What is inclusive leadership? You can answer this question by describing what it is not: autocratic, top-down, indifferent. Of course, the actual definition is much more complex and nuanced. Inclusive leadership comes from a place of alliance more than command, self-reflection instead of surety, empathetic communication rather than austere directives, synergy over hierarchy.

As the modern workforce becomes more diverse, as companies face the challenges of an increasingly complex world, adopting the principles of inclusive leadership has never been more important.

“Inclusive leaders drive performance, productivity, and innovation through their ability to relate to a diversity of people and perspectives, be open and flexible, and focus on personal, team, and organizational growth,” says a white paper published by the Diversity Council of Australia.

With these broad concepts in mind, let’s dig a little deeper into what inclusive leadership means and how it manifests in the real world.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion – What’s the Difference?

Taken together, diversity, equity, and inclusion is the three-legged stool supporting a fair and productive society. The differences may be subtle in some respects, but it’s important not to conflate the three for each to work.

“Being able to pull apart these definitions is vital, “ writes Meg Bolger, an entrepreneur and social justice facilitator, in the General Assembly Blog. “When we can’t hold diversity, equity, and inclusion as separate concepts and understand how they interact, we can’t set clear goals and strategies around them.”


A diverse environment is one of variety, “the presence of difference within a given setting,” Bolger says. If we take a lesson from nature, we understand how diversity creates a healthy, thriving, sustainable ecosystem. In a social and business context, diversity refers to race, gender, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation explains Bolger. But even among people who may share similar identities, there is emotional and cognitive diversity.


A diverse workforce does not guarantee that it is equitable. Equity requires us to recognize that barriers exist for some, advantages for others. “We don’t all start from the same place,” Bolger says. Equity ensures that despite this, leaders provide equal opportunities for all. Achieving equity obliges courage and cognizance of bias.


Inclusion is the experience of personally feeling valued and welcomed within an organization. It gives voice to everyone’s authentic self.

In sum, diversity recognizes and values differences in people. Equity recognizes bias and secures equal opportunity in diversity. Inclusion values each individual for all that they are and have to contribute.

“Understanding these differences is essential to establishing mutual respect among everyone in your workplace and creating an inclusive environment for all your staff members,” says Bolger.

Characteristics and Examples of Inclusive Leadership

Organizations evolve. Markets change, circumstances change, realities change. It is inevitable. Navigating change isn’t. Inclusive leadership demands thoughtful intention, flexibility, and resilience.

Google, Facebook, McDonald’s, Salesforce, and Deloitte offer good examples of global businesses embedding inclusive leadership into their organizational structure.

Speaking to the Harvard Business Review, Terri Cooper, Deloitte’s Vice-Chair of External Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, explains the “dramatic change” of today’s workforce.

“It’s really important for us to realize that each of us is multidimensional with unique needs and expectations that merge at different points in our professional and personal lives,” Cooper says.

Cooper and her team provide a framework of six key traits of an inclusive leader. With these traits are 15 supporting elements:

  • Cognizance of bias
    • Self-regulation. Recognizing our personal biases (we all have them).
    • Securing fair pay, equal treatment, equality of opportunity.
  • Curiosity
    • Openness, willingness to ask questions, learn.
    • Always considering the diverse perspectives of those you lead.
    • Coping with ambiguity. Wise leaders lead through ambiguity.
  • Courage
    • The courage of humility.
    • Bravery is being willing to challenge the status quo.
  • Commitment
    • Committed to leadership reflecting personal values.
    • Steadfast belief in the business case for inclusive leadership.
  • Cultural Intelligence
    • A drive to learn and understand other cultures.
    • Your own cultural perspective skews your perspective of others.
    • Adapt your behavior based on cultural norms.
  • Collaboration
    • Empowering your team to contribute to their full potential.
    • The discipline of diversity in team composition and processes.
    • Everyone has a voice. Leaders know how to listen.

“I truly believe that this is something that can be learned,” Cooper says. “We know that when people bring their full selves to work every day, they are more readily able to fully realize their potential.”

Inclusive Leadership Training – Who Needs It?

Teri Cooper says it best: “Being a leader means being an inclusive leader.” In other words, leaders of successful teams are by definition, inclusive leaders.

The Kelley School of Business has designed a certificate program for professionals with courage, curiosity, intelligence, and commitment ready to take the reins and join the ranks of inclusive leaders in the 21st century.

Available in June 2021, the Inclusive Leadership online certificate adds to the robust roster of Kelley School of Business Executive Certificate programs.

Want to Find Out More?

If you’re interested in learning more on this topic, join us May 19 at 12 pm ET for Inclusive Connections for an Integrated Workforce, a free webinar offered in partnership with the Kelley School of Business Alumni Association. Register here.