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Fostering inclusive leadership is vital to the continued success of any business. But what is inclusive leadership? And how can working with charities help to engender it?

Better leaders, better business

A business whose leaders operate in an inclusive way is well set up now and for the future. 

The increased emphasis on diversity in organisations is not just an ethical matter: it’s about adapting to reality. Teams, markets and customers are more diverse and armed with greater decision-making power than ever. To make the most of these changes, inclusivity should be at the forefront of leadership strategy. Inclusive leaders are best equipped to make the most of the talent at their disposal and to positively position their business.

As Pilotlight’s CEO, Ed Mayo has said, “This is a different agenda to what has come before. Inclusive leaders have to walk the walk as people who are open and aware at a personal level, including of their own power. But they also need to do more. They need the knowledge and vision to be able to shape the organisations that they lead around inclusion in future. There is an ‘inclusion literacy’ that is required, and it is not clear this is what leaders yet learn in the peer networks and business schools that feed them.”

According to Deloitte, inclusivity requires six key traits: courage, cognisance, curiosity, cultural intelligence, collaboration and commitment. (Incidentally, the Harvard Business Review also identifies six traits; it gives them different names, but they are substantially the same.) Without these, attempts at inclusion can come across as tokenistic, superficial and ineffectual. With them, though, inclusive leadership is extremely powerful.

New perspectives

To hone the traits of curiosity and cultural intelligence in a leader, it is crucial to expose them to experiences that might fall outside their day-to-day lives. Working with a charity is a perfect way.

A curious leader must recognise that, regardless of the amount of experience they may have gathered over their career, there is always more to learn. They must see opportunities to take these lessons from different sources. Cultural intelligence, meanwhile, helps the leader to operate in different environments and to see the importance of those experiences that originate in different backgrounds.

Engaging in a meaningful way with a charity necessarily sparks curiosity. Charities are driven not by profit-making or growth but by a vision of a better world. In order to be able to support an organisation of this type, an individual coming from the outside must take time to understand this vision, to gather its importance and why it motivates people. They will also have their curiosity sparked by the difference in the type of leadership required in organisations which often have radically different levels of resource and expertise from the ones they are used to. There are always things to learn from leaders of charity organisations, including how they motivate their staff and manage their own workloads.

Encouraging humility

The traits of courage and cognisance are linked. In this context, cognisance refers to the awareness of one’s own biases. We all have them: they are products of the culture we are brought up in, the companies we have worked for, our gender and our social class and more. To be cognisant of them is to begin to understand how our actions might be shaped by them, and how those actions might have an impact on others.

Naturally, this takes courage: it is difficult to admit to our own shortcomings and vulnerabilities. By not ignoring or denying them, we take a risk. This courage makes a leader better, and increases the respect others have for them.

This courage is required to step outside of one’s comfort zone. By working with a charity in a meaningful engagement, an individual - while believing that they have something to give - also recognises they do not know everything. Many charities support people who do not have a prominent voice in society, such as people living with health conditions or disabilities, victims of abuse, members of minority groups or homeless people; getting involved with them is a chance to learn about them and challenge our own preconceived notions.

Practical action

The traits of commitment and collaboration help to make sure the other inclusive leadership qualities are put into action. Inclusive leaders are partially motivated by the business advantages of the approach, but more so by their own values - this is what makes them commit to putting diversity and inclusion at the heart of their management style. And, as the term suggests, inclusivity requires the involvement of the people around them.

An inclusive leader, therefore, works with a team and puts values at the heart of what they do. They bravely admit and confront their own shortcomings and take risks when it comes to opening up decision-making and discussion to others. They recognise the value of new approaches and different backgrounds, and they actively seek out new ideas.

Development of this type of leader can be supported by working with charities to achieve their mission. It’s a collaborative, values-led approach that demands humility and open-mindedness. What’s more, it can transform organisations doing real good in the world while transforming business leaders of today and tomorrow.