The Essence of Inclusive Leadership

Making all people feel seen and valued can unleash a wave of innovation, says Korn Ferry leadership coach Kevin Cashman.

Kevin Cashman is Korn Ferry’s global leader of CEO and executive development.

To unleash the power of all, it is critical to rise above our limiting mindsets, and even more importantly, to transcend constricted heart-sets. The human spirit, our deepest, most authentic humanity, cannot be denied or minimized by judgements that tend to restrict our collective worth. In the end, synergy supersedes separateness and eventually prevails; inclusion is the soul of synergy. 

Our research, and the research of others, has demonstrated that the essence of innovation is grand collaboration. The broader and more diverse the dots included and connected, the more profound and innovative the breakthrough. Diversity and inclusion foster this by hearing, appreciating, and including new, unique voices to create new, unique possibilities. However, our technological innovations have too often outpaced our human innovations. As Mastercard’s Chief Executive Officer, Ajaypal Singh Banga, reflected, “We have the Internet of Everything but not the inclusion of everyone.” 

Great leaders transform by reconciling polarities and paradoxes into new, more unified possibilities. Inclusive leaders bridge the seeming polarities while honoring the spectrums and breadth of diversity and uniqueness. The Reverend Jesse Jackson captured this beautifully: “Our premise is that inclusion leads to growth. So, for those who are locked out, they lose development, and those who are in power lose market and growth.” Whether we are running a global organization or dealing with our families, being inclusive, appreciating both unity and diversity, is a constant human challenge. 

A while ago, a very seasoned global CEO reflected on his career with me:

“I always thought of our company as truly global, truly inclusive of the world. The truth is, we were not. We were a US-centric, internationally located firm. Unintentionally, we divided more than we included. Why? Because I had not made my own inside-out leadership shift to be more open, more inclusive, within myself. Until I examined my own boundaries, my own biases, my own lack of openness in my life story, I could not even see it, much less appreciate and value it in other.”

We all have boundaries, we all have our walls, built brick by brick throughout life experience. Break down the walls from inside and the world enters. CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper put it well: “While as a society we are moving toward greater inclusion and equality for all people, the tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible.” The goal of diversity and inclusion is to unleash potential by making ourselves, and all those around us, more visible and more authentic contributors. 

In their work, The 5 Disciplines of Inclusive Leaders, Alina Polonskaia and Andrés Tapia inspired me to deeply reflect on my own leadership and on some of the original research presented in my book, Leadership from the Inside Out more than twenty-five years ago. While inclusion and diversity were just taking hold in the corporate world back then, the principles of authenticity, courage, agility, purpose, interpersonal trust, resilience, and value creation were present. While reading the great work of my colleagues Andrés and Alina, I was struck that the core principles for both world-class leadership and inclusive leadership are so foundationally connected.

Each of our stories, to various degrees, is full of diverse people, influences, experiences, cultural impacts, biases, traumas, and triumphs. Knowing our deeper, unique stories helps us to be more open, more empathetic, and more curiously connected to the diverse stories of others. Once we know our own story and deeply appreciate the stories of others, separateness recedes. Like reading a great novel and empathizing with all the characters, once we understand someone’s story, our heart opens, and our harsh judgement disappears. 

Inclusive leadership is no longer just a desirable thing to have or to add to our leadership. It is crucial to be it, to embody it, to achieve greater purpose-driven performance through it. 

Leadership changes everything; it is a causal force, intolerant of the status quo, compelled to transform everything it touches. But while leadership changes everything, it can accelerate change in one of two ways: change for the better or change for the worse. Being a more inclusive leader will heal parts into a more enduring whole to ensure that you are a force for changing our world to a much more sustainable, innovative, purposeful, and peaceful place.

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