The six signature traits of inclusive leadership Thriving in a diverse new world

06 January 2017

What does it take for a leader to truly encourage diversity in the organization? And does diversity go beyond just talent? Juliet Bourke spoke with Tanya Ott on outdated leadership models, global mega-trends, and the six traits of inclusive leadership.


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TANYA OTT: When you hear the word diversity – what comes to mind?

ROXANNE SPLITT: It’s like “don’t be racist… super overtly.”  And then, like, everyone will be fine and just say that you embrace core values and stuff.

JOSH BERSIN: It sort of hit me like a ton a bricks – WOAH!  This is what’s wrong with HR. We’re not thinking about the world in terms of how humans react and human motivation.  We’re thinking about the world in terms of interventions and processes and programs that we can roll out and push on people.

TANYA OTT: But for one researcher it’s a whole lot more than HR talk. 

JULIET BOURKE: How do you actually understand different ways that people want to connect with each other and interact and the different opportunities and different types of business models that arise from that. We see diversity as markets, customers, ideas and talent.

I’m Tanya Ott and today on the PressRoom we’re spending some time with Juliet Bourke.

JULIET BOURKE: I was originally a D.A. criminal lawyer prosecuting crime. Then I was a human rights lawyer

TANYA OTT: She served on a tribunal where she judged human rights cases. 

JULIET BOURKE: So yeah fantastic opportunities along the way and I've been traveling the world and you meet great people.

TANYA OTT:  These days she leads the diversity and inclusion practice in Deloitte Human Capital Australia.

JULIET BURKE:     So I think about both diversity and inclusion, and I think about leadership.

TANYA OTT:  Juliet and her research partner Bernadette Dillon wrote “The Six Signature Traits of Inclusive Leadership.”  To suss out the six traits they interviewed more than a dozen leaders from different industries – for profit and non-profit – around the world.  These were people who had a visible commitment to creating inclusive workplaces.  Juliet and Bernadette talked to them at length about what diversity means, why inclusiveness matters, how they do what they do.  They wanted to distill the key characteristics of being an inclusive leader so they could help other people learn the tricks of the trade for leading  diverse teams.

But before we get to the six traits that you and I can both model – let’s slow down just a bit and consider the traditional model of leadership. 

TANYA OTT: Traditionally what does a leader look like?

JULIET BOURKE: I think the model, and everyone recognizes that it's outdated, but I think the model has still been this hero model of leadership. Leading from the top, you know. Bearing the weight of the world on your shoulders. Pointing in a direction and creating this followership. And this newer model is much more about leading from the center. So what that looks like is a person who sees themselves as almost the synergist of the team around them. It's bringing the best out of people and that comes with a bit of humility. It's not “I have to have all of the answers,” it's that I have to be the best person at creating these connections and, you know, the collective intelligence of the group.

TANYA OTT: And you say that that's so important because we've got so much change happening so rapidly around us. You identify four global mega-trends that mean the world isn't as homogenous as it once was. Could we do a lightning round of explanations game.


TANYA OTT: So the first mega-trend you identify is diversity of markets. What do you mean?

JULIET BOURKE: Because we're in a global economy at the moment, there are these opportunities for us to do work around the world. But every market is quite different -- in terms of their location, but also in terms of the nature of the demand because customers themselves are changing so much. It is in fact [understanding] the different customer segments and what they're making and trying to get down to almost a personalized level. Where I land most heavily is the diversity of ideas. My book is based around diversity of thinking and how do you actually understand different ways that people want to connect with each other and interact and the different opportunities and different types of business models that arise from that. And of course the last one is diversity of talent. Usually where the conversation around diversity of thinking, diversity per se, stops and starts with talent. But we see diversity as markets, customers, ideas and talent.

TANYA OTT: I want to dig into those because diversity of markets, I thought there were some really interesting statistics, for instance, you know the growth of the middle class. So many more people are able to afford to buy things, especially people in Asia and Africa and Latin America. Coca-Cola, for instance, has focused a lot in sub-Saharan Africa, in India and China. It's really opened up the way that companies have to think about their markets and specialize in those markets.

JULIET BOURKE: Well that's right. And I think in Australia we feel it keenly because we were relatively small market. Overall 25 million people. I think sometimes it's harder for those who live in countries which are very large because their own market just feels so big, there's so much capacity in their market, but we don't have that. So we're very tapped into an Asian network around us. And see ourselves as part of the Asia-Pacific and that perhaps opens us up to the idea that there are different markets, with different demographics and different monetary spins. So yes, you know in Australia we really feel it, and it's very interesting that brands like Coca-Cola feel it as well. And then when they tap into those markets, you talked about Coke doing over to the sub-Sahara, they really have to adapt because you can't take a product in one location and just transplant it to another and think that it will resonate in that community. It's a totally different experience.

