How to Become an Inclusive Leader: A Step-by-Step Approach

Becoming and committing to the work of inclusive leadership is an essential practice but where do you start?

Published on Apr. 13, 2022
How to Become an Inclusive Leader: A Step-by-Step Approach
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Inclusive leadership results in organizational effectiveness and competitive advantage. It makes the organization, the team and the individual better. Why? When people are more engaged and they feel like they have a unique and important contribution to make, that allows you to harness the power of diversity to increase creativity and innovation. Hearing from a variety of diverse voices is also the best defense against groupthink.  

For women leaders, there are additional benefits to leading inclusively. Sometimes women think they must go solo and that the reason they’ve been successful is because they do everything themselves. Women may also suffer from the idea that it’s easier to just do things themselves rather than delegating or asking for help. 

An additional aspect for women leaders is that we often face what is called the double bind, where society’s expectations about what it means to be a woman (caring, warm, nice) conflict with society’s expectation of what it means to be a leader (strong, decisive, tough). If women fail to meet either set of expectations, people of all genders will judge them more harshly than they judge men who behave in a similar fashion.

Summarized in the edifying piece, “How Women Manage the Gendered Norms of Leadership,” researchers have identified four common conflicts that women leaders face, all stemming from the need to be both tough and nice. They call these paradoxes:

  1. Demanding yet caring
  2. Authoritative yet participative
  3. Advocating for themselves yet serving others
  4. Maintaining distance yet being approachable 

Being an inclusive leader provides you a strategy for navigating the double bind. With it, you are able to build and prioritize relationships and to care for each person according to their needs — in other words, to exhibit many of the six signature traits of the inclusive leader. By increasing your competency as an inclusive leader, you can be more effective in meeting your goals and objectives in a way that minimizes the impact of the double bind.

The Work of the Inclusive Leader™

  • Level 1: Becoming Aware
  • Level 2: Becoming an Ally and Upstander
  • Level 3: Becoming a Change Agent

With the help of esteemed members of its Strategic Advisory Board, and with our insight and direction, our colleague at Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership, Elisa van Dam, has led the development of a model that provides a roadmap for this practice. Called The Work of the Inclusive Leader™, this model transpires at three levels: becoming aware (for yourself), becoming an ally and upstander (supporting others), and becoming a change agent (advocating for systemic change).

More From Built In DEI Experts4 Ways New Managers Can Lead Diverse Teams


Level One

Part of “the knowing” of inclusive leadership is taking the actions in level one and becoming more aware both of the ways that bias shows up for you, and what your personal values are around equity. Within each level, there are two actions.

Understanding Bias  

Your first action is to examine your own belief systems to uncover how bias might be a factor for you, and also understand how biases may be shaping the actions and beliefs of others.

In corresponding leadership development programs, we often suggest that participants take one or more Implicit Association Tests (IAT). Created by Project Implicit, which was founded by three scientists specializing in social cognition, these tests were developed to measure how strongly we associate concepts about social identity (such as people who are Black, Asian American, gay or transgender) with evaluations (good, bad) or stereotypes (athletic, clumsy). Taking several of these tests can be an eye-opening way to start your self-discovery, pointing to implicit biases you may not be aware you have or even ones that your conscious brain would strongly repudiate. This action also calls for intentional self-reflection. It may be helpful to think about how to deepen your understanding of how your own identities and life experiences shape how you see others with questions like:

  • What messages did I receive when I was growing up about different races and ethnicities?
  • What messages did I receive about gender?
  • What about sexual orientation, physical ability and other dimensions of diversity?
  • How might these messages be influencing how I see the world?
  • When and how are these biases most likely to impact my decision making?


Valuing Equity

Remember that thriving is an advanced state of well-being. At your vigorous level of development, the second requirement of individual understanding is comprehensive: increasing your knowledge of the history and the current context around different dimensions of diversity, including gender, race, sexual orientation, ability and many more (what we call “social identities”). This will deepen your understanding of how systems have historically privileged some people and oppressed others, and how those systems continue to create inequity today. Inclusive leaders must move from focusing on good intentions to focusing on good results that can be measured against a demanding standard: equity. This understanding provides a critical foundation for the other actions, helping to ensure that your actions have the impact you intend, and that you minimize negative unintended consequences.

There are many valuable resources, from reports like Deloitte’s Equity Imperative POV to books, podcasts and articles, that will help deepen your understanding. You can also ask trusted friends and colleagues to share their experiences with you, which is an intimate opportunity to expand your understanding of some of the common terms used by diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging practitioners. Perhaps start by reflecting on why belonging, inclusion and equity are important to you, and how they apply to your core values. You may surprise yourself!

Related ReadingWhat Is Gender Bias in the Workplace?


Level Two

In Level Two, you move from individual learning and awareness to individual action. We use the terms “ally” and “upstander” to describe this function. Technically speaking, those terms are slightly different, and understanding those differences can help point to different ways you can take action. 

The term upstander refers to a person who speaks or acts in support of someone else – especially if that person is being ignored or attacked. The term “ally” describes a person who supports the advancement of someone from a different social identity; for example, men as allies for women, or white people as allies for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American and/or other people who are underrepresented. In essence, as an ally, you use situations where you have unearned privilege to amplify the voices and increase the visibility of people who don’t “look like” you. It can also mean educating other people who share your social identity and helping them to correct biased and discriminatory behavior. 

