Stories of Inclusive Leadership

Inclusive Leadership has been a focus for us in the last few years; “Leading in South Africa” being a crucial element of our leadership journeys, equipping leaders and managers with awareness and skill to create workplaces of belonging for all.

But what is it really, to be ‘inclusive’? How do we practice this on a day-to-day basis? How do I create this ‘psychological safety’ everyone speaks about, and how do I make sure people feel they can bring in their voices and be themselves fully? How do I contribute as a leader to a workplace where people do not feel they have to change and ‘assimilate’, but can be who they are, and bring their gifts?

Let me give you some examples of what Inclusive Leadership can look like. This is by no means all, but hopefully will give you a feel.

 “I don’t think she has sufficient experience” – be open to new ideas

Imagine a working student who has just started working for their employer. In a meeting around an important potential policy change for the company, she has a great idea for this change. But she stops herself, wondering whether her voice will count – she thinks that someone who is only a ‘working student’ can’t really contribute something useful for the company. Luckily, in this real situation I am referring to, there was a leader who was inclusive. The leader asked the student for her ideas, recognised that the idea was great, and the company implemented it. The policy became an important step for the company moving forward. 

“This person is older/ younger/ black/ white and therefore…” – dismantle biases

Imagine an older employee signs up for a digital transformation initiative. Or a relatively young employee holding a presentation. You might find yourself thinking “will this older person still be able to get their head around this digital stuff”, or “does this youngster know their stuff? I mean how long have they been out of university, one month?”. Notice the biases that come up for you or others, be aware of comments people make, and call them out! Biases like these prevent us from creating a culture that everyone can be part of, feel they belong, and contribute their gifts. An inclusive leader recognises that everyone, no matter how old or young, might have something valuable to contribute, maybe PRECISELY because they are young or older.

An inclusive leader makes sure to draw on this actively and dismantles biases that might be going on around age, race, gender or other characteristics of a person.

“He does not quite fit into our team” – invite difference

A relatively frequent comment from clients is something like “he doesn’t quite fit into our team and would not gel with the rest”. Firstly – this is understandable. We want teams that work well together, get on with each other, and ideally enjoy each other’s company. Affinity bias is normal – we like hanging out with people like us.

At the same time, when we talk about someone being a bit different, it’s important to distinguish between a real clash of values, or whether someone is somewhat different from the rest of the team. If it is the latter, this could be a real growth for the team – widening their perspective, a potential beautiful ‘disruption’ to group think! An inclusive leader welcomes difference, even if it is uncomfortable.

“I am really committed to transformation but cannot find the right people”

Something we often hear from clients in our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work is that they are ‘really committed’ to transformation, but unfortunately ‘just cannot find the right person with the right skillset’. We acknowledge that this can be difficult. HOWEVER…

An inclusive leader challenges this, and role models empowerment and transformation in South Africa. Is there REALLY not the right person, or have we not looked widely enough? And if we have really looked widely enough, and haven’t found anyone, how can we ensure that this does not happen again? Do we have the right talent management systems in place? Are we making sure to transfer skills and get someone qualified for this job for the next 2-3 years?

OR – could we shift the role slightly so a person could fit into it already? If we are committed to equity, there might be other ways to give people access to roles that they might normally not have had access to. And yes, it has its own complexities and is not easy. But we have to start somewhere and believe that we are not trying hard enough to create more inclusive workplaces, more diversity in senior management, and more belonging overall.

Inclusive leadership is one foundation for creating the humane economy we’re aiming to inspire. Is it easy? No. Is it complex? Yes. Does it require very strong commitment? Yes. Is it frustrating at times, and does not always go the way we want it to go? Yes.

Is it necessary? Yes.

Will it make a difference in this world? Yes.

And we believe it’s crucial for leadership of the future.


Judith Haupt

Senior Facilitator & Coach