It’s Time to Take the Journey Toward Inclusive Leadership

Authors of The Five Disciplines of Inclusive Leaders, Alina Polonskaia, and Andres Tapia, talk about what it means to be an Inclusive Leader.

Today’s social and political tensions have made one thing clear: we need to take steps to build a more equitable, sustainable world. And the business world is not immune: organizations must take ownership of their cultures and determine how they are cultivating this environment for their employees, stakeholders and communities. In fact, 35% of employees report that they are reconsidering their current job because their employer isn’t doing enough to address social justice issues.

For companies to meet these expectations and thrive through disruption, they need inclusive leaders. Research has shown that inclusive leadership drives the differentiation and innovation that lead to business growth.

But what does it mean to be an inclusive leader, and how can your organization find and develop them? These topics were addressed in a recent webinar by the authors of The Five Disciplines of Inclusive Leaders, Alina Polonskaia, Senior Client Partner, Global DE&I Practice Leader at Korn Ferry and Andres Tapia, Senior Client Partner, Global DE&I Strategist at Korn Ferry.

What is inclusive leadership?

To understand the profile of an inclusive leader, Korn Ferry gathered a team from a variety of disciplines, including diversity and inclusion specialists as well as statisticians, assessment experts and more, and analyzed the scientifically backed traits and competencies present in the leaders who are best able to rise to the challenge and succeed despite disruption.

Collectively, we developed the Inclusive LeaderTM Model, based on our analysis of more than 3 million leadership assessments, thousands of in-depth interviews and a series of focus groups. This model reflects three expanding spheres of impact, flowing from self, team and organization, which revolve around three key concepts: traits, competencies and biography.

Traits focus on who a person is. They include an individual’s personality, sense of purpose and values that indicate a person’s preferences and explain the leader’s disposition toward differences. The model identified five clear trait clusters that inclusive leaders possess:

  1. Authenticity: Acting with humility, setting aside your ego and establishing trust in the face of opposing beliefs, values or perspectives.
  2. Emotional resilience: The ability to remain composed in the face of adversity and difficulty around differences.
  3. Inquisitiveness: Openness to differences, curiosity and empathy.
  4. Self-assurance: A stance of confidence and optimism.
  5. Flexibility: The ability to tolerate ambiguity and to be adaptable to diverse needs.

Together, these five traits form the foundation for inclusive leadership. But they aren’t enough on their own. That’s where competencies come in.

Competencies, which are skill based, focus on what people do. We’ve identified five clusters of competencies that are part of the Inclusive Leader Model:

  1. Builds interpersonal trust: They are honest and follow through, and they establish a rapport by finding common ground while valuing perspectives that differ from theirs.
  2. Integrates diverse perspectives: They consider all points of view and others’ needs, and they skillfully navigate conflict.
  3. Optimizes talent: They motivate others and support their growth, and they join forces for collective success across differences.
  4. Applies an adaptive mindset: They take a broad worldview, adapt their approach to suit the situation and innovate by leveraging differences.
  5. Achieves transformation: They are willing to confront difficult topics, bringing people of all backgrounds along to achieve results.

Biography refers to an individual’s personal and professional experiences. Everyone has a unique story and unique perspective on the world, whether it’s based on where they grew up, their family situation, their experience as a minority or majority race or ethnicity or many other experiences. Formative experiences like these may enhance an individual’s capacity for inclusive leadership.

Applying our research to identify inclusive leaders

Using the traits and competencies we identified, we looked for inclusive leaders among profiles in our leadership database. We compared a subset of 24,000 leader assessments against our Inclusive Leader Model and found that only 5% were in the top 25 percentile in six or more of the 10 composites; no leader was in the top 25 percentile on all 10.

Our research also revealed two clusters of inclusive leadership: some individuals led with their heart, while others led with their head. The heart-led cluster scored high on the people-related traits of authenticity and emotional resilience and the competencies of optimizes talent, integrates diverse perspectives and builds interpersonal trust. The head-led cluster was more mindset- and action-oriented, with high scores on the traits of flexibility and inquisitiveness and the competencies of applies an adaptive mindset and achieves transformation.

To be most effective, leaders should strive to develop their skills in the cluster where they’re weaker, so heart-led leaders must develop an approach to diversity, equity and inclusion that leads to organizational transformation, while head-led leaders must become more emotionally connected with the diversity of people they’re leading.

So, what can you do to develop more inclusive leaders balanced with traits and disciplines associated with both the head and heart?

Start learning more about inclusive leadership

To start your journey toward inclusive leadership, Polonskaia and Tapia recommend that you take these steps: