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  • Steve Nguyen, PhD

Book Summary & Review: How to Be an Inclusive Leader (2nd ed.) by Jennifer Brown


Based on her many years of watching all types of individuals react to the issues surrounding diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, Jennifer Brown and her team developed the "Inclusive Leader Continuum," a four-stage non-linear journey (Unaware, Aware, Active, and Advocate) that codifies a set of easy-to-remember developmental stages. Like the first edition, the second edition describes each of the four stages in the continuum and shows how leaders can begin to think differently, gain new perspectives, and take meaningful action to make a bigger impact in each stage. The "Inclusive Leader Continuum" is a non-linear journey. You might travel forward and backward in your level of understanding and advocacy, but that's OK as long as you remember to stay committed to the journey (Brown, 2019; Brown, 2022).

The book aims to provide a step-by-step guide for the personal and emotional journey we must undertake to create an inclusive workplace where everyone can thrive.

The Inclusive Leader Continuum is a nice framework and the four stages of the Continuum "illustrate how anyone can begin to shift their thinking, gain new perspectives, use their voice, and take meaningful action to create cultures of belonging" (Brown, 2019, p. 9).

Here are the four stages:

UNAWARE. In the unaware stage, you learn more about the experiences and challenges that people with other identities face. You educate yourself about the concept of bias, and begin to examine your own biases and how they impact your perceptions of the world and the people around you. You embrace humility and acknowledge what you don't know.

AWARE. In the Aware stage, you learn more about the concept of privilege and understand better that the playing field is not level for everyone. You educate yourself about your own identities and those of other people and how our identities shape the way we experience the world around us. As you learn more about different lived experiences, you develop empathy and are motivated to contribute to the change effort.

ACTIVE. In the Active stage, you put your learning into action. You take risks in the interests of positive change and embrace a mindset of failing forward. You allow yourself to be vulnerable. You share your story and seek out the stories of other people. You lead and participate in difficult and uncomfortable conversations as learning opportunities. You dive deeper into DEI and get personally involved.

ADVOCATE. In the Advocate stage, you leverage your power and influence to propel change. You draw attention to systemic inequities and get involved in solving them. You work in allyship with others to shift systems and behaviors and take action to disrupt the status quo. You exhibit resilience when you encounter resistance and continue to move forward even when it means breaking away from old norms and groups.

Call to Action

"Our choices right now matter more than ever, for current and future generations. If we don't unpack and process how we are showing up at this moment in time, we will be unable to contribute in all the ways we are capable of—and in all the ways that are sorely needed, now more than ever. As change agents, we all have our best roles to play—our strongest cards. Each of us contains change tools, which include not just what we know, but who we are and how we appear. The question we must ask ourselves is "Am I effectively using everything I have been given to create informed positive change?" (Brown, 2022, p. 13)

"We have much at stake in making our workplace is more equitable and inclusive. We have the opportunity to build a different future, a better future. All of us are needed—to chip in, to contribute, to get involved—not just on paper, registering our good intentions, but doing the actual work of change, especially within ourselves, and following a learning path with discipline and commitment" (Brown, 2022, p. 13).

"So I invite and urge you to learn with humility, connect with empathy, share with vulnerability, and lead with courage and resilience. I believe that we each have the capacity to effect change, especially if we've been waiting on the sidelines. Our sphere of influence is bigger than we perceive, and we leave much on the table every day when we don't see a role in driving change. Let's collectively commit to building a more equitable future together" (Brown, 2022, p. 13).


Despite her 20 years of DEI work, Brown provides no definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the book. Brown describes what inclusive leaders do or are, but she does not define what she means by "inclusive" or "inclusion."

For a good definition of "inclusion," I turn to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Trainers by Maria Morukian (2022, p. 4, 5):

"Inclusion is the practice of creating an environment where everyone feels equally valued and respected for their individuality. Inclusive environments ensure that every person is able to participate fully in organizational life, and has equal opportunities to leverage their talents, skills, and potential." -Maria Morukian (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Trainers)

"In the context of the workplace, inclusion refers to practices, behaviors, and structures that promote a sense of belonging and interdependence of the collective and encourage divergent ideas, acknowledge unique skills and experiences, and value individual characteristics and identities." -Maria Morukian (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Trainers)


In my opinion, the strength of How to Be an Inclusive Leader (2nd ed.) is also its Achilles heel. The book's strength of being a great PRIMER on how to be an inclusive leader and what that BROADLY entails also meant that it is a very short book (only 113 pages, not counting Acknowledgments & Index). And because it is so short, much of the contents barely scratch the surface of "HOW" to truly be an INCLUSIVE leader.

The "What You Can Do" section at the end of each chapter, while offering some decent food for thought, does not delve deeply enough into nor does it provide enough solid, practical steps on the HOWs to truly be an INCLUSIVE leader.

Here's an example. In Chapter Five (Advocate), Brown wrote (2022, p. 98):

"We can't expect to be good at this right out of the gate. We are going to have to apologize when our impact doesn't match our intent. And that is par for the course. I think a lot about failing forward, the agility and flexibility of getting feedback, adjusting, and trying again. It's about getting a little better each time. This is about practice, taking it from an intellectual exercise to an embodied way of being. Inclusive leadership isn't a goal or a destination, it's the embracing of a journey, where skills are built, day by day, experience by experience."

