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Why You Need to Become an Inclusive Leader (and How to Do It) Here's what it means to be an inclusive leader and what it takes to not just develop your unique, inclusive leadership style, but be intentional about it, too.

By Phil Bohlender Edited by Kara McIntyre

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

My passion and drive to be an inclusive leader are heavily guided by my experiences as an openly gay man since coming out in my first corporate job in early 1982, so I know firsthand what inclusion can do for someone. Inclusion in the workplace give people the opportunity to go beyond their comfort zones with support, and comes with a responsibility for modeling, mentoring and monitoring.

It means being focused on bringing people together who might otherwise be rejected, isolated or marginalized — and as more millennials and those in Gen Z join the workforce, it often means bridging the generational gaps between employees, whether they're leaders or not. But the five generations in the workplace seek inclusion in different ways.

Leaders have high visibility roles and people are watching them for what to do and what not to do. As more organizations are stepping into the space of creating a workplace for everyone, belonging is now a critical business principle.

You are cordially invited to become an inclusive leader — so how will you respond?

The 5 generations and inclusion

Traditionalists are the elders of the workplace, known for their resilience and values-driven work ethic. Then came baby boomers, who once made up the greatest part of the workforce, and are linked to hard work and adherence to structured systems.

Related: How to Improve Communication Between Generations in the Workplace

Gen X is often referred to as the sandwich generation and identifies as independent with a desire for balance. Meanwhile, millennials have become the majority generation in the workplace, bringing on significant changes to the status quo. This generation strives to find purpose in their work, which requires transparency, and desire flexibility in their job — much like Gen Z.

Millennials are moving into leadership roles in significant numbers. Their leadership style is characterized by challenging the status quo, driving for more innovation and seeking growth opportunities in a multitude of companies. One of the things that are essential for a millennial leader or employee is inclusion in the workplace. This generation is driving for change when it comes to inclusive leadership.

The baby boomer generation has been the most populous group in the workforce for a significant number of years. They were influenced by those who were in leadership roles while they were coming into the workforce. While baby boomers were managing other baby boomers, there was limited conflict based on generational groupthink.

But as other generations entered the workforce, a clash of generational characteristics and traits started to emerge.

The generalization must not be made that all baby boomers lead from a rigid and structured style or that all millennial leaders lead from a relaxed and casual style. It is crucial to see the individual leadership styles for what they are and assess if they are keeping pace with the expectations and demands of a diverse workforce.

Related: How to Develop Strategies that Close the Leadership Gap with the Generation Gap

How to become an inclusive leader

There are three things that every leader must acknowledge and act on to build an inclusive leadership style.

  1. Trust: Working with people who have different skillsets who know how to do their jobs and create the expected outcomes.
  2. Empowerment: Inviting people to work on new things that build skills and stretch their scope.
  3. Collaboration: Partnering with people to work together who have complementary skills.

Inclusive leaders should also incorporate these three traits in to their unique leadership style.

  1. Integrity: This is a crucial foundation reliant upon a leader's values and beliefs. The inclusive leader must be aligned with the organization's mission, vision and values to make a difference.
  2. Influence: One of the primary functions of an inclusive leader is to manage performance. The inclusive leader relies on proven tactics like coaching to bring out the best in people.
  3. Impact: Inclusive leaders are charged with achieving a set of results and outcomes tied to a company's strategic plan, and they keeps the focus on working together to get to the finish line successfully.

Inclusive leaders are faced with an unprecedented challenge in the fact that there are five generations. There are leaders in today's organizations who might be from one generation, while leading a team with individuals from four other generations and who all think differently.

Related: Every Leader Should Be an Ally: How To Implement Diversity and Inclusion in Your Business

Organizations that are intentional about developing their culture and leadership style focused on inclusion and belonging experience these competitive advantages.

  1. Recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce that feels like they are being included and have a sense of belonging are more likely to stay long term. Higher retention rates decrease unnecessary costs to rehire and backfill individuals who attrit within a short window.
  2. Promoting and supporting creativity and innovation empowers individuals to feel valued, included and respected. These three can lead to a culture of belonging.
  3. Developing and growing diverse talent in an organization focused on inclusive leadership demonstrates to others in the company that they might very well achieve similar career goals as the people who look like them.

Both the individual leader and the organization stand to gain a tremendous competitive advantage when it comes to the impact on the workforce when they are intentionally focused on modeling the actions that drive for inclusion and belonging.

So how will you RSVP to the invitation to be a more inclusive leader? The choice is up to you.

Related: I Came Out As a Gay Man In the 80's. It Was the Best Thing I Ever Did For My Career.

Phil Bohlender is a global leadership-development and business-transformation consultant who worked for multiple healthcare companies including Aetna, Humana, and Cigna over his 35-year corporate career. As an openly gay man, his roles included leader, consultant, mentor, coach, author and speaker.

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