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2 October 2020

The heart of Inclusive Leadership: Creating Spaces of Belonging

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

I’ve been writing about diversity, inclusion, and belonging and the lessons this season is teaching me. Today let’s look at the last ingredient, the one I can really feel into. Pat Wadors, the CHRO of ServiceNow, is credited with adding “belonging” to the Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) space. As she says, “D&I may capture your head, but belonging captures your heart.” 

I’m learning about this in great measure by being a student in a workshop called Leading Inclusively. The first half of that program was more about opening my eyes to diversity and inclusion, and I’ve written blogs about those (here and here). It was about halfway through our time together that I started to really make sense of belonging.

At the end of our fifth session (of 8), one person admitted to hurting another inadvertently. It was one of those everyday identity wounds that we make when we forget to challenge our assumptions about diversity in the quest to create space for others. Then, as we were processing that moment of pain, someone else did it again—made the same mistake again, salt in the same wound. The person who was hurt was suddenly gone, the off-camera Zoom box a sign of their needing some space outside the public eye. I yearned for them to return, and eventually their camera popped back on. Our group was complete again. 

As I checked in with my breath, I looked around the 26 of us, focusing on each person in each little square. I noted a new feeling in my body as I looked at these folks, mostly people I had never seen before our first class in July and whom I had never met in person. I realized with some surprise that I felt love for these individuals who had shown something of themselves to the rest of us. Even more surprisingly, perhaps, I felt love for our collective. I realized in that moment that love is the true platform for all of this work on Inclusive Leadership. It’s what makes it possible for a diverse set of people to show themselves, get hurt, and try again. This is, in fact, what all real relationships are about. This is what Belonging means. It means that we want each other there—and that we transmit that desire to each other through our words and our deeds. Now, five sessions in, I wished each person in our class could know that their presence mattered to us all, that they were inextricably part of the fabric of us. Diversity and inclusion built on a platform of respect and connection made for deep belonging.

I have been writing as if the diversity, inclusion, and belonging in this workshop emerged spontaneously, but this denies the gift and challenge of Inclusive Leadership. It has been so fundamentally the teaching team—Vernice and Akasha, supported by Naomi—who have made each of these elements possible for us. It was their magnetism, the power of their engagement, their social and intellectual capital that drew such a diverse set of people together into this group. Without the diversity of the members that arrived in the workshop, none of our learning would have been possible.

It has been their gentle guiding that has created the honest, fierce, loving, gentle conditions for us to learn the halting steps of inclusivity jazz—to point out with kindness the ways we are not including people, to coax and open space to those who are silent. Without the leadership, the process, and the light but transformative frameworks and ideas, we would not have been able to stumble our way to a new rhythm together.

And it has been the force of their caring that has created the conditions for us to fiercely care for one another. Their modeling with such powerful integrity, not the perfection of a complicated task but the emerging beauty of a complex human engagement is what makes it possible. Their grace and stumbling, their stories of success and failure, their commitment to good design and willingness to let go of that design when the group needs something else—each of these are core features of their Inclusive Leadership which has created the conditions for me to learn more about myself, more about the world. They have made it possible for us to love our humanity, our similarities and our differences, our growing edges and small scared centers. They have created a world where we can be confused, feel lost, and know that we are safe anyway, that we are welcome in all the ways that we show up, and that we need all to be getting better at holding each other across difference. This then, is what Leading Inclusively really is. 

My learning continues as the class continues, and I am changed by it, week after week. I am finding new edges in every moment—about power, about silence, about friendship. I am humbled and enlarged in the quest, and I am moved by what is possible for us as a human race if we take diversity, inclusion, and belonging as the core platform of our interaction together. In a time when we have to stay apart to keep each other safe, there are some powerful connections—even with each of us in our own Zoom box—that help us to grow.

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