Diversity and Inclusion Leadership: Key Terms

  • Diversity is about all the ways that human beings differ from one another. It’s important to recognize that diversity includes so much more than the things we can see.
  • Equity is about systems that ensure everyone has fair access to opportunities and is treated according to their needs. Equality, by comparison, is when all people are treated identically, without consideration for historical and systemic barriers and privileges.
  • Inclusion means making an effort to ensure everyone’s voice is heard and leveraged so that everyone feels they belong.
  • Social identity is the term we use to describe different dimensions of diversity, because they describe a person’s sense of identity based on what groups they belong to.
  • Micro-inequities are the small ways that biases show up as differential treatment of people who aren’t in the majority group. It might be leaving someone off of a meeting invitation or rolling your eyes when someone is talking. Each individual situation might seem inconsequential, but over time they add up — like drops of water wearing away a stone.
  • Emotional tax describes the consequences of being in an environment where you face the possibility of discrimination, bias and micro-inequities. People in this situation put their shields up and mentally prepare themselves to deal with these issues. Of course, this preparedness is stressful and comes at a cost.
  • Ally is a term often used to describe a person who supports the advancement of someone from a different social identity — for example men as allies for women, white people as allies for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and other people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.
  • Upstanders are people who speak or act in support of someone else, especially if that person is being ignored or attacked. When you partner with someone to support their success, you will likely act as both an ally and upstander.
  • Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be ridiculed or punished for speaking up, expressing an unpopular opinion or making a mistake.
  • Covering means hiding part of who you are because that aspect of your identity tends to disadvantage you. For example, someone who is gay might not be out at work for fear of being discriminated against.


Partner for Success

The first action in Level Two: Becoming an Ally and Upstander is partnering with colleagues from underrepresented groups to support their success. Using your awareness of how people and systems inadvertently (or sometimes deliberately) create obstacles for people who aren’t in the majority, you can intervene in many different ways to help manage and remove those obstacles. We call this partnering for success.

Once you understand what it means to partner with someone to help them be more successful, opportunities to take action will present themselves every day. Start small, experiment and learn from your actions. Above all, make sure that you are truly partnering with the person you want to support by ensuring your actions are always grounded in an informed understanding of their ambitions and what they would find helpful.


Advocate for Belonging

Belonging is a fundamental human need, crucial to our life satisfaction. As a result, most people need to feel like they belong at work to feel happy and be successful. A useful way to think about belonging is by considering how it interacts with another fundamental human need: to be seen as unique. 

Being an advocate for belonging happens at the individual level. It means listening to the voices of others, valuing their voice and valuing their success. Belonging encapsulates creating a community where I’m invested in you, you’re invested in me and we believe in each other’s success.

More on Allyship From the Founder and CEO of Advancing Women in TechWant to Be an Ally? Be a Mentor.


Level Three

Clear vision. Patient yet persistent. Courageously asking tough questions. Knowledgeable and leads by example. Strong relationships built on trust. Who does this sound like? A change agent!

You may have seen the statistic that women in the UN calculated it will take the next 257 years to close the global gender pay gap, and the American Association of University Women and many others have cited that the US won’t achieve pay equity until 2093. Or maybe you’ve seen research that shows that progress towards gender equality in the US has slowed or stalled, noted by social scientists for the National Academy of Sciences. And that was even before the impact of Covid-19. We must do better. And that’s why our final level is all about leading and accelerating the pace of change.



The first activity of Level Three is sponsorship, defined as “using relationship capital to support the advancement of someone else.” Sponsors are generally one or more levels higher in the organizational structure than the person they are sponsoring, providing sponsors with the opportunity to be in conversations of influence where opportunities are discussed. As a sponsor, you put your reputation on the line to actively advocate for someone from an underrepresented group.

Book cover: McGraw Hill. Arrive and Thrive: 7 Impactful Practices for Women Navigating Leadership.

Writing for Harvard Business Review, Rosalind Chow defined sponsorship as “a form of intermediated impression management, where sponsors act as brand managers and publicists for their protégés. This work involves the management of others’ views on the sponsored employee. Thus, the relationship at the heart of sponsorship is not between protégés and sponsors, as is often thought, but between sponsors and an audience — the people they mean to sway to the side of their protégés.”

This definition then provides a useful way to identify sponsorship actions, including sharing a protégé’s accomplishments, vouching for a protégé who is seeking a new opportunity, making strategic connections, and/or defending or providing air cover when things don’t go as planned. 


Making change

Our final action as a change agent is making organizational change, which involves initiating and driving changes in systems, policies or procedures to level the playing field. In order to build an equitable future, leaders must activate the full breadth of their control and influence across all parts of their organizations and beyond: from relationships to products, services to spend, governance to external interactions. Essentially, three spheres: 

  • Workforce
  • Marketplace
  • Society 

It starts by examining cultural orthodoxies and flipping those that may be getting in the way of pursuing equity. This can be at the team level, like creating norms around how meetings are run to ensure all voices are heard. This can also be at the department level or even organization-wide, like changing how performance evaluations are done to minimize the impact of unconscious biases. Although this is the highest level and most complex practice of the model, leaders at all levels (even individual contributors) can and should suggest and engage in these activities. You can lead change from any position in the organization, whether that’s at the senior leadership or grassroots level, or somewhere in between. 

* * *

Excerpt from Arrive and Thrive: 7 Impactful Practices for Women Navigating Leadership by Lynn Perry Wooten, Janet Foutty, and Susan MacKenty Brady, pp. 167-180 (McGraw Hill, April 2022).

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