3 Key Skills for Being an Inclusive Leader

Inclusive leaders set the tone for an organizational culture, creating environments where every voice is heard, valued, and feels able to be impactful. This type of leader honors people’s different experiences, diverse perspectives, and backgrounds as sources of strength.

Here are three key skills to help you transform organizational culture.

1. Understanding the Role of Process in Driving Outcomes

Consider these common scenarios: 

  • Meetings in which certain individuals dominate the discussion, overshadowing other voices and perspectives.
  • Organizational procedures that result in decisions being made without involving those directly affected, depriving them of the opportunity to contribute or express their concerns.
  • “Hot moments” where harmful actions or statements occur without any collective intervention and are met with silence even from leadership. Silence in these situations is tantamount to endorsement. 

Meetings, decisions, and incidents that exclude people can crush morale and lead to retention issues. The way each scenario above transpires (the “process”) sends clear signals about whose voices are valued and whose are not—in ways more powerful than the wording of diversity statements and other potentially tokenistic actions.

Leaders set the tone. You signal whether environments are going to be fair and are responsible for creating an equitable workspace. Being attuned and strategic about how processes unfold can help leaders create environments signaling that everyone is seen and valued for what they bring to the table. 

2. Being able to non-defensively receive feedback

Have you ever received feedback on something you did that caused offense, and it felt like an attack on your character? Perhaps you felt you were being told that you were a bad person or that you should have known better?

It’s easy to mistake feedback about what we could be doing differently as a personal attack.

If a leader lacks the skills to listen without defensiveness, valuable feedback might be perceived as a critique, which can impede further dialogue. Self-shame can stifle open conversation and result in leaders missing out on crucial insights, which becomes even more challenging when it’s feedback about matters of difference and identity.

Distinguishing between who we are and things we could be doing differently is an important step toward listening more effectively. Other skills include deep listening, being able to respond to our own negative impact even when our intentions are good, and learning to manage our own discomfort in moments of conflict.  

3. Recognizing, Valuing, and Appreciating Differences 

At first glance, not seeing differences may seem commendable. Often, individuals who claim not to notice differences are trying to convey inclusivity, suggesting that a person’s racial or other distinctive attributes hold no significance to them. Statements like, “I don’t see color,” while common and well-meaning, can lead to inadvertent discrimination and exclusion. This stands in implicit opposition to individuals who very much do notice differences and for whom such differences are a negative thing.

When a leader actively avoids acknowledging someone’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other unique characteristics, it precludes open conversations about those aspects of their life experiences. This means the person can only engage in the relationship as a fraction of their true self. Although well-intentioned, it implicitly invites assimilation and fails to create space for recognizing, understanding, and honoring people for their differences and the unique perspectives they bring. 

The journey toward inclusive leadership is one of transformation, growth, and empowerment. By embracing these essential skills, you have the power to reshape the culture of your organization. You can create environments that celebrate difference, foster innovation, and honor each individual’s unique strengths. Inclusive leadership goes beyond mere acceptance; it’s about amplifying every voice, nurturing open dialogue, and treating differences as sources of strength.

You can delve deeper into these vital skills and unlock the full potential of inclusive leadership with the VISIONS Fundamentals of Inclusivity workshop. 


Dr. Leena Akhtar serves as VISIONS’ Director of Programs in addition to being a consultant. She will be co-facilitating the upcoming offering of Fundamentals of Inclusivity and PACE I in October 2023.