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“A Dealer in Hope”: The Importance of Senior Leaders for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Napoleon Bonaparte, for all his flaws, was absolutely right when he said “A leader is a dealer in hope”. Senior leaders have the power to inspire and create momentum and impetus for change. A wealth of other research, including my own, shows senior leaders to be particularly influential in equality, diversity and inclusion activities. However to do so they must be both willing and enabled to contribute.

I interviewed sixteen equality, diversity and inclusion [EDI] professionals across various sectors and company sizes for my research, exploring what it takes for EDI to be effectively embedded in organisations. By a very, very, far margin, it was the senior leader – the MD, the CEO, the Principal – that was deemed as an integral element to the success of EDI activity.

So pivotal is the role of the senior leader, that EDI professionals connect them to every other stakeholder in the organisation:

  • The board - to ensure EDI is aligned to the business strategy

  • Middle Managers – to ensure accountability and imperative to operationalise the strategy

  • HR - to ensure policy and process enable the strategy

  • Finance director – to ensure EDI efforts are appropriately resourced

  • Staff – to engage and build trust with staff

The senior leader serves as the power source for EDI activity by ‘activating’ a number of key stakeholders. But for the senior leader to be effective, they have to be both willing and enabled.

When leaders are willing

Leaders seeking to empower and enable EDI change in their organisations must commit to the visible embodiment of the underpinning values. As one EDI professional explained it:

“We keep coming back to leadership, people at the top, living and acting on the values of equality, diversity and inclusion, enabling and supporting other managers. And that starts to build the cultural conditions where those things thrive”.

Research shows that when leaders fail to role-model desired values and behaviours, employees recognise that they are not “Walking the Talk”. Despite overwhelming evidence of benefits for both employers and employees, the take up of flexible working can be severely limited by a culture of presenteeism.

Sometimes this isn’t an easy task, and leaders need to work against the accepted cultural norms to create an environment where these can be challenged. As Max Lucado put it,

“If you want to lead an orchestra, you must turn your back on the crowd”

I recently interviewed a COO who confessed that he worked a four day week when his children were young, to allow for a better work life balance with his partner. But he also confessed that he did not wish people to know this, because of the perception that he was not as committed to the job. Leaders have to be willing to be a ‘lived example’ of the values they wish to embed in their organisations, and challenge the stereotypes that prevent good work to continue.

When leaders are enabled

Leaders must focus on many competing aspects of a business, and this limited bandwidth means they must be appropriately supported to effectively deliver their crucial role in EDI efforts. A significant proportion of business leaders believe that translating good intentions into practice is complex and difficult to evidence [respectively 22% and 16% of 2,500 global senior executives surveyed by Grant Thornton in 2018].

As much as they activate a number of key stakeholders, leaders must ensure that these stakeholders all accept accountability for their parts in the process. Having targets for accomplishing EDI activities and regular feedback loops to discuss progress, as well as mechanisms to recognise both success and failure, are central.

A strategy for delivering EDI that maps the responsibilities of all the key stakeholders, including that of the senior leader, is always a good place to start. Ensuring that the senior leader walks the talk and feels supported is the way to ensure the momentum translates into positive change.

This article is part of a series based on research which involved interviews with global equality, diversity and inclusion professionals on what it takes to deliver successful EDI programs and how EDI consultants can bring value. To see or discuss the original research or for more information on the references listed, please contact the author on

Ivana Vasic Chalmers, Working in strategic planning, risk and governance in higher education, Ivana works with leadership and the Board to develop frameworks, programs and process to support the strategic plan. A passionate advocate for equality, diversity and inclusion, she has led equality initiatives and teams, published research on the subject and works pro-bono for a start-up focused on improving lives of working parents and their children. Having lived in the Balkans, South Africa, the Middle East and United Kingdom, she is fascinated by the effects of culture on gender parity.

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