how much better you could serve your clients and customers with a more diverse and inclusive business.
  • Ensures talent retention. A study run by McKinsey and LeanIn.org found that employees with strong allies were 53% less likely to consider leaving their company. In comparison, employees with managers who supported their wellbeing were only 32% less likely to consider leaving their company.

What does inclusive leadership look like?

What does inclusive leadership look like in practice? Often, it’s about providing allyship to under-represented groups. That means you must first stop and identify your own privileges. For example, are you university educated, affluent, caucasian, male, cisgendered, younger (under 45), straight or physically/mentally able? If you can tick any of these boxes, you’re in a position to support those who don’t.

Here are a few examples of how you can lead inclusively.

  • Taking a stand in meetings and actively allowing others to speak – 28% of women are regularly talked over or interrupted by other in meetings compared to just 15% of men. The number rises to 34% of LGBTQ+ women and 32% of black women being interrupted. If you see this happening, call out the behaviour and allow all participants to share their views.
  • Advocating opportunities for employees who are traditionally marginalised. Whether it’s a promotion or being involved in a meeting, making sure these employees get the opportunity is a crucial way to encourage inclusivity.
  • Thinking more carefully about what you say and using inclusive language. For example, instead of ‘manning’ an event, you could talk about ‘staffing’ it. Another example is referring to ‘people with disabilities’ instead of ‘disabled people’.
  • Creating policies with inclusivity at their heart – such as a hybrid working policy that’s accessible to everyone.
  • Reviewing conventions such as having unpaid interns or work-experience students. By paying students/interns, you open the opportunity beyond individuals who don’t need to earn and give the chance to those from less affluent backgrounds.

How to be an inclusive leader

One of the easiest ways to ensure you lead inclusively is to remember the acronym ‘FAST’. This stands for Fair, Action, Self-aware, Trust.


An inclusive leader acts fairly and treats all employees fairly regardless of their differences. It’s important to remember that fair doesn’t always mean equal. The concept of equity is important here – giving someone the tools they need to have the same starting point as everyone else. So, in the same spirit as giving reasonable adjustments to employees with disabilities, how about providing additional mentoring or coaching to employees from a less affluent background?


It isn’t enough to talk about inclusivity. You need to act on it too. This means ensuring your policies are inclusive, modelling inclusive behaviour and calling others out on unacceptable behaviour. It also includes actions such as publishing your gender pay gap and monitoring employee progression by gender, race and disability.


Inclusive leadership is about being aware of our own biases and preferences and then taking steps to ensure these don’t affect what we say and do. It’s equally important to allow and encourage others to call you out on behaviour that isn’t inclusive. Doing this will help create a psychologically safe environment - another important element in building an inclusive environment.


An inclusive leader trusts their employees to do the right thing and to do their best. It is this trust that makes people feel able to contribute their unique perspective. Again, much of this relates to psychological safety – employees need to feel safe in sharing their ideas and thoughts.


Inclusive leadership can be a powerful tool in helping you create a positive company culture and successful SME. Take your business to the next level by signing up to the Breathe Culture Pledge.


Author: Laura Sands

Laura is a writer who enjoys getting into the detail of subjects and sharing that knowledge with snappy, interesting content. When not typing away, she enjoys walks in the woods and curling up with a good book and mug of something hot.

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