Do Your Leaders Understand Their Inclusive Leadership Shadow?

September 15, 2023 | Maureen Frank

Inclusive leadership is critical for organizations striving to create diverse and equitable cultures. However, many leaders think they are already inclusive when, in reality, they have blindspots limiting their effectiveness. My 18 years of experience in diversity and inclusion solutions has shown that around 90% of leaders fall into this category. I call these blindspots a leader’s “inclusive leadership shadow” – areas where they believe they are inclusive but may lack self-awareness. To drive real culture change, leaders need to uncover and understand their shadow. I use a simple model focused on intentional questions and self-reflection to reveal the leader’s shadows. While this may sound difficult, it is actually a fast, inexpensive way to create “aha” moments for leaders about what they still need to learn. I aim to get leaders to publicly commit to actions that shine a light on their shadow. This article will explore this inclusive leadership shadow model and how it can unlock a leader’s growth and accountability. With self-awareness comes real change.

The Inclusive Leadership Shadow Model

The inclusive leadership shadow model is a simple yet powerful tool I have developed from my years of coaching leaders. It is designed to uncover blindspots leaders may have around inclusion and diversity. I find that most leaders fall into two categories – those who admit they need help knowing how to be more inclusive and those who believe they are already inclusive. The latter group makes up around 90% of leaders, and it is much harder to get them to recognize their shadows. My model aims to create “aha” moments for these fixed-mindset leaders to reveal what they still need to learn.

The shadow model involves asking intentional reflective questions and having courageous conversations with leaders. I guide them to dig deep and examine areas where they think they are already inclusive, such as being “blind” to gender or race. We discuss examples of interactions, decisions, or language that may indicate blindspots. This reflection shifts their perspective to recognize unconscious biases and see that inclusive leadership takes ongoing self-work.

A key part of the model is assessing what concrete actions they are willing to take to become more inclusive. It moves from abstract concepts to defining specific habits and practices. For example, instead of saying “I will be more inclusive”, they may commit to “holding regular listening circles with diverse team members.”

The beauty of the shadow model is its simplicity and efficiency. In just a few dedicated sessions, it sparks introspection that may otherwise take years. I distil inclusion down to the most important self-examination. It does not require extensive training or take leaders away from their work for long periods. Yet it yields profound insights that stick with leaders and change their approach.

Shining a light on the shadow also creates accountability. Leaders publicly commit to inclusion habits and actions they will take over the next year. We document this so they can track progress and have visibility from their teams and leadership. When others see these commitments, they also provide support and encouragement.

The inclusive leadership shadow model delivers an impactful punch in a short time. My goal is to get leaders to a point where they pull me in to help with the “how” after recognizing what they must do through their shadow work. Awareness of the shadow is the critical first step to authentic, lasting culture change.

Two Categories of Leaders

In my extensive experience, leaders generally fall into two categories when it comes to inclusion and diversity.

The first category openly admits, “I want to be more inclusive, but I don’t know what to do.” They recognize there are gaps in their knowledge, skills and comfort level with topics like equity, bias and privilege. They have a growth mindset and are hungry to learn. When presented with the inclusive leadership shadow model, they lean in with curiosity and self-awareness. They acknowledge their blindspots and are eager to shine a light on their shadow.

The second and more common category believes they are already inclusive. They say things like “I’m colour blind,” “I treat everyone equally,” or “My team tells me I’m inclusive.” Their intentions are good, but they have a fixed mindset, believing they are already where they need to be. Even asking them to examine their shadow meets resistance.

This second group of leaders is the toughest to move. They do not see themselves as having a diversity problem, so why spend time on it? However, the shadow model is designed to break through this mindset. As we explore specific scenarios and actions, we begin to recognize unconscious patterns of privilege and bias. Despite initial reluctance, the shadow reflection creates “aha” moments as assumptions are challenged. They learn they do not know as much as they thought.

Leaders in this second category often lag behind employee and customer expectations. They receive few complaints directly, so I think everything is fine. However, direct feedback is rare, especially from marginalized groups. The shadow model shows the gaps between their perception and reality. This is uncomfortable but absolutely vital learning.

