How Great Leaders Approach Diversity

By Allan Schweyer, Senior Executive Consultant

Over the past 30+ years, I’ve observed that great leaders help each employee, manager, and colleague identify known and hidden biases that might lead to acts of discrimination, microaggression, or exclusion. The best leaders exhibit honesty and courage by going beyond rote training modules to educate everyone in the historic fact of systemic racism; not to shame the majority but to build perspective and empathy.

This remains rare, however. So how do leaders and organizations do it?

You’ve probably seen it first hand: leadership sets the climate of transparency and vulnerability in the organization (or lack thereof). Diversity flows naturally from proactive and non-discriminatory hiring practices driven by leadership that understands the business advantages of a representative workforce. Inclusion follows where CEOs, chief people officers (CPOs), and other executives lead through courage, truth, and example.

At its core, this has everything to do with prioritizing mental health. No company can claim a commitment to employee wellness until people can deal with their stresses or worries openly and find help. Of course, wellness extends to inclusion and belonging. Until historically excluded minorities, whether based on race and ethnicity or sexual and gender preference, can express themselves, dress, and share their ideas and perspectives openly — within social and business norms — creativity and innovation will suffer. More importantly, workplace belonging and wellness cannot emerge until everyone enjoys psychological safety and can bring all of their constructive thoughts, ideas, humor, and perspectives to work.

When it comes to execution, effective leaders and organizations first make their commitment known and set strategic goals around diversity (as above, this should include implications for the culture and employee engagement). Then, as an organization matures and progresses, it integrates consideration of diversity factors into every important decision and every aspect of the business — from eliminating biases in hiring, celebrating ethnic holidays, offering training where appropriate, to checking the culture itself for systemic biases. Ultimately, leaders make a public commitment to change, including openness in sharing data around hiring, pay, promotions, and minority representation in senior positions.

Diversity and Inclusion Confer Competitive Advantage

In the digital era we inhabit, literally everything organizations achieve depends on people. Everyone competes for the same talent, every successful leader understands they must compensate competitively, invest in employees’ learning and development, and provide the resources workers need to do their jobs effectively. Most know and believe in the overwhelming evidence that employee engagement drives higher productivity, better business outcomes, and lower attrition. Thus, failure to engage, include, and leverage the full talents of the workplace represents not only a moral lapse — it invites disaster. It exposes unfitness for executive office.

Great leaders know they won’t always get it right, but they work with other experts, listen to their employees, keep learning, and set the intention to create a vibrant, healthy workplace and culture that embraces diversity. This requires tremendous courage and empathy but results in stronger, more innovative and resilient organizations more capable of attracting and keeping top talent.

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Center For Human Capital Innovation

CHCI believes that the skills, capabilities, and well-being of employees are the most integral parts of any organization’s path to long-term success.