TANYA OTT: I'm based in Atlanta, Georgia, where Coca-Cola is based and there's the World of Coke facility here and they have this big floor, a hall full of all of the different Coke products from different countries and you can walk around and sample them.

 And so it's really pretty interesting you know how the formula has to change, how the marketing has to change, and not surprising but interesting.

JULIET BOURKE: It is surprising. I think that people generally, I mean this is one of the biases that we each have is to think that the way that we experience the world, the way that we see the world, is broadly the same as everyone else. And actually it's not. You know you go into a different locale and it's completely different. What does it mean to be able to go and buy a soft drink in those countries? What does it mean for water supply? What does it mean in terms of your wealth within that communities? It's a completely different moment and I think these sort of self-serving bias that we have around ourselves often blinds us to that diversity of markets and the need for us to adapt to be a really different leader within those contexts, because it's not, what is it?  

It's not Kansas. We're not in Kansas anymore.

TANYA OTT: Good good American cultural reference there. Thank you for that. You really keyed in on diversity of ideas and there's that famous saying: “Innovate or die.” And in your work with corporate leaders, how confident do they feel that their companies are able to innovate? Do they have the diversity of ideas that they think they need in order to find that next big thing?

JULIET BOURKE: I think there are two things going on. One is there are those companies who feel like, oh my God don't give me one more idea! I have so many ideas coming at me all the time and I don't know how to select through them. So they don't know how to do the discipline of this selection. But I do think more companies worry that they are not tapping into this diversity of thinking. And I think particularly at more senior levels when people look around the table and they know intuitively, probably these people are more similar to me than different, and they worry about the ideas getting through and they're making choices about them. So the main diversity of thinking is this next wave of what diversity means. How do we use that to innovate, to get the best out of the sort of collective intelligence of the group and then make wise choices as to what to do with those innovations?

TANYA OTT: Well and at a very basic level the diversity of ideas comes from a diversity of talent and people who bring different things to the table. And we're all, any of us who have worked in a corporate environment, we're familiar with diversity training which here in the United States is often framed around black and white, racial and ethnicity. But we also know that as much talk as there is, and as much as companies work to include diverse employees, there are still real issues. Women hold just 12 percent of corporate board seats worldwide. You know that number of leaders of major corporations here in the United States that are of a minority are pretty low. Why is it so hard?

JULIET BOURKE: Lots of reasons for that. But the first reason has to be about leadership commitment, because if a leader wants something they will go all out to get it. You know, are they prepared to be committed and stay in the game? In fact, that is one of the characteristics that we saw in these highly inclusive leaders -- that they don't just believe in it from a business value point of view, which is often the argument that's being run around diversity, it has its business value. But the primary value for very inclusive leaders is this alignment to their own personal values. They think this is all about integrity and fairness and giving people opportunity and developing talent. So it's very much aligned to who they are as a person and what that means is that when they see inequity happening on their watch they just can't walk by. So highly inclusive leaders are staying at the table and talking about this far longer than other people who say: “Look, there are other ways to make the dollar in this business. Let's get there. I know diversity is important, but we've got to put in an I.T. system or we've got to do something else.” And these leaders are saying: “Actually, business is all about people and people is all about diversity and we just have to get this right.”

TANYA OTT: So that commitment to staying the course even when it gets hard, that's one of the hallmarks of an inclusive leader that you identified. Another one is courage.

JULIET BOURKE: And this was really interesting because we often think of courage and if you go back to that hero model of leadership it is associated with bravery and, you know, taking a stance and pointing forward. And of course this was about the courage to challenge the status quo, because if you've got that commitment it leads you to challenge. But it was also this secondary factor which I found fascinating: It was the courage to be humble. The courage to be vulnerable and to say: “I am not good enough at this.  What's happening on my watch is not good enough and I personally am not as inclusive as I could be. I know that there's favoritism that I've got in my bones and I need to get rid of it.” So these highly inclusive leaders, confident as they are with their technical capability, were saying I could be better at that. And what's so beautiful about it is that the moment a leader opens themselves up and says: “I could be better,” then other people step into that space and say: “I could be better too.” So it's a very engaging characteristic that they have in a very empowering capability to open up this space for other people to acknowledge imperfections and therefore strive to be better.

TANYA OTT: That can be pretty hard for someone who's not used to working from that vantage point, right, from the person who is afraid to show weakness because it means that I'm not a leader.

JULIET BOURKE: Exactly right. We definitely do this alignment or conflation between confidence and competence. And this is breaking that up, saying, well, you know actually to be very competent as an inclusive leader means that you're starting from this place which is, I'm not everything. And I need other people and I could be better. So it is disrupting, but it does have this very powerful effect. We interviewed people whom you would expect to really be embodying this leader-as-hero idea. You know, people who were leaders in mining companies, people who are leaders in financial services sector and this was a common characteristic across all of them who were these highly inclusive leaders is that they were prepared to say I could be better at this and prepared to be vulnerable. And it's a very engaging thing to listen to. I'm sure you've experienced that as well, when someone says I could be better.

