The Courage to Lead Inclusively: Self-Work, Homework, At Work

By now, most of us have seen articles about the ROI of diverse and inclusive workplaces. The data tells us that the business case for gender, ethnic, and cultural diversity is clear—organizations that are more diverse outperform those that are less diverse. However, according to the 2020 McKinsey report Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters, about 50 percent of the firms that were tracked have made little to no progress in executive team diversity—in fact, many have seen a decline in representation.

Despite trending hashtags that feature terms like diversity, inclusion, equity, and unconscious bias, we still have a long way to go before our ranks (the collective we of the corporate world) reflect or represent diverse and global perspectives. When I think about the work of creating inclusive spaces and workplaces, Audre Lorde’s lines from her poem “A Litany for Survival” come back to me :


For those of us who live at the shoreline

standing upon the constant edges of decision

crucial and alone

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

looking inward and outward

at once before and after

seeking a now that can breed


like bread in our children’s mouths

so their dreams will not reflect

the death of ours;

(Lines 1-3, 8-14)


Perhaps it seems strange to quote poetry in an article like this, but Lorde’s words gesture toward the painful experience of standing on the margins. So many employees in our organizations and in other places have been on the proverbial “edge of decision” for generations—seeking opportunity, seeking to be heard, and seeking the realization of their futures as others pass them by again and again. Their decisions reverberate across decades and generations in ways too numerous to list.

If we truly want to make strides toward inclusion, we have to understand that people’s histories, their daily lives, and their hopes for themselves or their families cannot be untangled from their work lives. If this characterization feels heavy, it’s because real inclusion work is heavy. It can’t be done in a day or a month. It requires earnest investment, a forthright look at oneself and one’s organization, and commitment for the long haul.

Workplaces that participate in surface-level diversity and inclusion initiatives can often have an effect that is more harmful than helpful. They provide the illusion that progress is happening, but people on the margins remain there while those with privilege are insulated. They persist in exclusionary, harmful, or biased practices either because they remain unaware of the responsibility that their positional authority calls for or because they lack the tools to address it. So how do we begin?

Inclusion Starts at the Top

Very often, organizations operate their diversity and inclusion initiatives from the bottom up. They want their employees to create work environments that are welcoming and inclusive. It’s a worthy endeavor. But the deep work of DEI requires scaffolding and support from leaders who have already embarked on the journey to self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and socio-cultural exposure and education. If organizations hope to move large populations of employees toward more culturally aware and inclusive practices, their employees need to feel supported by and able to seek guidance from their managers, directors, and so on, all the way up the org chart. Here are a few principles to remember in the process of creating an inclusive workplace:

  • Immerse yourself: To ensure alignment, every single person in an organization should have access to and be encouraged to take whatever DEI training has been chosen. As noted, however, it must start with the people at the top of the org chart.
  • Everyone will be at a different place in their DEI journey. Some individuals may have extensive lived experience or knowledge-based experience with DEI content and others may have little to no experience. That’s okay. Wherever we land on the spectrum, there’s always more to learn or know about aspects of diversity or about the stories of those around us. Those who are already well into their DEI journey can serve as guides, mentors, or sounding boards if they have the time, energy, and desire to do so.
  • DEI work isn’t a one-and-done effort. The work must be ongoing as situations, cultural nuance, language, and the world change and develop. One advantage to beginning the work from the top down is that leaders can strategize and support future DEI efforts within the organization. Whether it’s more learning and development, the running or formation of employee resource groups (ERGs), or the implementation of broader organizational DEI plans both internally and externally—these efforts all require top-down energy and sponsorship.

How Do I Expand My Awareness?

As people begin their journey toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion, one major obstacle they face is simply knowing how. Individuals often ask how they can move from being unaware of their bias and privilege to awareness: “How do I become aware of the things I’m not aware of?” It’s a good question. There’s no single answer to this—everyone’s roadmap looks different—but here are some steps that can get you started on the path.

  • Take a look at your inner circle. Who’s in your inner circle? Is it diverse or homogenous? If you find that it’s overwhelmingly homogenous, it might be time to consider branching out and building relationships with people who bring something different to the table. So much of our exposure to things—food, culture, issues, perspectives—comes from the people we spend the most time with.
  • Do the work. One of the best ways to meet people who have different perspectives is to sign up for activities, projects, or volunteer work that touch on issues, communities, and people that you might not otherwise engage with. Dig in. Do the work of learning, serving, and internalizing what’s at stake.
  • Read, watch, listen, consume. If you’re not ready to go into those new spaces or if you feel underprepared, start consuming content that will give you perspective, build your vocabulary, and allow you to begin to unpack some of your own blind spots and biases. Broadening the TV shows you watch, the books you read (fiction and nonfiction), the influencers you follow, and the podcasts you listen to is a great first step toward expanding your awareness of parts of the world and human experiences that you might not have known about before.
  • Listen to learn. Apologize when you get it wrong. This one is, perhaps, the most important point. When you’re starting out, listening to learn is key. If you’re new to your DEI journey, chances are there’s a lot to learn. It’s likely that you’ll make mistakes along the way. When you do, apologize, recommit to listening, and make your best faith efforts to correct course.

 When you find yourself in those moments of discomfort—off-kilter, not certain you’re doing the right thing, or a little awkward in an unfamiliar setting—you’re exactly where you should be. Any person who has ever been a minority in a majority setting knows that out-of-place feeling all too well. Offer yourself the pep talk you need or lean on an ally to buoy you up—then stay the course with courage and steadfastness.

About the Author

April Hennessey

April Hennessey is the Director of Innovation for Blanchard® where she serves on the DEI Practice Team for Diversity & Inclusion. In that role, April provides thought leadership to drive next-generation, innovative learning experiences that promote inclusion and belonging.

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