Inclusive Leadership – Moving through Discomfort
Building inclusive leadership requires getting comfortable with discomfort, taking daily small steps, and being selective with the feedback you listen to.
I’ve been reluctant to write this. At the core of my hesitation was that, as a white man, I did not have enough to say. That there are experts with years of study and work in inclusive leadership and those with lived experience whose voices we should hear and who should guide the way.
And while both those things are true, there is a genuine problem with my thinking that way—and it’s a challenge that can undermine your efforts to be a more inclusive leader, build more effective teams, and cultivate innovation.
What are We Talking About?
There is an author whose work I respect who recently asked a question that, I believe, comes from a sincere heart. Maybe you’ve heard it or asked it yourself. His question was this: “I keep hearing about inclusion, but I’m struggling with the concept, practically. There are so many labels. What if I simply loved all people?”
While I’m certainly an advocate for loving people (including your team members), there is a challenge with this way of thinking. It might help to understand the problem with a couple of examples.
In the hours and days following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, in the United States, it was very common for leaders and team members to ask one another: “How are you doing?” “Are you okay?” and “How can I support you right now?” These acts of concern, compassion, and empathy were common and addressed a shared experience.
In contrast, after the killing of Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, or George Floyd, many black Americans reported their business leaders expecting them to show up at the next meeting or presentation with a positive attitude, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
A friend of mine, a family physician who is also black, shared his personal experience with me following George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests. “We have just reorganized, and my new supervisor texted me. She had two questions. Was I ready for a presentation the next day. And, how am I doing?”
He continued, “In 25 years of my professional career, through all that has happened in this country, she’s the first leader I’ve ever had who asked me, am I okay?”
Why the different experiences? Why after one event did most people ask one another “Are you okay?” but with many other traumatic experiences did very few people ask the same question?
The answers aren’t easy, but it comes down to empathy and lack of shared experience. One was perceived as an attack on all of us. The other, as a threat to only some of us (setting aside the corrosive impact on values and trust that most definitely affects all of us).
To me, this is what inclusive leadership is all about. Leaders who see people for who they are, acknowledge their experience, and invite everyone to bring their full selves and perspective to their work. Is that covered by “simply loving all people?”
Perhaps it should be, but too often it is not.
One Vital Key to Inclusive Leadership
I’m sure if you asked many of the leaders who stayed silent if they cared about, or even loved their teams, they would say “Yes, of course, I do.”
So why stay silent when even a moment’s reflection would provoke concern and empathy?
One reason is the same one that kept me from writing this article: discomfort.
The discomfort of “I’m not sure …” “I don’t know if …” “What if I screw this up…?”
I get it—I do.
Conversations that acknowledge the ongoing pain of a civilization built on centuries of injustice aren’t easy. And the path forward isn’t perfectly laid out with clear signposts. And yes, you might not do it elegantly or well at first.
And … isn’t that what leaders do?
Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness. -Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
The Leadership of Moving Through Discomfort
The case for inclusive leadership is both moral and practical. Inviting everyone to the party is just the right thing to do (and it’s good for business).
But if you’re struggling and feeling uncomfortable, I want to invite and challenge you to take a couple of steps.
1. Acknowledge the discomfort.
Just own it. Yeah, you’re uncomfortable. It’s okay. It’s like that first time you rode a bike and wobbled. Uncomfortable? Sure. Maybe you fell, but you kept at it.
Or, more recently, the first time you presented to the executive team—you stuttered a bit, but you got through it. Discomfort doesn’t mean anything’s wrong. It means you’re growing.
2. Start small.
What a difference it would make if every leader would just take a few small steps:
- Ask how people are doing—particularly when there’s a possibility that they’re not doing so well. It’s just a kind, human thing to do (and its omission hurts).
- Invite people into the conversation. Ensure that you, and your team, hear every voice in the team – especially if some tend to get overlooked or ignored.
- As you ask how people are doing and invite people into the conversation, practice listening without reacting. Take in what you are hearing. Respond with a check for understanding or reflect to connect. This listening will often produce more discomfort (It’s okay. See #1 again) that leads to deeper understanding, better decisions, a stronger team, and meaningful business results.
3. Tune out your critic.
For many years, I kept this quote from Abraham Lincoln in a frame where I could see it every day:
“If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business.”
To lead is to open yourself to criticism. It’s okay. Pay attention to the feedback you ask for and from people who know align with your values, want what’s best for you, and are shoulder-to-shoulder building with you. Otherwise, it’s okay to tune out the critic—especially if it’s the doubting voice in your head.
As you do the work to lead inclusively, you’ll return again to these moments of discomfort. It’s not a one-time deal. I invite you to join me in stepping into them and building a better future for all of us. That’s confident humility in action.