Editor’s note: From the vault: This column was really popular earlier this year and outlines a topic on the minds of the executives and leaders I counsel and coach. In this new era of management, which I call “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World,” the fusion of balancing empathy and economics is at the center of winning in the marketplace and with your stakeholders. I’ve made some modifications, but the ideas are ones we’re still addressing as we move from specific DEI initiatives to building robust culture-centric leaders and organizations.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Many of our teammates and colleagues are searching for meaning in today’s workplace – especially during a difficult economy and widespread uncertainty. When I think about the resulting leadership challenges, my mind goes to key terms that I have been hearing repeatedly: disruption and evolution. The idea at the core of each is change – the quick break that leads to something new versus the slower process of gradual improvement over time. Leaders are expected to be experts at change – but it is difficult work.

Photo courtesy of Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson

As executives and managers, we are experiencing change along with our colleagues. We also carry the added demand of simultaneously managing them as they chart through ups and downs at work and what is happening at home. At any given time an employee could be going through health issues, caring for young children or elderly parents, financial turmoil or any number of stressors that deplete energy, effort and enthusiasm. 

Under these tough conditions, leading is a tall order. I have been counseling execs in my coaching practice to double down on change by adapting and implementing inclusive leadership. 

Rather than provide a textbook definition, I’m going to run through some scenarios that will demonstrate how an inclusive leader thinks and reacts based on three central tenets:

  • Authentic two-way feedback
  • Empowering teams
  • Adaptability


Few aspects of work life are more difficult than feedback, which can often be painful or just plain awkward. Regardless of the pretense, people don’t enjoy it because it is not done in an authentic manner, instead leading to criticism and finger-pointing.

An inclusive leader, however, uses feedback to identify the gap between behavior and success with the understanding that closing that space will lead to a stronger organization overall. What you can do right away, then, is to approach feedback with a different mindset: let’s address what is collectively right for the organization. From this vantage, the discussion becomes about we – not the employee focusing on me, my mistakes, or my problems.

As leaders, we must break down the old barrier that kept executives and employees from having honest conversations. We are long past the model of attack and defend. Instead, our evaluations must center on what we want to achieve together, the aspects that are my responsibility and those that are the employees. Together, we’ll get to how we tackle the challenge, document it and work to improve together. 

Inclusive leaders are excellent at giving feedback that leads to actions that we can take together. Inclusive leadership is being open to that conversation. 

Of course, if we’re asking employees to change their fundamental ideas about evaluation, then executives must adapt too. One of the things I try to improve on every day is being open to the feedback from people on my team. For example, one of my leaders said, “Don, sometimes you don’t give me as much mentorship on growth topics as you do on tactics. I’d like it if you slowed down and gave me the big picture on how these points work together.” 

It was a lightbulb moment for me. She wanted to understand the context of what she was working on and had identified a weak spot in how I managed. I was so thankful that we had created a relationship where she could talk freely with me and I could respond thoughtfully.

We both adapted. I changed the agenda of our one-on-one meetings, giving sufficient time to make sure the overall objective was as clear as the tactics we needed to get there. She then saw the context of how her daily tasks helped us reach our collective goals.


Another culture-centric leadership trait you can adapt today is empowering teams so that they do their best work together. My goal in this area is to uplift others so that we can create an environment where everyone has a voice and is viewed as a valuable team member. 

This renewed emphasis on teamwork – and, by extension, how to create great teams via culture – is not a “nice to have” part of the workplace, it is a business imperative. The data support what we’ve learned: DEI improves engagement, productivity, decision-making, innovation and agility within teams. Better teamwork equates to stronger organizations that will likely experience higher revenues and profitability through greater efficiency. 

When inclusive leaders demonstrate the we versus the you model, they provide clear insights on what the organization values and how we will address these values collectively. By showing this behavior, we prioritize it throughout the organization. I have seen that it is wiser, more scalable, and has more long-lasting consequences if I allow the team to come up with a solution,  because they will then own the outcome. As leaders, we set the vision, standards, expectations, but then allow the team the space to build the plans to chase that new objective.


Inclusive leaders are adaptable and become a role model for the team by breaking through rigid decision-making. Your organization consists of people who see themselves as individuals. They approach, assess, investigate and analyze problems uniquely and from different viewpoints. Diversity of thought is important here – the more voices involved the stronger our collective outcome. 

Building stronger teams also includes growing others as leaders via delegation, even if it seems that you might be able to perform a task faster yourself. When I am in a meeting with a handful of people or even 10 or 12, I often notice that a small percentage of people are dominating the dialogue. As an inclusive leader, it is my role to slow the conversation down and find a way to get more people involved. 

I can ask another teammate directly, as in “Suzanne, what do you think about…”, or I can shift the conversation to a subject matter that I know one of the quieter teammates knows well, so they have the space to speak up.

Most people are not intuitively adaptive and even the best leaders can slip into a rote way of dealing with challenges, particularly when pressure intensifies. The move to adaptability needs to be deliberate and takes practice to implement. 


When inclusive leadership becomes a part of an organization’s culture, it creates immediate return on investment (ROI) opportunities. 

I spoke about DEI as a lens for building culture-centric organizations with Danielle David, chief people officer at CRB, a provider of sustainable engineering, architecture, construction and consulting solutions for global life sciences and advanced technology industries. She views CRB’s DEI initiatives as part of a journey that lifts the entire organization internally, which is then reflected out to external stakeholders.  

We’re leaning into DEI and our leaders are really focused. The impact we’ve seen is that it allows candidates and employees to see themselves here,” David explained. “I know we’ve attracted people because they see that we’re working on DEI and that’s important to them. We’ve attracted some really incredible people, and we’ve retained some amazing people as well.”

One of the most remarkable ROI proof points I have seen centers on the idea that happy employees stay in their jobs and are then more productive. Data from Oxford’s Saïd Business School shows that happy employees are 13% more productive every week. This equates to nearly one extra hour of work per day, per employee, or five extra hours a week.

Fulfilled, enthusiastic employees don’t leave. Turnover is expensive and a drain on resources, from searching and vetting candidates to the time spent training and onboarding. On average, research shows it costs companies 1.5 to 2 times a person’s annual salary to find their replacement and nearly 2.5 times salary plus two full years for that new hire to reach full productivity and value. Creating a workplace culture that aligns with people’s personal values through DEI can create professional happiness that improves business outcomes.

A final note – being an inclusive leader is not easy. I am the first to admit that I’m a work in progress, as are many of you. However, it’s important that we realize the impact that inclusive leadership can have, not only on our organizations, but on people individually, in families and across our communities at large. 

Whether the change you’re experiencing is disruptive or evolutionary, it is in your best interest to adapt to what you’re seeing and feeling in today’s high-octane workplace. Your organization’s health depends on your adaptability, as does the health and welfare of your teammates.

About the Author 

Donald Thompson is CEO and co-founder of The Diversity Movement and author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success. As an executive coach and board member, he focuses on goal achievement, culture change and driving exponential growth. Donald hosts the “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” podcast and is an award-winning entrepreneur, keynote speaker and Certified Diversity Executive (CDE). Connect with or follow Donald on Linkedin to learn more.