The Keys to Teaching Inclusive Leadership

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Wednesday, July 20, 2022
By Barbara Banda
Photo by iStock/AndreyPopov
How do we inspire executives to recruit the best Black leaders? By giving executives space to challenge their biases and embrace meaningful change.
  • Executive education programs should do more than empower Black leadership—they also should support the majority culture’s efforts to develop, recruit, and retain Black leaders.
  • Inclusive leadership programs must help participants challenge the notion of “diverse sameness,” in which they subconsciously want to be around diverse people whose differences they find most acceptable.
  • If business schools are to help improve Black representation in business, they must address the lack of representation in their programs and have faculty with the skills to work with sensitive issues around race, identity, and privilege.


Over the past few years, business schools have made progress toward achieving gender parity in their faculties. Although AACSB data show that more men than women hold tenured positions at business schools (52 percent versus 41 percent), more women than men currently are on the tenure track (27 percent versus 22 percent). Over the last 10 years, the percentage of deans who identify as female has increased from 18 percent to 28 percent.

But while business schools have made strides in increasing women’s representation, they do not appear to have afforded the same level of attention to racial representation. AACSB’s data show that in 2021, only 4 percent of full-time faculty at the 257 U.S. business schools were Black.

It’s no surprise that this lack of representation in business schools leads to fewer Black executives in business. In the U.K., for instance, Black employees hold only 1.5 percent of senior roles. And in 2021, there were zero Black executives leading U.K. companies, according to a 2020 report from Business in the Community, a network of businesses dedicated to responsible business.

In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, some business schools have introduced initiatives aimed to increase the number of Black business leaders. Good examples include London Business School’s Black in Business club, a center founded in 2020 to focus on Black student initiatives; and Stanford University’s Executive Education Black Leaders program.

However, these initiatives are necessarily one-sided. While they are designed to empower Black leaders, they do not support the majority culture’s efforts to develop, recruit, and retain Black leaders.

Whether because of the racial composition of their faculty or the nature of their inclusive leadership programs, business schools are not doing enough to train future leaders—especially those in the majority—to be more inclusive toward their Black colleagues. As an industry, we must do more.

A Lack of Representation

According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, less than 10 percent of all GMAT test takers originating in the U.S. are African American. Similarly, data from U.S. business schools indicate that there is an underrepresentation of Black students.

This problem stems from a lack of representation among business school faculty, argues Bobby Banerjee, a professor and associate dean of Bayes Business School (formerly Cass) in London, in a July 29, 2020 article in the Financial Times. “Black people don’t want to come to business school because they don’t see black faces,” says Banerjee. “We therefore have to change hiring and promotion practices.”

If business schools still lack Black faculty, how can they support other organizations in the recruitment and retention of Black leaders?

Bias in hiring is a root cause of Black underrepresentation in business schools, claims Erika James, dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in an April 29, 2020 article in the Financial Times. Too often, she says, majority white faculty on hiring committees are biased, consciously or unconsciously, toward white candidates.

The existence and impact of such bias raises critical questions: If business schools still lack Black faculty, how can they support other organizations in the recruitment and retention of Black leaders? And, in this context, how can they train leaders to be more inclusive of Black colleagues?

The Importance of Depth Over Breadth

A primary way that business schools seek to educate leaders on inclusion is by delivering in-company executive education programs on inclusive leadership. These programs are typically not focused on any one racial or gender group, but are about helping leaders foster climates of psychological safety where everyone can feel valued, respected, and accepted.

As we know, diversity is about visible and nonvisible differences. With that in mind, many of these programs work to foster inclusion in the broadest sense, by helping participants understand their assumptions and biases, surfacing and exploring privilege, assessing inclusive leadership traits and reactions to all differences, and facilitating inclusive conversations.

Most important, such programs should have sufficient depth so that learners experience what educational theorist King Beach calls “a consequential transition” in thinking. This is a topic I’ve also addressed in my own research. A consequential transition is defined as a conscious reflective struggle that results in a change in the ways people see themselves and those around them.

The importance of depth over breadth in inclusive leadership training is critical. Programs should allow ample space for participants to explore and understand significant moments in their lives, examine their personal assumptions and privilege, and have meaningful conversations on what they discover with faculty and their fellow participants.

