Inclusive Leadership: The The Case for Doing Leadership Development Differently

Seatbelts - a story for everyone

There is this eye-opening story that D&I folks often tell. Seatbelts were designed and tested only using men's sizes, weights, and proportions in mind; and tested with "male dummies.”  The result? Women and children were hurt at substantially higher rates in car accidents. In fact, women were 47% more likely to be hurt by seatbelts in a crash than men were. This didn’t change until 2011, when the first “female” test dummies went into effect.


Was there any evil intent on the part of the seatbelt designers? No, of course not. They were working on saving lives. They believed they were saving lives. They went to work everyday working on making cars safer.

Designing for Clients

The seatbelt example might seem like a random example because it outlines a design flaw. But, it does highlight how much impact designers can have on the end product.

The best practice should be that designers keep the end users in mind without their own blinders at play when they are designing a product or a service. For example, if you design a minivan, you should be designing the features of that minivan with families in mind. If you design a program to teach underprivileged kids, you design with the realities of their lives in mind.

This end-user design principle also happens to make good business sense. Afterall, if your customers don't want what you are selling, you'll be out of work.

What does this mean for leadership development?

Leadership development is a $14 billion dollar per year industry. Companies have teams dedicated to leadership development. Seminars, workshops, coaching sessions, books, tapes … you name it, it exists.

Many of today’s leadership development programs and philosophies are based on research done in the 1950’s and 1960’s, or earlier. For example, have you ever taken the Myers-Briggs test? The test that tells you if you are an extrovert or an introvert? The one that has spawned all the memes comparing your type of Star Wars characters or Harry Potter Characters? Myers-Briggs was developed in 1943.

1943. Think about what the world was like in 1943 for just one second. It was a very different world. Another commonly used tool is the DISC Assessment. This was first developed in 1956. The Strengths Development Inventory  - which is one of my personal favorites and the one that I commonly refer to in my own leadership - was developed in 1971.  They are all fascinating tools, but ones that were developed based decades ago – on research that is even older – when our workplaces and our workforce looked very different than they do today.

Since they were developed, these tools have been used in a corporate boardrooms and in offices and workplaces to help leaders gain valuable insights about themselves.  Corporate leaders are also the ones who are signing off for their teams to take these assessments to help build teams and facilitate better corporate results.

So, who are these corporate leaders who are using and buying these assessments?

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor found that 83.3% of executives in the tech sector were white. In “general industries,” 68% of leadership were white; in both tech and non-tech, 80% of leadership was male.

In our 2018 report, Quantum Impact found that 84% of leadership in global social impact organizations is white; and 56% of leadership is male.

We’ve been designing leadership development programs for white men

Like any other industry, the leadership development industry has been designing with their customer in mind. We have all been adjusting and adapting our work for our largest client base.

Designing for a new generation of leaders and new workplaces that are diverse, inclusive and changing the world.

Designing for a new generation of leaders and new workplaces that are diverse, inclusive and changing the world.

It doesn’t meant that the core ideas and principles are in anyway flawed. After all, seatbelts are an amazing idea.

But, we do have to recognize that the workforce is changing - and changing rapidly. With that, we need to make changes to the way that we design and implement leadership development programs within our organizations to keep pace with this change.

This is partially as a result of more women and minority groups both entering the workforce and becoming leaders. But, there are other changes at play as well. For example, remote work, co-working, and on-demand working (the gig economy) are all the on the rise. More and more teams are matrixed, and more and more of us coordinate with team members based around the world.

This requires us to update the way we think about management and leadership, team cohesion, and the way we define things like work styles.

Paving a new way forward

Where does this leave us? With Inclusive Leadership. This new approach builds on what works in leadership development to include our new realities – a more diverse workforce that has more women, more minority groups, and a different style and method of working that emphasizes collaboration and a respect of different identities. Inclusive leaders are the ones in the office who see the value of diversity on their teams and the creativity and innovation that comes from having different experiences and different viewpoints at the table; and have the ability to lead in a way that brings teams together to celebrate and embrace those differences.

Want to learn more about inclusive leadership? Stay tuned for more from Quantum Impact’s blog, or sign-up to receive our updates.


Sarah Grausz