5 Essential Traits of an Inclusive Leader

Today, leaders from nearly every industry and across the world are plagued by how to recruit, develop and retain talent effectively.  In a 2021 global leadership forecast study by Development Dimensions International, a survey of 15,000 CEOs and 2,100 HR professionals from 1,700 organizations across 24 industries and 50 countries, 55% cited “developing the next generation of leaders” and “attracting and retaining talent” as their most significant challenges.

Over the next decade, Millennials and Gen Z will make up nearly 60% of the workforce. To effectively recruit and develop this next generation, leaders must first understand what they want from the workplace. A 2018 Gallop Poll found that Millennials and Gen Z  place a high value on working for an organization that is “diverse and inclusive of all people.”

Organizational success means leaders must understand how to act on these emerging trends and build inclusive business cultures. Yet, most organizations still struggle to turn concepts of Diversity & Inclusion into actionable, measurable plans. One crucial step is to develop leaders with the skills and competencies to be inclusive.

Here are five essential traits of an inclusive leader:

1. An Inclusive Leader Recognizes the Dimensions of Diversity

One of the most critical steps a leader can take toward becoming more inclusive is redefining diversity and recognizing all of the layers that make a person whole. For example, some people may think of diversity as everything that is not a straight, white male. Others think of diversity as race or gender. Some think of sexual orientation. But diversity goes well beyond these singular aspects of a person’s identity; it represents all of the complex characteristics that make you, you.

Here are some simple but essential ways inclusive leaders recognize the dimensions of diversity and help move people (and companies) from bias to belonging™:

Ask Questions that seek to understand how employees feel about their sense of belonging in the workplace.

Listen Attentively. Show employees that you respect and value their unique contributions by listening actively. If someone is speaking, give them your full attention.

Practice Gratitude. Employees are more likely to feel a sense of belonging when appreciated. Staff members want to be recognized for their work, celebrated for their unique contributions, and told they’re valued team members.

Solicit Input in Meetings.  To promote belonging, encourage self-moderation. Invite team members to consider and reflect on how much space they take up in a conversation. Recognize those who feel silenced.

Share Stories. Stories are powerful tools for drawing people in, promoting empathy, and building stronger communities. When we hear stories, we place ourselves in the storyteller’s shoes and feel closer to that person.

2. An Inclusive Leader Prioritizes Psychological Safety

Psychological safety in the workplace is “a shared belief held by members of a team that others on the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish you for speaking up.”  According to Dr. Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, people must be allowed to voice half-finished thoughts, ask questions out of left field, and brainstorm out loud in order to create a culture that truly innovates.

Do your team members feel comfortable asking for feedback or help? Are they encouraged to challenge the status quo? Do they feel safe to try something new and fail? Are they rewarded for actions that require vulnerability?

  Setting clear expectations for the workplace and social interactions can help people accept a “safety first” mindset that places a high value on psychological safety and taking care of each other.

To help build psychological safety, leaders must know when to speak up and when to hold back. For example, in strategy-centric meetings, leaders should hold back in sharing their opinions so that they don’t bias the views of others. However, in meetings that require a higher degree of vulnerability, inclusive leaders should share their stories first.

3. An Inclusive Leader Builds Company Culture on a Foundation of Belonging

People show up authentically when (and where) they feel like they truly belong.  A business culture centered around belonging has four fundamental cornerstones: Identity, Agency, Power & Flow.

Identity. Identity is the lens through which we view the world; it reflects how we see ourselves and perceive others as seeing us. We cannot shed our identity when we enter the workplace. As a result, our sense of identity influences how we work with others and how we view our role within the organization. For this reason, leaders need to create a space where employees can bring their whole sense of self (their identity) to work.  One essential step is to ensure that employees feel safe to discuss how their identities impact their work and relationships with their colleagues, clients, boss, and even the company policies.

Agency. Agency is a vital part of the human need for free will. In the workplace, Agency is someone’s comfort and confidence when expressing ideas in various contexts. When employees feel a strong sense of agency at work, they feel control over their actions and consequences. As a result, they are more innovative, self-directed, and proactive.

