Becoming a More Inclusive Leader

October 4, 2022 David Witt

As an expert in the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Jennifer Brown has seen firsthand the negative effects exclusionary behavior has in organizations—whether it is intentional or not.

“When we don't feel comfortable or we don't trust the system we're in, we modify, downplay, or minimize. We conveniently avoid sharing information because we think it might limit our career prospects or our relationships with people.”

Covering behavior also takes a toll on one’s sense of self, says Brown, bestselling author of How To Be An Inclusive Leader.

“We do it as a survival tactic, but it has an accrued effect of dampening our confidence in ourselves. We feel small. We feel less than. 

“The true potential of the workforce can't be unleashed unless we feel a sense of belonging. To feel that sense of belonging, we need to feel seen, heard, and valued for all of who we are.”

The Role of the Leader

The encouragement for us to uncover, or to begin to uncover, our behavior needs to come from others around us, says Brown, not just from those who share our diversity dimensions.

“If we leap, the net has to appear. The “net” is the organization, the manager, and the leadership. Every leader should be constantly listening, digging in, addressing, and removing obstacles.

“As a leader, you have to participate in the uncovering process. You need to put some skin in the game—be in this room and be in this conversation. You can't just show up and say, ‘I bless this conversation.’”

A Four-Stage Model to Describe the Journey

Brown uses a four-stage continuum to help leaders understand where they are on their journey and take the next step toward development.

Stage One: Unaware

“At this stage, people don't understand that there's a gap. They assume everything is going okay, mostly right.”

The goal is meeting people where they are and inviting reflection, says Brown.

“We need to present the argument in different ways and avoid being judgmental about why somebody is unaware, because there can be so many reasons. As long as there is some engagement—some tension on the rope coming back from the other side—I'll take it. And then we can work with it. We can present something that might fill in that gap for that person.”

Stage Two:  Aware

At this stage, people are curious, investigating, and gathering info, says Brown.

“We think about our own hidden diversity dimensions and what's not visible. What could this have to do with my leadership? How can I weave this in to how I lead? Those are the right questions to ask at this stage.

“But when we expose ourselves to different identities that aren't our own, this is a place where we can get stuck or maybe feel a sense of overwhelm, guilt, regret, or even anger.

“At this stage it’s common for us to react by thinking: I didn't get exposure to this. I never knew someone like that. I was never taught this. This wasn't in my history,” says Brown.

“But the more we learn—especially about our privileges—the more we realize that we simply never saw it this way. And now our eyes are open.”

Stage Three: Active

Brown uses the metaphor of learning to ride a bike to explain the Active stage.

“When I'm riding a bike for the first time, I'm paying attention because it's new. I'm on. I'm staying on. But now I'm kind of falling off. Staying on. Falling off.”

This stage is really about experimentation, building a muscle, and getting sore from all those reps, explains Brown. Or lifting heavier weights and building our competency.

“It’s uncomfortable because we are becoming more public, more intentional, and more proactive. We are beginning to use our voice. And it's not always going to go smoothly because this is a totally new language for a lot of us. It's a new way of seeing ourselves in the system in a way we've probably never seen before.”

Stage Four: Advocate

In stage four, we keep opening the door and we keep pushing ourselves, says Brown.

“As an advocate, we know how to wield everything—our voice, our knowledge, and our behavior. We’re fearless, we’re brave, and we’re courageous.”

But this stage can also be lonely and tiring, says Brown. And it can have negative effects.

“Being an advocate can draw attention to our own diversity dimension. People can be like, ‘Oh, you know her, she’s the angry ______.’ (Fill in the blank.)

“But it’s not anger. It’s insistence on doing better. It’s insistence on holding ourselves accountable and on improving.”

The fatigue experienced here is real, says Brown, because there's not a lot of hands making the work easier.

“You may find yourself as the custodian of the conversation—always being the one who can explain somebody's experience for a whole community or speak for a whole community."

But it can't just be one voice pushing on the system, says Brown. Other people who are insiders need to push on the system, too.

“As an advocate, you’re reaching back while you’re also nurturing people forward, growing a pipeline of inclusive leaders, holding yourself accountable, and holding others accountable.”

A Continuing Journey

It's a continuous pattern of back and forth, says Brown, with no ending destination. But that's the beauty of the journey, she explains.

“The more we learn about different identities, the more we realize we’ve only scratched the surface of so many others. It’s an important journey that is equipping me to be a much more multifaceted leader by deepening my empathy and giving me the language with which to create change.”

Editor’s Note: Learn more about Jennifer Brown’s thinking in the newly revised second edition of How To Be An Inclusive Leader. Just released on October 4th.


Would you like to learn more about developing inclusive leadership behaviors in your organization?  Join us for a free webinar!

Becoming a Courageously Inclusive Leader

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

7:00 a.m. Pacific Time

The need for inclusive leadership has never been more important. In this webinar, bestselling author and diversity and inclusion expert Jennifer Brown addresses some of the most pressing challenges of our time including identity, privilege, and equity.  Drawing on some of the key takeaways from her book, How to Be An Inclusive Leader, Brown will share:

  • The Inclusive Leader Continuum: a four-stage roadmap that leaders can use to guide their personal journey to becoming an inclusive leader
  • The role identity and privilege play in propelling change—including a call-in to leaders who are still on the sidelines
  • Why humility, empathy, vulnerability, and resilience are essential components of the inclusive leader skill set

Don’t miss this opportunity to explore strategies and gain tools to help individuals of all levels drive positive change in their organizations. 

Register today!

About the Author

David  Witt

David Witt is a Program Director for Blanchard®. He is an award-winning researcher and host of the companies’ monthly webinar series. David has also authored or coauthored articles in Fast Company, Human Resource Development Review, Chief Learning Officer and US Business Review.

More Content by David Witt
Previous Resource
The Courage to Lead Inclusively: Self-Work, Homework, At Work
The Courage to Lead Inclusively: Self-Work, Homework, At Work

Growth can be challenging and often uncomfortable. Any person who has ever been a minority in a majority se...

Next Resource
Not Sure You’re Ready to Be a Leader? Ask Madeleine
Not Sure You’re Ready to Be a Leader? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine, I have had uncanny success in my company. I am extremely competitive and incredibly focused...