TANYA OTT: One of the other hallmarks of an inclusive leader, as you define it, is someone who is aware of their own bias.

JULIET BOURKE: And that's really hard because the whole thing around bias, and there's a beautiful phrase that's been coined or a concept which is called meta-bias.

TANYA OTT: What does that mean?

JULIET BOURKE: Well, it's the uber bias of all biases. You know, the meta, and that bias is one which leads each of us to believe that everyone else has more biases than me. (laughter) So, if they could just get rid of their biases everything would be okay. And so it leaves us with this illusion that pretty much my judgments are based on rationality but everyone else, well who would know? And so the very first step around [it] is to acknowledge that we each do have biases. The issue is what are they and how can we put in place strategies to disrupt them. And one of the ones that I have been very interested in is thinking about a bias called cognitive depletion. So it is basically a capacity bias. And what it says is that each of us as leaders are really under the pump all the time. You know, we're dealing with so much complexity and so much ambiguity and uncertainty and that creates a real cognitive overload for us. And it's very depleting in terms of being able to make decisions. Well, if that's the case, if that's the norm, then it means that we are much more prone to these social biases of connecting with people who are just like us because it's easier. When you don't have much cognitive capacity left, you take the easy route. So social bias is one. Informational bias is where we listen to information that's exactly the same as the information we already knew. And so a leader is very conscious of that and knowing that they have limited capacity, put in place strategies to help them. So, for example: President Obama has this strategy of only giving himself two choices every morning as to what color shirt he's going to wear, whether it's going to be white or blue. And the reason for that is he's trying to limit down the number of trivial decisions he needs to make. Which means that he's preserving his cognitive capacity for the really important decisions. And thank goodness. And that means that he has the ability or greater ability to make smarter decisions and not make ones that are just based on, well, I'm leaning into this point of view because it confirms my own point of view. I'm leaning into this person because they feel familiar to me. So that's what inclusive leaders are really trying to do. They're trying to understand themselves and create adaptations in their environment to give themselves the best chance of listening to diversity.

TANYA OTT: I actually think the example of President Obama shirt is really interesting. There was a blog post that went viral on social media maybe about a year ago -- a woman who ran I believe it maybe was like the art department of a major advertising company or something in New York City and she basically said she had decided just to wear a uniform. Everything would be black and white or some combination there of. So that she didn't have to think about it at all. She could wake up every morning, put the uniform on and go to work and feel way more creative, which was perceived somewhat oddly I think in a very creative field that she would limit herself to black or white. And yet really she felt it was much more freeing.

JULIET BOURKE: And it's an amazing thing to do, right, because you're doing it because you believe intellectually this is making a difference. You can't feel it. And so you know we're getting into this realm now of actually reading the research and making adaptive decisions knowing that it'll show up in some data somewhere, but at a personal level we don't feel less creative. You know, we don't feel like oh, you know, that black and white dress that I wore in the morning really made a difference to my creativity. But all the research stacks up in that direction. And it's the same in some ways with inclusive leadership, that the research is all pointing us to if you really invest in being more inclusive the team does perform higher. The team does make better decisions. They are more innovative. But sometimes when you stand back you can't see it as clearly as the research prints it out.

TANYA OTT: One of the other hallmarks of an inclusive leader is cultural intelligence. This of course is the idea that, as you've said, not everyone sees the world through the same cultural frame.

JULIET BOURKE: And I think that has a number of elements to it. Cultural intelligence or adaptability is the same kind of concept here. It's driven by this, and drive is the right word, the drive sitting behind it is I want to understand how you see the world. What are your stories. The way that you're able to make that connection back to Coca Cola and you see the Coca Cola bottles from all the different countries -- and it's, why is that? How does that happen? And so you know this drive to understand and then this knowledge, trying to actually see the frames of reference that each individual has. Really understand them deeply. And then the third thing is actually adaptation. Once you do understand and are humble that someone else's way of seeing the world is just as valid as the way that you see the world. It's not your way of seeing the world, but it's their way of seeing the world. So you're able to jump across those boundaries because you believe it's valuable and because you've taken the time to understand.

TANYA OTT: When you're talking about changing the way leadership is expressed in a company you've got a couple of challenges and we've touched on these a little bit but I want to go back to them. One of them is reorienting people who might have been leaders for a very long time. What strategies would you suggest could possibly help with that?

