What does it mean to be an inclusive leader?

On Thursday 28 January 2021, the National Leadership Centre (NLC) were joined by Deborah Cadman (Chief Executive of West Midlands Combined Authority) and panelists Darra Singh (Senior Partner Government and Infrastructure at EY, previously Jobcentre Plus and Local Authority Chief Executive) and Lord Victor Adebowale (previously Chief Executive of Turning Point, now NED and Chair of several health and social enterprise organisations) for an event which focused on leading inclusively across the public sector.

From the start of this thrilling conversation, the panel’s conviction and passion for the importance of inclusivity being embedded in leadership came across powerfully. As Darra and Victor told us how they first met, and a little about their careers, it was clear that although they had continuously faced barriers, they have always been determined to challenge them.

As systems leaders, they explained, there is a responsibility to think about the traits and behaviours that we know to be important. There needs to be a visible commitment there for all to see and change the way inclusion moves from theory to actions.

The power of networks

Throughout the conversation there was a theme of the importance of networks: both as barriers and how to make them useful. Whilst leaders can be invited into established networks for support and guidance, it can sometimes feel to some that they are not properly included in those spaces.

Our panelists suggested that if you cannot get into a network, then create your own.

Leading everyone, all of the time

With a great mix of humour and honesty, the panel challenged the audience; “What other kind of leadership is there?” We tend to think of inclusive leadership being something different to leadership, however if the opposite is “Exclusive Leadership”, then we know this is not an effective way to lead any organisation.

As leaders, they said, we are there to lead everyone within our organisation all the time, not some of them some of the time.

What an inclusive culture looks like

The panellists highlighted the importance of continuing to learn on behalf of your organisation. “The most powerful thing that leaders can do is ask good questions”. By asking these questions it shows that leaders do not have all the answers — and that this is ok. It shows their human side and asking the right questions shows their visible commitment to change.

Our panelists believe that it is essential that decisions are made with input from different voices and diverse backgrounds. They said that leaders should mindfully cultivate environments that enable this, and bring in voices. Solution design requires involvement from a whole community, they said, and without them policies fail. The panel neatly summarised this as ‘poor decisions are made, poor services are designed, and poor outcomes occur when you don’t have an inclusive team and an inclusive culture’.

The NLC is grateful to the panelists for their openness and honesty in talking about this topic. They shared many personal experiences which really resonated and gave powerful personal challenges to how we consider ourselves as leaders.

We are looking forward to the next events in our series: Finding Calm with Ruby Wax on 12 February, and Sir Gordon Messenger talking about the Mass Testing Programme on 17 March.

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The NLC will become part of the new Leadership College for Government in April. Read more here.