Leadership is conspicuous by its absence in a post-pandemic world. An elusive strong coordinated response to the crisis has brought the all-important issue of leadership to the fore.

Even as the Coronavirus has completely changed the world from the one in February, the George Floyd case has overshadowed the pandemic-laden landscape completely in May as compared to the one earlier.

Making sense of the immense changes is proving to be tricky. Global leadership does not exist. Global community does. When the context changes, new patterns emerge.

What will make a great leader in the new diverse world?

When women’s participation started getting registered across defence forces around the world, it was considered the last bastion. In a report released recently, the number of women running Fortune 500 companies has hit a new high—37, up from 33 last year. While a record high, only 7% of the total at 37 and with only 3 women of colour on the list calls for the need to build yet greater gender diversity in the C-suite.

Diversity of gender, culture, age, and ethnicity alone does not make a great team and deliver high-octane performance. Where it all comes together is when inclusive leadership brings the best of this collective through valuing and respecting each one regardless.

A detailed 2019 research survey of 4,100 employees and interviews of those identified as highly inclusive published in HBR highlighted six traits that characterise inclusive leaders the best. These are visible commitment, humility, awareness of bias, curiosity about others, cultural intelligence, and effective collaboration.

Leaders are power machines. They can over-dominate. They could play favourites or discount alternative views. These are definitive characteristics of failing to provide inclusive leadership.

Self-awareness remains the key cornerstone of inclusive leadership. It is easy to not see your blind spots. Checking in with one’s diverse team members is perhaps the first and the simplest step. This awareness leads to trust—that most important weapon of influence in anyone’s armour. Trust, however, requires an open mindset, authentic behaviour, and genuine practice of inclusivity rather than lip service.

Diversity is strength. Being vocal and visible about diversity is the next step. Self-regulating for fair play in effecting cross-cultural interactions leads to not being a victim of stereotyping. Conscious seeking out of differences makes a leader empowered to leverage the power of diversity. Leaders have the control to deliberately put together multidisciplinary and cross-functional diverse teams for smart ideation while inviting peripheral views.

Again, conscious repetitive periodic checks to see the impact of it all is the third crucial step in practising inclusive leadership. This consistency demonstrates commitment to inclusivity. A great inclusive leader seeks out and weeds out signs of any victimisation, marginalisation or discrimination with such periodic interventions. Upholding such values as fairness and respect, value and belonging, and confidence and inspiration is the key.

A case for inclusion

Bees, wasps, ants, the naked mole rat, and humans are flourishing superspecies because of an amazing trait: cooperation.

A heady combination of multiple diverse views perhaps reduces the toxicity which otherwise takes birth to make non-diverse teams edgy. The very edgy nature of diverse teams lends itself to a natural discomfort. Beyond the comfort zone is where true growth lies.

Individuals need to know that they are not isolated. Their views matter. Finding like-mindedness amongst difference is the true outcome of a great inclusive leader. Consciously practised embracing and exploring of such differences creates value—a sustainable competitive differentiator. Great inclusive leaders realise this and practise it.

Pushing beyond the limits

Inclusivity has its limits. Practising plurality at the cost of leadership can create havoc. It is important to follow the code but not stretch beyond. An environment promoting the free flow of ideas, views and perspectives is all important but finally decisive inclusive leadership has to take charge and not let it become a ‘laissez-faire’ situation where the team feels lost.

Diversity is more institutional-driven, at an attempt to eliminate silos. Inclusivity has a more individual character. While compliance may mostly be ensuring diversity in the workplace in the modern world, it is inclusive leadership which delivers growth.

The recent George Floyd killing case brings the issue of inclusion and empathy to the centre once again as the worldwide protests continue.

The India perspective

The prologue below is one of the most cited verses from the Isha Upanishad or the Ishopanishad, one of the shortest Upanishads (ancient Sanskrit texts of spiritual teaching and ideas of Hinduism). It is considered one of the finest.

All this is full, all that is full.

From fullness, fullness comes.

When fullness is taken from fullness,

Fullness still remains.

(Translation: Eknath Easwaran)

The focus of this Upanishad is on the moral implications of the awareness about the identity of individual self with the Ultimate that pervades everything.

Diversity is the blend. Inclusion creates magic. Individuality is the new normal in a post-crisis world. Embracing the new normal ensures leadership influence where individuality and inclusivity go hand in hand.

A world with an emerging new normal requires leading from the middle of the circle. Embracing diversity and acceptance becomes imperative. And inclusion—a growth strategy for engagement, collaboration, and innovation.

Inclusive leadership is influence!

Views are personal. The author is Executive-in-Residence at ISB and at UCLA, and a global CEO coach and a C-Suite + Start-up advisor.

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