We Are All One Body: Becoming an Inclusive Leader

“As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).

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“Diversity and inclusion” (D&I) is a trending topic these days. The “and” in the phrase is key. It’s important for an organization to be diverse, but it’s also important to make sure that those people feel included — that they feel valued as part of the team.

As Catholics, we have an edge here: We know what it means to be inclusive, because as Christians, we are all one body in Christ, “whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

In fact, this part of Ephesians 4 practically reads like a D&I how-to: “And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (11-12).

Similarly, in a team or organization, each person has a unique role to play and perspective to offer. Therefore, becoming an inclusive leader should be a key component of your personal leadership development path. With that in mind, here are five traits of inclusive leaders and how you can develop them yourself.

Inclusive Leaders Are Humble

Inclusive leaders must have the humility to admit their weaknesses, identify their blind spots and biases, and acknowledge others’ strengths. Through humility, you can open yourself to assessment results; feedback from your peers, manager and team members; and your work results to see areas where you need to improve. Through humility, you can also understand where you have unconscious biases regarding certain groups of people and where your own beliefs (false or true) may be coloring your perceptions. And, through humility, you can see which team members offer skills and experiences that you don’t have, helping to fill gaps in your team capabilities and making the whole group more successful.

Here’s an example: You just hired a new employee, who disclosed to you during the interview process that she has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Before her first day, you do some internet research on autism in the workplace and identify some accommodations and job supports that you plan on putting in place for your new hire.

Then, humility leads you to acknowledge that you don’t actually know much about autism and that the best person to learn about your new employee is not Google but your new employee herself! On her first day, you ask her to let you know what support will make her successful in her new role and begin an ongoing conversation about neurodiversity. You also start to talk with her about her strengths and skills and how they will benefit your team.

Inclusive Leaders Are Courageous

Sometimes, inclusive leadership means speaking up and standing out — speaking up about what you believe in and standing out from the crowd. It can mean standing up for someone whose voice is at risk of being silenced, and it can mean standing your ground on a position no one else holds. In short, inclusive leadership requires courage.

To have this level of courage, we must have faith. Our leadership must be grounded in prayer, whether or not we work in a religious workplace, so that we have the grace to see each person as a child of God. Creating a regular prayer habit builds that muscle so that in difficult times, or before difficult conversations, your instinct is to ask the Holy Spirit for guidance.

For example, when someone says something racist in the workplace, it can be easy to immediately go into fight-or-flight mode. There are a lot of reasons you may be afraid to speak up. But if you’ve built that automatic response of, “Holy Spirit, guide me” or, “Jesus, help me,” that quick, five-second prayer can give you the courage (and the wisdom) to respond appropriately.

Inclusive Leaders Are Empathetic

Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, is a researcher who focuses on shame and resilience, which leads her also to write and teach about empathy. In her book “Dare to Lead,” she writes about the importance of empathy to leadership, first defining it as “not connecting to an experience [but] connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience.”

In a diverse organization, you will never relate to everyone’s experiences. There will be some people and some experiences that are very different from you and your life. But emotions are universal. There may be some cultural and gender differences in how we express them, but we all feel joy, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust and anger. That means that when a colleague, an employee or a manager is feeling one of these emotions, you have an automatic connection you can make with that person.

Let’s say a member of the project team you lead is angry — fuming, in fact. You’ve given her a deadline that she believes is unfair, and she reacts by complaining to the colleague who sits next to her. You overhear her say, “She just doesn’t understand how much work I have to do. I wish she’d respect my time more.”

Let’s say the deadline is non-negotiable because of a client product launch. You can’t change it, but you can change the way your team member is feeling, about the way it’s affecting your relationship and about the way she approaches her task.

You bring her back into your office and sit next to (not across from) her. Then, you say, “I just wanted to check in with you on this deadline. I know it’s really tight, and it’s unfair that I had to spring it on you. Unfortunately, there are circumstances beyond my control that mean we have to get this project done by that date. What can I do to make it easier for you?”

Inclusive Leaders Are Learners

In order to understand and connect with other people, you have to be willing to learn about them. That means learning about the culture they come from, the other languages they speak, the disabilities and talents they have, and the bias or discrimination they sometimes face. Perhaps more importantly, though, learning about other people means learning about other people — as people. It means asking occasional questions about topics that don’t relate to work. It means asking your team members how their weekend was, how their new kindergartener is doing at school, how their boyfriend is liking his new job or where they’re going on that vacation they just submitted for paid time off.

Think back to the example of the employee with autism: By acknowledging the limitations in your knowledge, you open yourself up to learning about another person and her challenges and strengths, helping you to start a positive, collaborative relationship.

Inclusive Leaders Are Tender

In “Dare to Lead,” Brown quotes Susan Mann, a founding senior faculty member at Brown’s company: “Great leaders make tough ‘people decisions’ and are tender in implementing them.”

“Tender” is not a word you often hear when it comes to leadership, but think back to a time you had a difficult but positive conversation with a manager or a mentor. Despite how hard it was to hear negative feedback, you probably appreciated the way it was delivered — kindly and even tenderly.

Being kind doesn’t mean keeping everything “nice.” Being kind means sharing the hard truths but doing so in a way that allows people to maintain their dignity and helps them grow.

That courageous, honest and empathic tenderness? That’s what inclusive leadership looks like.

Taryn Oesch, managing editor of Catholic Women in Business and owner of Everyday Roses Editorial, LLC, is a writer in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she writes and speaks about women’s issues for a variety of publications and conferences. Her role models are all named Teresa, and she keeps discovering new ways they influence her work and her life. When not writing or editing, Taryn is typically reading Jane Austen, drinking Earl Grey, and spending time with family and friends. She is a contributing writer to FemCatholic.com and an active member of the Raleigh Catholic Young Adults, where she leads a women’s Bible study and plays the piano and flute for monthly Holy Hours. You can follow Taryn on Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook, and on her blog Everyday Roses.