NOTE: This article was first published in Coaching Perspectives, the magazine of the Association For Coaching, in January 2024.
As organisations become more aware of equity and inclusion, there is an increasing demand on those in positions of leadership to demonstrate their capacity to work with diverse teams, and engage with people with different needs and backgrounds, in a way that is fair and effective. This extends to those of us who coach leaders in these positions.
We’ve all had bosses who made us feel deflated and unvalued, and others who made us feel confident and heard. For those of us who have been “the only” in the room, or part of a minority or marginalised group, or different in any way, this comes with the added challenge of fitting in and being accepted.
But what does it really mean to lead inclusively, and how can we support people in positions of leadership to develop this capacity?
What is ‘inclusive leadership’?
The term ‘inclusive leadership’ has grown in popularity over the last decade. Various organisations have attempted to study and encapsulate what it means.
The classic Deloitte model, first introduced in 2016 (as a response to increasing awareness of diversity in the marketplace), remains popular in many organisations today.  Built on the back of Deloitte’s new (at the time) inclusive leadership assessment tool, it neatly outlines 6 signature traits of inclusive leadership:
Cognizance (of bias)
Managers who demonstrate these six characteristics, they found, were more likely to make their employees feel included i.e. that they are “treated fairly, that their uniqueness is appreciated and they have a sense of belonging, and that they have a voice in decision making.”
More recently (in 2019), the think tank Catalyst found (through a survey of c.2000 employees in large organisations), that manager behaviour predicts 45% of the overall employee experience of inclusion. Statistically, that’s a high proportion and it supports the often-quoted claim that “People Don’t Leave Bad Jobs, They Leave Bad Bosses!”
So, Catalyst dug deeper to understand which manager behaviours specifically drive inclusion.
The result was a two-part model that balances ‘Leaning Outward’ and ‘Leaning Inward’. 
Leading outward, they say, is “what you do to ensure team members are treated fairly, empowered, and able to flourish”. It includes Accountability, Ownership and Allyship.
Leading inward is looking at “who you are and your inner ability to act courageously, learn, and self-reflect”, and includes Curiosity, Humility and Courage.
Within each of these, there is a list of actions, detailing what managers can do to ensure the employees in their care feel valued, trusted and able to express themselves authentically.
The list includes, for example: sharing broader purpose, guiding people to set their own goals, checking in regularly, listening well, having honest conversations about expectations, seeking feedback, checking your assumptions, giving people resources to do their jobs well and amplifying under-represented voices.
In many ways, this is what we have always known to be good people management!
The actions described in both the models above, are very similar to the list of behaviours we often find to be the strongest predictors of high employee engagement and low voluntary turnover. So, it makes intuitive sense, and it is clear and helpful.
The reality, however, is that depending on the organisation, these actions may be easier said than done.
Culture and power
When coaching leaders, we often hear references to ‘the way things are’ around them.
Leaders are part of systems and face pressures themselves, including demands on their time, stress, deadlines, and expectations set by those higher up in the hierarchy.
Layered on this is our social conditioning – what (and who) we have been taught to value and normalise, and how we’ve learnt to behave and respond in situations at work.
Manager-employee interactions don’t take place in a vacuum. The wider culture (both organisational and social) plays a big part in how we communicate, make decisions and lead – the sum of which ultimately determines how equitable and inclusive an organisation really is. 
When it comes to embodying inclusive leadership, it is not enough to have “cognizance of our own bias” or “curiosity about others”. We also need to be attuned with the way external systems, assumptions and patterns play out through us when we lead or coach others; in particular, how power dynamics play out.
Alli Myatt , a talent management and racial equity specialist, sheds light on how many of our organisational processes are built on principles of extraction, domination, and control, which is contradictory to equity and inclusion.
She describes how systems and hierarchies in organisations often restrict power to certain groups. Take performance management, for example. She points out how those in power “create the illusion of objectivity by selectively choosing ideas that benefit them and labelling them as objective truths… they define what is professional, what it means to ‘fit’ in a workplace, and what is considered good work. This power allows bias to be embedded into work practices because the ‘objective’ criteria are selected to benefit those in power.”
Leading in a truly inclusive way, therefore, requires a deeper understanding of systems at play, including where power lies and how it flows in the organisation. It means being willing to challenge norms, and replace extractive processes with more reciprocal ones. It means changing the way things are done so that power is shared not hoarded, creating a sense of community or team, rather than control.
Leadership as a verb
This starts with a critical reflection on what we mean by leadership itself.
Most organisations define “leadership” as a group of people who hold positional power – the ‘top tier’, the ‘Senior Leadership team’ or line managers. Leadership is seen as a title rather than an activity.
Simon Western , author and CEO of Analytic-Network Coaching, challenges this in his work on “Eco-leadership”, an approach that is grounded in connectivity, distribution of power, ethics, and sustainability. His approach acknowledges our inter-dependence and takes a more systemic view on what leadership means and looks like in organisations.
When leadership is positioned as an activity – a temporary role – that any of us might take on, it implies that we are all leaders and we are all followers, depending on the context.
This conceptualisation moves us away from rigid role-based hierarchies of control, and creates space for more dynamism, growth, and equity.
THE WAY FORWARD
Building capacity for ‘inclusive leadership’ is a necessary skill in today’s world, not only for those with leadership in their job title but for anyone who leads or works with others.
Inclusive leadership means being aware of ourselves and others and demonstrating fairness, openness, and empathy in the way we engage with people and teams, day to day. It also means being willing and able to share power and influence systemic change in ‘the way things are’, that will ultimately create more inclusive and equitable organisations.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pooja Sachdev is the co-author of 'Rewire: A Radical Approach to Tackling Diversity and Difference', published by Bloomsbury and described by the FT as "the most refreshing approach to diversity I have read."
She is a coach, counsellor, consultant, and founder of Rewire Consulting.
Specialising in organisational development, diversity & inclusion, and leadership, Rewire helps build positive work cultures that enable people, teams and organisations to fulfill their potential.
The six signature traits of inclusive leadership (Deloitte, 2016); Juliet Bourke
Getting Real About Inclusive Leadership: Why Change Starts With You (Catalyst, 2019); Dnika J. Travis, Emily Shaffer, Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon
Rewire: A Radical Approach to Tackling Diversity & Difference (Bloomsbury, 2015); Yates, C. & Sachdev, P. (2015)
How to Infuse Liberatory Principles into Work Practices (Harvard Business Review, 2022); Alli Myatt
Eco-leadership: Towards a new paradigm (2014); Simon Western