What kind of a leader are you? Focus on inclusive and empathic leadership has been getting a lot of attention in recent years for valid reasons. Back in 2018, FastCompany was already reporting that empathic leaders gained improvements in employee loyalty, engagement, collaboration, satisfaction, and creativity. All factors in improving productivity and business growth. The characteristics of these leaders provide helpful guidance in how to navigate turbulent situations and times of crisis for sure, but moreover change, transition, and organizational growth.

Business is all about change. From mergers and acquisitions to new office locations; switching coffee suppliers to software platforms — change is inevitable. Recent history highlights how quickly global events can impact us all. How organizations navigate times of uncertainty and how leaders guide their employees through these transitions makes a world of difference.

Keep reading to understand the characteristics of these leaders and what it looks like to effectively manage and develop employees using this mindset whether in times of transition or steady growth.

What is Inclusive and Empathic Leadership?

Before we dig into the business applications of inclusive and empathic leadership, we need to get a little academic here with some word etymology. Inclusive is a word that has been in use since the late 1400s. The original meaning was to shut in or enclose referring to a group or collection. Hardly what we think of now when the word is used, yet still very much the opposite of exclusive.

Today, the word inclusive refers to an all-encompassing and comprehensive approach. So what changed? Perspective. Historically the concept was inward-looking and focused on what or who was let into a group or collection to maximize the traits held in common. Now, the perspective is outward-looking to be as broad as possible to gain an unlimited assortment of variants within that same group or collection.

The word empathic by comparison is comparatively new since it only dates back to the beginning of the 1900s. Its meaning has evolved much less over time but is often confused with sympathy or being sympathetic. Empathic is the ability to understand the feelings of another, while sympathetic is the ability to express emotions for another.

While subtle, the impact and resulting thought process are very different. A sympathetic person says “I feel sorry for you” and works to imagine themselves in a particular situation while still maintaining a small degree of separation. An empathic person says “I feel with you” and can draw upon personal experiences or gained knowledge to experience a particular situation alongside someone else.

Perspective again comes into play as a person who looks at a situation from the outside with compassion and concern (sympathy) versus someone who immerses themselves into a situation, often based on first-hand understanding or experience (empathy). A sympathetic person observes while an empathic person engages.

When applied to leadership qualities, an inclusive and empathetic individual seeks to bring in as many influences and perspectives as possible, to immerse themselves into the lives and experiences of those around them. No small feat and usually not something that happens intuitively.

Characteristics of an Inclusive Leader

Back in 2016 Deloitte Human Capital Consultants, Juliet Bourke and Bernadette Dillon identified six signature traits of inclusive leadership which they developed into a model they called The 6 C’s of Inclusive Leadership. Through their research, they concluded that inclusive leaders not only embrace individual differences but can leverage them into a competitive advantage. Here are those traits with brief descriptions from Bourke and Dillon’s work.

Characteristics of Inclusive Leadership


Pursuing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives require time and energy. Highly inclusive leaders committed to championing these challenges have alignment between their values and the value system of the business that inspires them to work for change, fairness, respect, and resources within the workplace.


There’s a vulnerability to being an inclusive leader because confronting others and the status quo immediately invites the spotlight to turn on the person initiating the change. Inclusive leaders dare to speak up for change and honestly admit their own limitations.

Cognizance of bias

Inclusive leaders are deeply aware that biases can narrow their field of vision and prevent them from making objective decisions. They also exert considerable effort to learn about their own biases, self-regulate, and develop corrective strategies.


Inclusive leaders accept their limitations and therefore have a natural thirst for continual learning that helps drive attributes associated with curiosity: open-mindedness, inquiry, and empathy. The openness to different ideas and experiences is a defining characteristic of inclusive leadership.

Culturally intelligent

While an understanding of cultural similarities and differences is important, inclusive leaders also recognize how their own culture impacts their personal worldview, as well as how cultural stereotypes can influence their expectations of others.


At its core, collaboration is about individuals working together; building on each other’s ideas to produce something new or solve something complex. Collaboration among similar people is comfortable and easy. Collaboration with diverse others (employees, customers, or other stakeholders) creates unique challenges but also opportunities that inclusive leaders continually seek out.

Characteristics of an Empathic Leader

To understand the profile and mentality of empathic leadership, we looked at what author and psychologist, Dr. Daniel Goleman outlines in his book Emotional Intelligence. These are his five key elements of empathic leadership.


Empathic leaders tune into the subtle, non-verbal emotional cues of others. Not only does this provide context for how to help, support, and guide others, but also helpful clues on the best ways to respond and communicate with others.

Developing others

Developing others means proactively working to help team members reach their full potential. Empathic leaders recognize accomplishments, give constructive feedback in areas to improve, and provide opportunities to grow by challenging employees’ abilities.

Having a service orientation

Empathic leaders genuinely understand the needs of others and go out of their way to meet those needs. It’s the idea of giving your complete focus and attention to someone or something other than yourself for a while, whether that is five minutes to resolve a small problem, or something longer to implement a new project.

Leveraging diversity

Empathic leaders are skilled in tailoring their interactions to fit the needs and feelings of others they are engaging with. Leveraging diversity isn’t about treating everyone exactly the same, but about recognizing each person’s unique differences, and creating opportunities based on those differences.

Political awareness

This is another term with a slightly different meaning in this context. Instead of thinking of ‘political’ from the perspective of influencing or brokering relationships, empathic leaders are focused on sensing and appropriately responding to a group’s emotions and existing interactions. This means “reading the room” correctly and then responding appropriately.

What Inclusive and Empathic Leadership Looks Like

Whether you have carefully studied each word to this point or have skimmed through the information, it’s clear that effective inclusive and empathic leadership takes focused intent to get right. It can also be hard to recognize what this style of leadership should even look like.

Inclusive leaders work to attract and absorb varying points of view and ideas from all available sources. Leadership that is also highly empathic works to find the balance between and among the participants and the provided input. This is where the ability to navigate change, transition, and growth shines most brightly. An inclusive, empathic leader approaches times of crisis and change with a humble, collaborative spirit that communicates to all employees the significance of their role on the team. And when things are moving along smoothly, reinforces a connection that engages with employees and enhances their commitment to the organization and your corporate culture.

Inclusive and empathic leadership is also helpful in the recruiting process. These leaders seek out talent that will enable an organization to reach its set goals rather than focusing on the status quo for their particular industry or available role. Personal biases are pushed aside to consider new ideas and perspectives that can add to their organizations.

Practical Ways to Implement Inclusive and Empathic Leadership

Be intentional about checking in with team members

This means moving beyond asking how their work is going, and genuinely asking how they are doing. People want to know they are cared for and that their leaders are concerned for their well-being. A simple check-in can go a long way in helping reduce feelings of isolation and anxiety.

Over-communicate when distributing information

Information is capital. Transparency is key. A remote working environment shouldn’t hinder the ability to continue sharing in different ways. By proactively sharing thoughts, feelings, and ideas, inclusive and empathic leaders enable their team to feel valued because they are inviting them to participate in something of importance to the entire organization.

Set clear and achievable goals and expectations

People tend to do better work when they understand what is expected of them. Employees are more committed to organizations (read as less employee turnover) when they have a clear understanding of both the direction of the organization as well as for their own role.

Show gratitude

Not only is showing gratitude healthy, but it also helps create a cohesive team. Remind your team how thankful you are for their support and service. Celebrate big and small wins. Express your appreciation in ways that are personal, specific, and meaningful.

What kind of leader are you?

Learn the keys to managing one of your biggest assets with positive results for your bottom line. Download the guide to Employment Engagement Strategies below.

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