With time and patience, the shadow model can help fixed mindset leaders recognize they also have more to learn. Sincere intention is not enough. My role is to guide but also push leaders past comfort into courageous territory. Discovering the shadow together opens their eyes to see inclusion requires lifelong personal work, not just a few checklist items. They begin to appreciate why shining a light on their blindspots is the only way to create real culture change.

Getting Buy-In from Fixed Mindset Leaders

As discussed, the majority of leaders initially believe they are already inclusive. Their fixed mindset makes getting buy-in for the inclusive leadership shadow model more challenging. However, the design of the model is uniquely suited to break through preconceived notions in leaders who think they have “already arrived.”

A key is creating a safe, judgment-free space for the leader. I make it clear that we all have blind spots, and this is not an exercise in shaming but one of growth for ourselves and our organizations. Framing it as a journey rather than a destination helps leaders open up.

Asking the right questions is also critical. I use thought-provoking scenarios about diverse talent and customers. What would they do if their top engineer felt excluded from an after-hours client event at a bar? How might a team member with a disability perceive their feedback style? The goal is to get leaders to imagine walking in another’s shoes.

We also review inclusive leadership competencies and assess where they currently fall on the continuum from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. Very few leaders initially recognize they may be unconsciously incompetent in some areas. The shadow model highlights what they do not even know they do not know.

I emphasize how the model will make managing diversity simpler, more integrated and sustainable. This appeals to their pragmatism and desire for efficiency. Reviewing their actual inclusion KPIs compared to goals also shows where their view may be inflated – the shadow between reality and perception.

During the sessions, I look for signals of mindset shifts. Do they show curiosity to learn more or get defensive? Do they ask for examples to improve or justify the status quo? Once the seed is planted, it keeps growing if nurtured.

While the shadow model relies on self-reflection, taking public action cements change. I have leaders draft an inclusion commitment statement aligned with their role. Sharing this document creates accountability and gives permission for others to hold them to it.

This process, while gentle, delivers a one-two punch. Fixed mindset leaders discover their shadow through targeted questioning. They then continue their learning journey through public commitments to fill their gaps. The shadow is powerful because it meets leaders where they are while catalyzing growth.

Making the Commitment Public

The inclusive leadership shadow model drives change through personal reflection. But translating insights into sustained action requires making commitments public.

Leaders have countless demands competing for their time and energy. While the shadow reflection may touch them individually, it will quickly be crowded out by urgencies without accountability. That is why an essential final step is crafting an inclusion commitment statement.

This statement outlines specific inclusion habits and practices the leader vows to embody over the next 6-12 months. I guide them to translate their insights into observable behaviours across three areas:

  • Personal development – What training or reading will I complete? How will I continue raising my awareness?
  • Team leadership – What conversations or listening forums will I initiate? How will I role model inclusivity?
  • Business processes – What policies and systems will I advocate for or implement? How will I embed equity into decisions?

The commitments are tangible so others can track progress. Leaders share this document with their direct manager and leadership peers. It is posted publicly or included in company communications.

This purposeful visibility serves several functions. First, it cements the leaders’ intentions when they know others are watching. Second, it allows the whole organization to support and encourage their development. Finally, it enables collective accountability. Rather than wait for the leader to act, stakeholders proactively check on their commitments.

Public statements enable allies and advocacy groups to politely inquire, “How is your commitment to X going?” It transforms inclusion into an organizational effort rather than just the leaders’ private journey.

Of course, I caution leaders to start small and focus on consistency rather than volume of commitments. A few key changes sustained over time have more impact than trying to overhaul everything at once. The goal is to map a path for ongoing improvement.

Shining a light on the commitments made after seeing their shadow galvanizes leaders to stay the course. It is powerful when others hold us accountable to being our best selves in service of a more just society. This public pledge is a profound catalyst for change.


The inclusive leadership shadow model delivers a simple yet profound mechanism for uncovering blind spots. Through self-reflection and public commitment, leaders gain awareness of gaps and build skills for growth. They transform from unconscious incompetence to conscious action. While this process may seem difficult, leaning into our shadows is the only way to create lasting, equitable change. The shadow makes inclusion tangible, integrated and sustainable. Do not wait for clarity to act – act now, and clarity will come. By shining a light on our shadows together, we build more just, inclusive organizations.

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