International Head of Leadership Development DLA Piper
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Redefining leadership: why it’s time for leadership to become more inclusive

Traditional (masculine focused) approaches to leadership are outdated in today’s business environment. To get results today, leaders need to take a more inclusive approach.  

28th Aug 2019
diverse team of colleagues in a meeting
iStock/fizkes

The speed of change in business today is unprecedented. New markets, client expectations, employee demographics, artificial intelligence, increased levels of transparency and digitalisation are putting pressure on leaders to rethink organisational models.

Interestingly, it seems that despite the challenges facing leaders today, the same level of focus has not been placed on redefining leadership and the capabilities needed in the current business climate.

To address this, old notions of heroic and charismatic leadership need to give way (urgently) to models centred around inclusive leadership.

As Bourke and Dillon suggest in their 2016 paper, notwithstanding the ethical rationale, the heterogeneity of the current business environment demands an inclusive approach to leadership if organisations are to remain viable in the long term.  

So what can organisations do to redefine leadership and move towards more inclusive models of leadership and what are the outcomes of doing so?

Organisational leadership models

To ensure clarity and focus, organisations must revisit their leadership frameworks and models.

While inclusive leadership shares much in common with transformative, authentic and servant leadership, organisations need to make explicit the change in leadership style and behaviour required.

Executive and senior leadership teams must recognise that, as prototypes for the organisation and leadership style, they cast a long and pervasive shadow.

All too often, organisational players use inclusive leadership as a proxy for unconscious bias, yet this style of leadership is far more encompassing.

Despite the myriad of definitions, researchers seem to agree that inclusive leadership includes aspects such as:

  • Self-awareness and a recognition of personal biases and preferences
  • Curiosity and a concerted effort to seek out, listen to and celebrate diversity of thought and perspective
  • An acceptance and keen interest in all people
  • Recognition that diverse talent brings competitive advantage to an organisation
  • The ability to inspire others with a strong sense of purpose and a clear vision
  • Humility and a willingness to be imperfect
  • Cultural sensitivity and the understanding that there are differences in the way people see and experience things both across and within cultures
  • A willingness to bring diverse teams together to collaborate and constructively challenge

Creating a clear leadership framework not only provides a useful benchmark for current leaders, but also allows the broader HR and organisational development functions to configure all aspects of the organisational system - including recruitment, development, processes, remuneration, design and systems.

Even more importantly, a carefully designed model sends a clear message to the entire workforce about the type of organisation it wants to become.

Additionally, as leadership models become embedded, so too does the discourse and narrative around what 'good leadership looks like here'.

It would be shortsighted to think that the development of an organisational model could instantly transform an organisation or eradicate the power struggles, deep-seated politics or counter-productive leadership behaviours.

That said, clear frameworks provide committed organisations and leadership teams with an ability to call out behaviour, processes and policies that undermines the type of organisational culture required to compete in today's environment.

Leadership development and capability building

While inclusive leadership shares a number of facets with more established leadership theories and models, it will inevitably require a commitment to capability building at all levels.  

Perhaps nowhere will this be more important than with executive and senior leadership teams, who set the direction, tone and focus for the organisation.

Executive and senior leadership teams must recognise that, as prototypes for the organisation and leadership style, they cast a long and pervasive shadow.

While a demonstrable commitment to building inclusive leadership capability is in no way the sole responsibility of the most senior leaders, backing and role modelling this is critical if inclusive leadership is to permeate as a modus operandi.  

It may be that if more organisations adopted inclusive leadership models, we would finally see more gender balance on top tables around the country.

Learning and organisational development teams will have a critical role to play in both designing learning ecosystems that build inclusive leadership capability and ensuring that the wider organisational architecture (including recruitment, performance, rewards and systems) is also aligned and supportive.

Evidence also suggests that inclusive leadership capability can be developed regardless of experience.

That said, it may take commercially savvy HR and L&D teams to help leaders understand that far from being simply the right thing to do, there is a sound commercial and business case for focusing on inclusive leadership, particularly in organisations that have a need to innovate.

Ultimately, if organisational leaders want to create innovative, psychologically healthy workplaces that the very best talent wants to join then the discussion shouldn’t be on whether to adopt inclusive leadership practices, but rather how quickly the organisation can start moving towards them.

Outcomes

Evidence is now building to suggest that inclusive leadership leads to a myriad of positive outcomes.

Studies are not only showing a tangible impact on employee creativity but on factors like employee engagement, psychological safety and business performance.

Moreover, it may be that if more organisations adopted inclusive leadership models, we would finally see more gender balance on top tables around the country - could be developing leaders from a wider pool of talent.

In addition, it may be that women and men would feel more comfortable to pursue leadership positions knowing that they could be authentic versions of themselves as opposed to conforming to historical, overly masculine, notions of leadership.

Finally, putting business benefit aside, we have a moral duty to make sure that everyone regardless of gender, sexuality, age, thinking etc. (or the intersection of one or many of these) feel able to contribute, and be respected and valued whatever their role or level in work.

Interested in this topic? Read How to become an inclusive leader who values diversity.

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