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What is Inclusive Leadership?

I was recently introduced to the concept of inclusive leadership in a session I attended. I hadn’t come across this term before, but liked what I heard. In this post I’ll share with you what I learnt.

Most of us probably know what inclusion means. It’s the action or state of being included or including others in groups and structures.

Being a leader who is able to make people feel included is important, because when team members feel included they are more likely to innovate and be a team player. Needless to say that these behaviours are sought after on most projects.

This means that inclusion benefits everyone: the individual team member who feels involved, empowered and trusted, the project manager who benefits from a more engaged and motivated team, and the client who altogether receives a better product or service.

Value the differences and commonalities of others

But as a project manager how can you become more inclusive?

Well, inclusion happens when leaders value the differences as well as the commonalities of others. Let’s first hone in on what it means to value someone’s differences.

Essentially this is about valuing a team member’s uniqueness, recognizing them for what they bring to the table and helping them to stand out from the crowd. So instead of criticising people for being different or having unusual ideas, you’d support them and appreciate them the way they are. This is a need that we all have – being acknowledged for the unique talents that we possess.

Secondly it is about the act of valuing people’s commonalities.

This is about helping team members fulfil another fundamental need: the need to belong to the group and to not stand out too far from the crowd.

EACHLeaders can help individuals to get this need fulfilled by valuing what they have in common with others and by making team members feel that they fit in and belong to the group. Socialising outside of work, celebrating successes, planning collaboratively and asking each team member for their views and opinions are behaviours that support this need. So in summary, you have to foster feelings of uniqueness AND belongingness if you want to become a successful inclusive leader.

When exploring further what you can do to make people on your team feel included it’s relevant to look at the EACH framework.

EACH stands for Empowerment, Accountability, Courage, and Humility.

Mastering these four leadership attributes is essential as they allow you to create a safe environment where team members can thrive and bring their whole selves to work and be their best. As we look at the four attributes in more detail you will notice some overlap between them.


Empowerment is all about enabling team members to develop and excel and to give them the best conditions to do so.

Inclusive leaders recognize that individual team members know how they prefer to work and where and when they are most productive. Some people are morning people, whereas others work better in the evening. Some people work well in loud coffee shops, and others prefer to be in a space that’s quiet. As each team member is able to express what best works for them, inclusive leaders empower their team to make decisions about when, where, and how work gets done. They encourage people to express their preferences and accept and celebrate different ways of working, even if they’re different from their own.


Accountability is about demonstrating confidence in team members by holding them responsible for performance that’s within their control.

Inclusive leaders do so by focusing on the results that individuals produce rather than the time they spend in the office. At the beginning of an assignment inclusive leaders will make sure that expectations are set and that the team member is fully equipped to carry out the task.  The leader does provide clear and regular feedback on work performance as a way to support and coach the team member, but doesn’t micromanage in a controlling way. Instead the leader holds the team member accountable to the agreed deliverables.

But inclusive leaders don’t just hold their team members to account. They also hold themselves accountable as role models and as champions for work-life effectiveness. So what does that look like? If a project leader is transparent about the reason for leaving work, for instance in order to attend a school play or taking a class, it sends a message to the team that work-life effectiveness is an accepted part of the culture, and that both work and life matter.


Courage is about putting personal interests aside to achieve what needs to be done.That means acting based on convictions and principles even when it requires personal risk-taking.

Inclusive leaders show courage by advocating different ways of getting the work done, which includes questioning the status quo and thinking about ways to work more effectively. Courage is also about trust, i.e. trusting that team members will get the work done based on the discussions and expectations that have been mutually agreed and not just imposed by the project leader.

Inclusive leaders also build trust by talking about the ways that work best for each individual and how to make the team function more effectively. They are transparent in their role modelling of behaviour and don’t question why team members want to work flexibly. It shouldn’t matter whether an employee is leaving early to pick up their kids, or to go to a yoga class, or to volunteer at the soup kitchen, as long as they’re getting the work done.

Inclusive leaders acknowledge the complexity of work and life, and that these two things sometimes conflict. This acknowledgement helps build a culture of trust.

As you can see, inclusive leaders show courage by standing up for the team and by fighting against a mentality that emphasizes work at the cost of everything else.


Humility is about admitting mistakes, accepting and learning from others and asking for help in order to overcome limitations.

The way that inclusive leaders demonstrate humility, is by showing that they always have more to learn when it comes to managing people and work, and by double-checking their assumptions.

They do not pretend that they know everything and are not afraid to ask for help. What’s important isn’t what they know personally, but what the team knows. This sends a clear signal that the team is needed as the leader doesn’t have all the answers on their own. Inclusive leaders are also not afraid to recognize and respect that people have different needs, priorities and ways of working and to admit that their own way isn’t the only way. There aren’t two people who are alike.

To sum up

Inclusive leadership has the power to make an enormous difference to the level of innovation and collaboration of a team.

When applied correctly inclusive leadership can provide the tools, behaviours and mind-set for team members to be more effective not only at work but also in their personal lives.

Inclusion happens when leaders value the differences as well as the commonalities of others. It is reinforced when leaders demonstrate the four leadership attributes of the EACH framework: Empowerment, Accountability, Courage, and Humility.

Mastering these allow the leader to create a safe environment where team members can thrive and be their best.


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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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