Inclusive leadership – are we sure?


December 22nd, 2014

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shutterstock_157572569The recent Opportunity Now report ‘Inclusive Leadership: culture change for business success’ highlights the business case for this style of management and sets out a five-point framework to help HR implement change. Promoting inclusive leadership raises an opportunity to explore the counter voice to this long standing philosophy about effective leadership. We are in no doubt that a vast body of evidence proves that there are psychological benefits leading to enhanced performance by promoting inclusion amongst employees. We suspect that these will include enhancing self-efficacy amongst followers, developing innovation, developing a sense of responsibility – all possibly leading to greater cohesion and even Organisational Citizenship Behaviour as defined by Dennis Organ. Inclusive leadership can also help counter hubris or ‘intoxication of power’, by claiming to capture a variety of perspectives including counter intuitive ones.

There is a difference between inclusive management and inclusive leadership. Both domains require different types of inclusion at different times and to different extents. In our respective roles as programme directors for two of Roffey Park’s core programmes aimed at managers and leaders – and management and leadership implicitly also – what strikes us is less the differences between the two domains, more the similarity, specifically when it comes to the relational aspects of operating in human systems. The more we in leadership development strain to differentiate, the greater the risk of missing the similarities.

The simple counter-argument to inclusive leadership as a cure-all is the predicted need in the immediate future for smaller teams, fleet of foot with a flattened leadership structure – often shared and part of a matrix. These predicted trends give us a clue as to the skills we currently need to develop with participants on People Management Fundamentals  and Emerging Leaders’ programmes here at Roffey Park. The important word is current – leadership styles must be climate sensitive.

The 5 point model in Opportunity Now’s research to ensure successful culture change, we argue, can be seen throughout leadership theories (vision, lead, develop, embed and evaluate): ‘Inclusive leadership’ echoes ‘participatory leadership’, ‘consensual leadership’, ‘transformational leadership’, ‘servant leadership’ and ‘authentic leadership’, to name but a few. However, there is fundamental philosophical flaw in inclusive leader – e.g. in saying that we should have an shared mission and vision – it promotes conformity and therefore stifles any dissenting voices that are needed for diversity, innovation, creativity and true inclusion, all of which are healthy challenges to leaders, managers and ‘group-think’.

Inclusion via consultation can also be misleading and confusing for employees. Employees confuse consultation by thinking that you (the leader/s) are going to do what they suggested. They do not understand that consultation is a consideration of opinions and perspectives – not necessarily signing up to those opinions and perspectives. Secondly, inclusive leadership can actually excuse a lack of taking of responsibility by the leader – by using inclusion to make it appear like they are sharing vision and decision-making processes, leaders are often neglecting responsibility to make those decisions and to show the way. How often do we see senior managers, when facing for a significant restructure and change management challenge, ‘send for the consultants’ to conduct worthy engagement processes.

The problem is that once we celebrate a one dimensional leadership model like inclusive leadership – often pushed by business schools and leadership institutes like ourselves – we start to venerate it and when we venerate it, it becomes elite and super human! Jim Collins’ work is a prime example – what celebrated a basic human quality (humility) has made it into an alien quality and panacea for all leadership challenges.

Yes, at Roffey Park we refer to and work with many models, approaches, lenses and schools of thought such as inclusive leadership. Crucially, whilst we individually and collectively have our biases (or simply personal favourites), we hold them lightly. And if we don’t, typically we will be held to account by colleagues or clients.

Finally, we believe successful organisations are not solely dependent on leadership for performance – there are myriad factors such as luck, environment, product, employees and, not least of all, demand. In this latest report by Opportunity Now we’re in danger of seeing another simple solution to this complexity of organisational performance and leadership – in this case a five-point model that will solve the mystery – and one that implies that what has gone before was OK, but not quite good enough, until now. If only…