Power. Power dynamics determine how your teams work together and ultimately impact your company’s ability to reach its collective goals. Leaders who hold power within your company must know when and how to use it, when to lead and when to hold back. Inclusive leaders use their positions of power to improve transparency, trust, and respect throughout the organization.

Flow. In the workplace, flow is the transformative state of work that is intrinsically rewarding.  Flow happens when employees take on meaningful work that is important and challenges their skillsets. When your employees are in a flow state, they have a strong sense of personal control (agency) over the situation or activity and experience the work as deeply rewarding. Inclusive leaders create flow by aligning people with their passions and removing obstacles to top performance. When your teams are in a strong flow state, your business grows and thrives.

Dashboard that illustrates belonging in the workplace.

Building a culture of belonging is not elusive. The results come when leaders commit to making real, measurable progress in this space.

4. Inclusive Leaders Use Empathy

For most of modern civilization, we have operated on the assumption that humans are rational, logical creatures. However, what recent advances in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics demonstrate is that we are a far more emotional species. Knowing this, it is imperative that leaders develop and use empathy to connect with and understand those that they are leading.

Empathy requires you to consider another’s perspective as if it were your own, setting aside your opinions and imagining yourself in another’s place so that you can better understand their situation, feelings, and motives.

Inclusive leaders pay close attention to the needs of people and proactively look for ways to remove barriers.

They pick up on various subtle cues and easily imagine how it might feel to be in their place. Leading with empathy requires proactive listening, being present (and unplugging), curiosity (asking questions), putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and relating to feelings, not events. By exercising empathy, inclusive leaders create an environment that promotes open communication, increases productivity, cultivates trust, and boosts morale.

5. An Inclusive Leader Has High Emotional Intelligence (EI) 

Every human being experiences emotions. For leaders, high degrees of stress, overwhelm, worry, and aggravation often comes with the job. When leaders give in to these emotions, they can jump to incorrect conclusions, missing out on crucial information and opportunities.  Leaders with high emotional intelligence (EI) are aware of both their emotions and the emotions of others. And—with that understanding—they manage their reactions and create positive interactions in and outside of their company.

Part of developing a high EI involves practicing self-awareness and self-regulation. A self-aware and regulated leader can tune in to their state of emotions, knows their triggers, pauses before responding to an emotionally charged situation, and practices self-care to remain physically, emotionally, and psychologically healthy. Ultimately, high EI coupled with strong self-awareness and self-regulation allows leaders to make good decisions and drive the best outcomes for their organizations and teams while fostering a culture of belonging.

While there are many ways to be an effective leader, one thing is for sure: Leaders of today must be able to build an inclusive culture that fosters a sense of belonging.

Leaders who recognize the dimensions of diversity, cultivate psychological safety, build a culture on a foundation of belonging, display empathy, and exhibit high emotional intelligence will develop their talent and strengthen their company’s long-term success.


Matthew J. Cahill
Matthew J. Cahill
Matthew Cahill is a bias mitigation expert, dedicating his professional career to helping organizations cultivate inclusive cultures and increase revenue. Top-performing companies understand for a teachable moment to be valuable, it must be both targeted and tailored. Matthew’s consulting engagements, interactive seminars, and executive coaching lead to organizational transformation, empowering leaders to strengthen their identity, find their voice, and increase a sense of belonging in their workplaces. Read more about Matthew here.

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE


  1. Diversity in the company is an added value. Many companies are actively promoting job inclusion, aware that it is a factor of growth, competitiveness and that supports the business. Diversity has become a central reference of company policies.
    Inclusive leaders show a genuine commitment to diversity, challenge the status quo and make diversity and inclusion a personal priority. They show awareness of the intervention of the unconscious bias, but work to counter them and to ensure equality and meritocracy. They show an open mind and a deep and genuine curiosity for others, they listen without judgment and try with empathy to understand those around them. They are attentive to the culture of others and adapt to the context with the aim of acquiring a plurality of looks and thoughts. They know how to empower and empower others, pay attention to diversity of thought and psychological security, and focus on team cohesion. They are aware of their own abilities, try to improve them and create space for the contribution of others.
    It is clear, therefore, that inclusive leadership is not characterized by occasional large gestures, but by regular, constant and small-scale actions.