The culture and leadership of “inclusiveness”

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‘Strength lies in differences, not in similarities’ – Stephen R. Covey.

Broader, more creative thinking is unlikely to come from like-minded teams. ‘Variety is the spice of life’. The culture of inclusion is one that does not just happen, it requires cultivation.

Who would you like to invite, my parents asked? “All of them. The entire class,” I replied. So indeed my entire class, boys and girls during primary school came home to blow the candles with me on my birthday. I decided that I could not leave anyone behind. Everyone came, local children, expat children, including a Polish classmate who had just joined the school and had challenges speaking in English. Inclusiveness par excellence! Well before the terms ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ were buzzwords, we lived these concepts genuinely and wholeheartedly at home and in school.

The school was in Zamalek, the diplomatic quarter in Cairo, so I had classmates from many countries, the sons and daughters of diplomats from the four corners of the globe including Yasushi, a Japanese kid who taught us that having a different-shaped set of eyes was an eye-opening experience for us. It was very much a mini-United Nations from early childhood. Growing up, I understood that having a different skin color, religion, nationality, dress, traditions or food habits was embraced and welcomed.

Diversity and inclusion were not concepts we had to be convinced of or trained in, it was the default culture. The Headmistress of the school was a very highly respected and celebrated lady whose reputation and caliber were well known in the society at large. Leadership had no gender. Right from the start of our journey in life as students, she role modelled that leaders can be female, firm, focused and exceptional. She was a living legend!

Fast forward a few decades later, I was seated in the ballroom of a hotel in Munich, Germany at a Europe, Middle East and Africa Human Resources conference. The speaker, an Australian of Sudanese origins, threw a riddle to the audience. She said: A father was driving his car with his son. Regrettably, they had a road accident and the father died on the spot, and the son was injured. The son was taken to the hospital where he was seen by the surgeon. The surgeon said “I can’t operate on him because he is my son. Who is the surgeon?

The audience at the conference were from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds – the answer to the riddle did not come quickly or naturally to most people. They took time to come up with the answer to the question: ‘who is the surgeon and why can’t they operate on the young boy?’.

In case you did not come across this riddle before, the answer is: the surgeon is the boy’s mother.

Why did many people find it hard to come up with the simple answer? It is because of stereotyping that the surgeons are usually males and therefore, the audience found it difficult to solve the riddle. Years and years of programming of the brain can be difficult to overcome! Many conference attendees who are female themselves had this ‘unconscious bias’. They were unaware that the mental image of a surgeon in their heads is connected to being male.

‘It is never too late to give up your prejudices’ – Henry David Thoreau

In a post Coronavirus world, the challenges encountered are complex indeed. We will need all the creativity we can summon – and like the saying goes: ‘none of us is as smart as all of us’. Overcoming biases will become a survival skill for individuals and organizations.

As more business interactions go online, teams will increasingly become global and diverse. If our customers and stakeholders are diverse, the team internally would be better equipped to connect with them if they were diverse as well.

The roots of the challenge

Ideally, we need to create a culture in schools as well as educational materials which promote diversity and inclusion. This is not a ‘nice to have’ luxury, rather, the economic success and flourishing of societies depends on it. If top talent is not rising to the top because of bias, we may not have the ‘best leaders’ at the helm in private and public organizations. Creating a bias-free culture in childhood is ideal. Unlearning bias at a later stage in life is a lot of effort and a journey. George Flyod’s death and the national (U.S) and international protests which took place are a recent reminder of the ramifications of bias and discrimination.

Here are some real-life examples I came across over the years– and confronted firmly:

Bias based on gender: many years ago, a female manager had applied to an international assignment. It was a competitive process and many people applied. She got the job. Her leader was extremely proud to have someone in his team get this opportunity. Her leader asked a team member to plan a party so everyone can celebrate her. The team member looked hesitant, and when asked what the matter was, to everyone’s shock and surprise, he said: she is single and has not found a husband yet, shouldn’t she be focusing on getting a husband rather than competing for an international assignment?

Bias based on nationality: A facilitator was delivering a leadership program with participants from many nationalities. Someone used the term: ‘there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians’.

Bias based on age: ‘Isn’t he too young for a Department Head role?’

Bias based on religion: ‘I do not recommend that we advertise jobs in this location/community’
As a contrast, the board of a prestigious organization, which was mainly made-up of seniors with decades of distinguished careers, has decided they wish to add young talent to the board so that all generations are represented.

They explained that they would like to have new blood on the board who are tech-savvy and connected to the younger generations, in order to balance the board’s current constitution, which is overwhelmingly made up of seniors.

While quotas can assist in increasing the representation of diverse groups, inclusion is not a game of numbers. Diversity is about the presence of a mix of races, age groups and more. It can be mandated by senior management. Inclusion, on the other hand, takes everyone’s buy-in. It is not only about being invited to the ‘birthday party’ (to use the analogy at the beginning of the piece), but it is also being valued and respected enough to be invited together with everyone to gather around the cake, and be part of the blowing of the candles.

Inclusion cannot be created by quotas or statistics; it is about creating a culture similar to the culture in my school. Everyone must feel valued, respected and ‘one of us’. ‘We’ and ‘them’ are divisive. Belonging is the ultimate target.

Our beliefs are shaped at an early stage in life. It takes truly determined leadership to help create a culture in schools, business organizations and society at large that promotes inclusiveness and belonging for all.

The Equity vs. equality discussion is also one that needs to take place in order to consider what additional support disadvantaged groups need to receive in order to level the playing field.
Mahatma Gandhi once said: ‘Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and test of our civilization’.


Ayman Madkour’s motto is ‘Be inspired, Be inspiring’. He is a graduate of the American University in Cairo (AUC) and holds a holds a certificate in HR Business Partnership from Cornell University. His travels have taken him to 37 countries on five continents. A regular contributor to AUC Business Forward addressing a wide range of topics including: leadership, business, corporate governance, gender, coaching, talent, people and culture, learning and development, thriving, transformation and leading change, ESG, personal effectiveness, management and organizational excellence.

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