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If your sights are set on climbing to the top of your field, you will already be doing what you can to grow and hone the skills you'll need to become a business leader of tomorrow. We are living in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world - one which makes it difficult to predict the future with any precision. You cannot possibly gather all the knowledge that your industry will require, nor can you alone encompass every skill that a future business needs - you can't even know what those skills are yet.
We can be certain, however, that leaders with a breadth of perspective far beyond their personal knowledge and experience will be of key importance to any future business. As such, becoming a leader capable of working with, and harnessing the talent of, a diverse group of people with their own skills and thoughts is to become the most valuable leader of all.
To be inclusive is to ensure the benefits of diversity contribute to the success of your organisation. This is particularly relevant as Asia's continuing economic transformation will result in diverse markets along with globalisation and digital innovation requiring diverse ideas.
For some the three key shifts, detailed below, present a myriad of problems, but for the leaders of tomorrow who are willing and able to adapt quickly, they present enormous opportunity.
- Diversity of markets - It's been predicted that by 2050 more than 20 of the world's top 50 cities ranked by GDP will be located in Asia. Rather than being intimidated by this emerging market, future leaders will see a tantalising opportunity to access the "next billion" consumers.
- Diversity of ideas - Globalisation, hyper-connectivity and digital innovation are changing the nature of consumption, competition, how markets work and what consumers expect. Seemingly overnight, this has already reshaped entire industries (film, newspapers, retail, banking, education) and iconic brands (Kodak, Borders, Blockbuster), and brought forth new players (Uber, Airbnb). Opportunity or threat, it is a reality that has catapulted innovation - of products, processes and business models - to the top of the business agenda.
- Diversity of talent - Shifts in education and migration flows around the globe have changed the demographic shape of workforces. Future success will depend on an organisation's ability to optimise its diverse and dispersed talent pool.
What will leaders need to do to thrive, not just survive?
Leaders will need to think and behave differently. Of course, the core elements of leadership are timeless, such as the ability to set direction and create followership, but for future leaders organisational success will lie in understanding what it truly means to be an inclusive leader. Research shows that best-in-class inclusive leaders have embraced the following six signature behaviours:
- Show commitment - Being an inclusive leader is difficult: it takes time and energy. When leaders dedicate time, energy and resources to inclusion, this signals it as a true priority.
- Be courageous - A highly inclusive leader speaks up and challenges the status quo, is willing to try a different approach to one which may have served the business well in the past and openly and honestly acknowledges their own personal limits on their journey to being inclusive.
- Become self-aware - Highly inclusive leaders exert considerable effort to learn about their own biases and organisational blind spots. They intervene to self-regulate and develop corrective strategies.
- Embrace curiosity - Inclusive leaders accept the limitations of their own views and hunger for the views of others to complete the picture. This helps drive behaviours associated with curiosity and open- mindedness - a thirst for continual learning.
- Become culturally intelligent - This skill is particularly relevant in relation to Asian business opportunities and engaging with diverse talent and stakeholders. The ability to function effectively in cross-cultural situations is about more than just having a mental map of different customs and norms. It includes understanding how a leader's own culture impacts their worldview, how cultural assumptions and stereotypes influence their expectations of others and how communication and behaviours should be adapted in different cross-cultural situations.
- Stop, collaborate and listen - Of the signature traits of an inclusive leader, it is collaboration that perhaps has the clearest link to the foundational shifts, and innovation and customer responsiveness in particular. While collaboration among similar people is comfortable and easy, the challenge and opportunity thrown up by the foundational shifts is collaboration with diverse others: employees, customers or other external stakeholders.
Studying all of the above traits, it becomes abundantly clear that aspiring leaders of the future need to lead from the middle of the circle. This implies that highly inclusive leaders play a critical role in connecting diverse group members and creating the conditions in which these individuals are willing to contribute their unique perspectives.
In the context of such diversity, those who understand what it is to be truly inclusive will be able to adapt and forge the way ahead as the leaders of the future.