To Become Genuinely Inclusive Leaders, CEOs Must Learn From Their Missteps

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Leaders can make employees feel like part of the team—and increase loyalty and productivity—by exposing the rationale behind why decisions have been made.

Sometimes you discover your blind spots in a contained place, allowing you to take stock and process how you missed something obvious, without the whole world knowing. Other times, it happens live on stage—in front of your entire team.

The latter situation happened to me not too long ago. And the result was part of a lesson that every leader can learn from. I was on a virtual stage at an event with a group of colleagues talking about religion and faith as often integral parts of an individual’s identity. This conversation was part of series to further the inclusiveness of our group’s culture. One team member brought up an interesting point about the annual organizationwide tradition of voting for an ornament design during the holiday season. He asked: How does it make people who don’t celebrate Christmas feel to be asked to select an ornament?

That was just one of several moments during the same session when blind spots were revealed. Another was when some of us recalled when we gathered in a different part of the world for leadership development purposes. Demographically, a large portion of the participants were vegetarian—however, the event was planned by folks in the United States, and they did not consider this in their menu planning. While this misstep was not intentional, it was embarrassing and insensitive. The situation was rectified the next day, with learnings and heightened sensitivity embraced by all involved.

Admittedly, these are two small examples of a much larger opportunity that exists today not only in corporate America, but across numerous facets of our global society as well.

When executives and managers now talk about inclusion, they’re often referring to something narrow, usually focused on race or gender. My definition, and the way I think about inclusion, is far broader and includes cultural, religious, geographic, experiential, education and other dimensions of diversity.

Cultural and religious inclusion would’ve gone a long way toward keeping us from only offering a single nonmeat dish during a business meal. Religious inclusion would have also ensured that everyone, not just Christians, could feel seen and heard during what was intended to be an engaging, annual tradition.

Leading more inclusively means so much more than just trying to include a representative number of women or people of color within your organization. While this is an important, sensible goal, it’s just the beginning, not the endgame.

Leaders need to lead all their people. Nowadays, there are countless examples, both in corporate America and the country at large, of leaders choosing sides. Only choosing to represent those with whom they have the most in common. That’s not inclusive leadership. And it’s contributing to an America where people feel more pessimistic about the country’s future than ever before.

So how do truly inclusive leaders need to respond?

Go out of your way to do something that seems to have become increasingly rare: find and talk to those with whom you think they have the least in common. Seek out, hire and listen to as many divergent points of view as possible. Purposefully surround yourself with difference.

This isn’t to say that good leaders are wishy-washy or avoid making tough decisions because not everyone agrees with them. Quite the opposite. What’s important is the ability to make more fully formed decisions—a process that requires as many points of view as possible.

Maybe all this effort will ultimately result in the same decision that would have happened without inclusion of people with diverse perspectives. But part of a leader’s role is to expose the rationale behind why a decision was made. Inclusion, and the effort to make good use of it, increases the chances for transparency even if it doesn’t always change the results. You’re aiming for progress, not perfection. You’re striving for collaboration, not necessarily consensus. And to build trusted relationships, transparency and collaboration are essential ingredients.

Serving the wrong food or creating an annual tradition that only resonates with part of your team aren’t the worst mistakes you can make as a leader. But they are emblematic of a way of thinking about inclusion that isn’t all-embracing.

Leaders face significant, growing challenges in today’s fragile and often polarized environment. Yet that also represents an opportunity for them to distinguish themselves, elevate team members who often don’t feel seen or heard, and ultimately improve the health of an organization overall. Great leaders know that they must serve all the people, and they do what it takes to learn, so that they may lead more inclusively—with their words and their actions.

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