What inclusive leaders do—and don’t do
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI)

What inclusive leaders do—and don’t do

How do some leaders build teams that develop better ideas, innovate continuously, and drive strong business results—all while doing right by everyone?
Megan Herbst
What inclusive leaders do— and don’t do

The business case for diversity is clear: organizations with a diverse workforce perform better than those without.1

It’s equally clear that numbers alone aren’t enough—ensuring that people with varying backgrounds, career tracks, and perspectives feel included and fully able to contribute is what makes diversity work.2

Yet a recent Heidrick & Struggles survey of executives from around the world found that only 27% consider their company largely inclusive today.3

Inclusive leadership adds purpose to the mix

Our analysis of more than 2,200 surveys taken by organizational leaders and their teams shows that inclusive leaders are those who seek out and value individuality to gain different perspectives, and create a sense of belonging for all team members.4

Our work adds a new element: leaders who build deep alignment on a clear purpose multiply the power of the other aspects of inclusive leadership.5

Where inclusive leadership makes a difference

As leaders improve at making these three aspects of inclusive leadership work together, they increase their overall impact and make it increasingly easy for their teams to get things done. 

Moving toward inclusion

Our work also shows that inclusive leadership:

  • Attracts followers
  • Adapts their style easily to respond to the demands of different situations
  • Fosters collaboration among teams to create and implement new ideas
  • Leads primarily through influence rather than authority—yet know when and how to make effective use of positional power
  • Adapts and transforms their approach to leadership
And inclusive leadership avoids the following:
  • Ignoring the development of others
  • Creating a stressful environment for others
  • Dictating change to others rather than involving them in the process
  • Relying primarily on authority and positional power to influence others
  • Making it difficult for others to provide feedback

About the authors

Karen Rosa West (kwest@heidrick.com) is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Chicago office and chief innovation officer of HLabs, the research arm of Heidrick & Struggles.

Megan Herbst (mherbst@heidrick.com) is an analytics coordinator for HLabs; she is based in the Chicago office.


1 Rocio Lorenzo and Martin Reeves, “How and where diversity drives financial performance,” Harvard Business Review, January 30, 2018, hbr.org; and Cedric Herring, “Does diversity pay?: Race, gender, and the business case for diversity,” American Sociological Review, 74, April 2009, pp. 208–24.

2 Bernardo M. Ferdman, “The practice of inclusion in diverse organizations: Toward a systemic and inclusive framework,” in Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion, Bernardo M. Ferdman and Barbara R. Deane, eds., San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2014, pp. 3–54.

3 Heidrick & Struggles analysis of data from our survey of 412 executives across regions, industries, and levels of seniority, reached online and by telephone in August and September 2019.

4 Lynn M. Shore, Amy E. Randel, Beth G. Chung, Michelle A. Dean, Karen Holcombe Ehrhart, and Gangaram Singh, “Inclusion and diversity in work groups: A review and model for future research,” Journal of Management, 37(4), July 2011, pp. 1262–89.

5 Heidrick & Struggles analysis of 2,263 Leadership Assessment Questionnaires.

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