JULIET BOURKE: For me, what I've seen in this space is that good leaders are always hungry for feedback. They want to know how they're showing up because they know that often there's this gap between their intent and the positive impact or at least the impact that they intended to have. So what I've found really helpful so far is now that we've got a model around this concept of inclusive leadership, and it's been a concept which has a bit wooly. You know, when I spoke to someone years ago about creative leadership, a leader in a business he said to me, what should I give everyone a hug? Is that what inclusive leadership is? Just being nice to people? And maybe there's an element of that, but inclusive leadership is a lot harder than that. It is about these these Six C's of commitment and courage, cognizance of bias, curiosity, cultural intelligence and collaboration. And so if you know that you can assess yourself against, [that], you can ask questions and get other people to give you feedback on that. And then you can develop, you know, move into those areas where you say well you know what I really don't demonstrate curiosity. I don't ask people that second question: Tell me more. I don't play it back to them. I'm not really listening. I'm just trying to tell them my point of view. And when you know that then you can develop behaviors to counteract it. Let me give you a great example of that. One of the leaders we interviewed who was very senior military, he has the strategy for him called "the art of the pause." And because as you can imagine being at the top of the pyramid in military and very hierarchical, people don't want to speak up in his presence because they feel they might make a mistake. So he has the strategy of creating a bit of white space, a bit of silence, so that other people want to jump into it. It's really building off that extroverted sort of moment that we have around us that people don't like silence in western organizations. So he creates a bit of silence. People will speak up and he's doing a deliberate strategy to try to hear people's points of view from a from a good place. He's not wanting to trick them. He just wants them to enter into the territory.

TANYA OTT: The other challenge is growing new leaders, but especially if new leaders are being identified by older traditional leaders I would imagine it could be a challenge because we often unconsciously default to people who are like us. And that could pose problems in a company.

JULIET BOURKE: Look, it does. So if you build tomorrow's leaders just as clones of today's leaders it's not adaptive. So it's the whole reason for doing this, this escalating reason, is because we're moving into diverse markets and diverse customers, to this idea, to this talent. You know that's a very different context for leaders to be part of moving in and out of different teams, virtual teams, global teams. And so there is this I think let's say a line in the sand where we used to do leadership one way and that was adapted to a different context. The context has changed and we need to develop new models of leadership to adapt to that. What's important is that the leaders of today recognize that the context has changed and therefore the behavioral model needs to change. And then look for leaders who are already starting to do that and build on it. You know, have the model out there and say this is what it is. But if there are these golden nuggets recognize and reward them rather than defaulting to these very dogmatic hero leadership models that they might see someone coming up through the ranks because that is going to become more and more outdated as the context changes.

TANYA OTT: So one of the other major hallmarks of an inclusive leader is collaboration, which is really easy to talk about but sometimes pretty challenging to actually do.

JULIET BOURKE: Yeah and some great research out of MIT with Alex “Sandy” Pentland and what he did was a study where he actually got people to wear almost like a GPS around their neck as they were engaging in interactions with people. And he was trying to understand which teams were collaborative and which weren't and and could you see it almost in the sort of physical behaviors of people, not just the mind set, but that behaviors. And what was fascinating with that is that there were definitely differences in the behaviors of the group and the leader was behaving differently too. So much more looking at who was leaning in, physically, you know, the GPS. Who was leaning into the conversation, who was leaning out. The degree to which they were using their hands in the conversation. The degree to which the team enabled people to go and seek information outside of that team moment and bring it back to the team. So collaboration was not just about what was happening in the team, but it was this sort of permeability between the team and others and bringing information in. So collaboration is very much this creating this environment in which everyone has an equal share voice. They're feeling empowered. They feel psychologically safe. Able to speak up. There's the sense that we are a team together. This is not individuals just showing up here, but that we are going to create something together that we never could have done by ourselves. And once again it's not this leader, leading from the top down. The leader is sitting at the center of the circle creating these connections between people in the room or virtually and creating these connections outside of the room which are brought back into the team. I think collaboration is fascinating and it's definitely a key part of being an inclusive leader.

TANYA OTT:  You can learn a lot more about what it means to be an inclusive leader in Juliet Bourke and Bernadette Dillon’s article “The six signature traits of inclusive leadership.”  It’s at our website, 

While you’re there, you can also find those interviews I teased at the top of our show today:

Josh Bersin:  It sort of hit me like a ton a bricks – WOAH!  This is what’s wrong with HR.   We’re not thinking about the world in terms of how humans react and human motivation.  We’re thinking about the world in terms of interventions and processes and programs that we can roll out and push on people.

That’s Josh Bersin and in our podcast episode called HR for Humans we talk about how many HR practices are based on outdated ideas of human psychology and organizational design.

Oh – and let’s not forget this little piece of teaser tape:

Roxanne Splitt:  It’s like “don’t be racist… super overtly.”  And then, like, everyone will be fine and just say that you embrace core values and stuff.

That’s Roxanne Splitt and we have a really interesting conversation about using gaming to teach leadership. You can check all of it out at

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