None of these activities can be addressed at a superficial level if the goal is to achieve truly consequential transitions. By drawing meaning from what they have experienced and what matters to them, leaders will be better able to challenge their biases, understand how these biases affect the way they treat others, and create meaningful change.

What Skills Do Faculty Need?

To produce executives who are committed to building inclusive organizations, faculty must be comfortable exploring sensitive issues related to identity, race, and privilege. To guide discussions effectively, they should know how to do the following:

Facilitate difficult conversations. In discussions of diversity and inclusion, some topics will inevitably cause deep discomfort and unpredictable emotional responses. For this reason, faculty must know how to facilitate sensitive conversations among diverse groups. They must create classroom environments where leaders feel comfortable touching on delicate issues and will take seriously the varied life experiences of their classmates.

Notice and name issues causing racial tension. Faculty need to be able to notice and name what they see in the room. For example, I once observed a colleague who, in a conversation around dominant and nondominant cultures, sensitively challenged the group’s perspective on their culture and the impact this may have on the non-Europeans in the group.

Know when to move on. I know of another colleague who, during a discussion exploring the idea of invisible difference, recognized that while the participants represented many nationalities, they were not mentioning issues of race. He pointed out this omission lightly, but when he realized the group was not ready to explore this topic, he let the matter rest.

By drawing meaning from what they have experienced and what matters to them, leaders will be better able to challenge their biases, understand how these biases affect others, and create meaningful change.

Be vulnerable. It is important that faculty are willing to be vulnerable in the moment. Faculty can have great impact with program participants when they speak movingly about their experiences of feeling excluded in their childhood. One of my colleagues talks about difficulties he faced because of his blended family structure; another speaks candidly about how her father’s negative interactions with the police influenced her attitudes toward authority. Recognizing the right moments to share such stories is an important skill.

Find and clearly communicate the right model, concept, or theory at the right moment. This is not easy, especially when faculty are simultaneously reading the room and working through an agenda of topics. However, I have seen faculty who can smoothly connect strategy and behavioral models in ways that help participants understand why diversity is critical for organizational learning. One of my colleagues introduces a model for individual and organizational change, which allows the group to identify challenges they face in creating more inclusive cultures.

Coach leaders in groups and individually. Leaders often want to explore their motives and behaviors more deeply. Engaging in such conversations during breaks, with small groups of participants or one-on-one, can lead to deep discussions around their childhood experiences and critical moments in their working lives. Faculty should have the ability to listen without judgment and yet offer the right questions or challenges. This is a key coaching skill that can assist deeper learning.

Recognize and counteract “diverse sameness.” Finally, faculty must be willing to challenge the notion of what I call “diverse sameness.” This concept refers to the fact that no matter how hard we try to embrace diversity and inclusion, we often subconsciously want to be around and include people who are like us. This has a chilling effect in the workplace, in which we seek out only those individuals with differences we find acceptable.

This is true for hiring in business schools as well. Although faculty hiring committees work to recruit and retain candidates for difference, they often only accept diverse candidates when those candidates’ values and behaviors are similar to their own.

In my book The Model Black: How Black British Leaders Succeed in Organisations and Why It Matters, I challenge leaders to avoid hiring only “diversely similar Black employees” (“The Model Black”) and to instead create environments where all employees can bring their genuine selves to work. I propose ways of working toward such a culture, such as reconsidering how leaders are rewarded.

We Must Inspire More Meaningful Conversations

Ultimately, our biggest challenge is twofold. First, how can we encourage leaders to talk meaningfully about including diverse groups in the workplace when those groups are not represented? And, second, as business schools, how can we examine and adjust our own practices so that we can improve Black representation in our programs?

As they prepare leaders to be more inclusive, business schools must ensure that programs have space for deep personal reflection and understanding. These programs must be facilitated by faculty with the right set of skills. Above all, faculty must challenge the notion of diverse sameness and encourage participants to acknowledge personal biases.

In the end, leaders who are serious about inclusion must see the importance of educating themselves. Having opportunities to learn about the workplace experiences of those who are different from them—and reflect on ways they can contribute to more inclusive workplaces—is a critical first step.

Barbara Banda
Educator in Inclusive Leadership and Change, Barbara Banda Consulting
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