I AGREE, but my question is: YES, and WHAT ELSE?

What does apologizing when your impact doesn't match your intent LOOK & SOUND like? This is absolutely KEY because DEI work is HARD. We CANNOT provide a quick outline and say that's the "how." We must train our leaders, using real-life STORIES, WORDS, and even SCRIPTS to illustrate what we mean.

The corporate leaders (from front-line leaders to senior vice presidents) I have worked with ALWAYS look for a practical, step-by-step process and oftentimes even a "script" (i.e., what do I say).

Brown wrote that, "It can be damaging to signal good intentions, and then not follow through with meaningful action" (2022, p. 93).

EXACTLY, which is why I keep pressing for the HOW.

How to Be an Inclusive Leader (2nd ed.) does NOT help you set up a DEI program. In Chapter Four (Active), Brown talked about the importance of supporting and championing DEI efforts, but she does not explain HOW exactly to do this. She wrote with the ASSUMPTION & EXPECTATION that there are already DEI efforts and even a DEI program in place.

For example, Brown wrote (2022): "Learn more about your organization's DEI program and get actively involved in some way. If your organization doesn't have a DEI program, work to get one started" (p. 81).

That was under "What You Can Do" at the end of Chapter Four (Active). That's it. There are no detailed steps to explain all the HOW steps — such as HOW do I start a DEI program, what are the things I need to do, who do I need to be involved, what actions do I need to initiate, etc.?

Brown wrote (2022, p. 26): "This book lays out a step-by-step process to becoming a more inclusive leader . . ." ACTUALLY, it doesn't. I would argue that the book lays out a step-by-step process to THINKING ABOUT becoming a more inclusive leader.

It might have been better and more accurate to title the book How to Start on the Journey to Think Like an Inclusive Leader, rather than How to Be an Inclusive Leader.

There are great insights (e.g., distinguishing between equity & equality) and helpful intellectual exercises in How to Be an Inclusive Leader (2nd ed.). Overall, the book is a good INTRODUCTION on how to THINK ABOUT STARTING a DEI journey.

HOWEVER, for leaders who truly want to become inclusive and desire to know the HOWs to do so, How to Be an Inclusive Leader (2nd ed.) will be a disappointment because it skimps on the details and doesn't delve into the difficult work that's required of DEI.

If you really want to be an inclusive leader, then you cannot skip out on the long and difficult journey and hard work that it will take to get there. As Brown acknowledged, "Your personal journey toward becoming a more inclusive leader will span many years and involve difficult yet rewarding work" (2022, p. 80).

In my opinion, we cannot discuss being an inclusive leader without first understanding and learning one of its most basic and foundational building blocks — how to engage in inclusive conversations. For an excellent guide on this, I refer the reader to the book, Inclusive Conversations: Fostering Equity, Empathy, and Belonging across Differences (2020) by Mary-Frances Winters.

"Learning to engage in inclusive conversations is critical for organizations that want to foster diversity, equity, and belonging" (Winters, 2020, p. 16).

To start you on your journey, How to Be an Inclusive Leader (2nd ed.) offers a very short overview about how to begin to shift your thinking about being more inclusive.

However, to begin the actual work after grasping what it means to think more like an inclusive leader, I highly recommend the book, Inclusion Revolution: The Essential Guide to Dismantling Racial Inequity in the Workplace by Daisy Auger-Domínguez.

Here's a fantastic example of sharing the HOWs by Daisy Auger-Domínguez.

“If we continue to make the same organizational mistakes of only hiring, listening to, and advancing people we know and we feel comfortable with, we risk alienating not just our current team but our future one as well” (Auger-Domínguez, 2022, p. 108).

The excellent tips below come directly from Auger-Domínguez's book, Inclusion Revolution: The Essential Guide to Dismantling Racial Inequity in the Workplace (p. 108-109):

  • Continually examine bias throughout the hiring process (Auger-Domínguez, 2022, p. 108).

  • Require inclusive interviewing training for all. Ensure that those who make hiring decisions—from screening to final selections—are equipped to objectively evaluate a candidate’s skills, knowledge, and potential to succeed (Auger-Domínguez, 2022, p. 108).

  • Standardize the interviewing processes to keep assessments fair and balanced. Have standard questions to ask and a scorecard for all interviewers to use for assessment (Auger-Domínguez, 2022, p. 108-109).

  • Designate a selection criteria check. Have an HR representative or a member of the team be responsible for making sure evaluators remain focused on the criteria for the role (Auger-Domínguez, 2022, p. 109).

  • Watch for affinity bias or the horn effect during interviews. That’s when you either connect with someone because they went to your college or also love to play basketball, or when something bad about the candidate grabs your attention and you can’t move beyond it. You cannot let these factors guide your final impression. Instead, suss out why the candidate’s skills or qualities would add to your organization (Auger-Domínguez, 2022, p. 109).

  • Shift your focus from culture fit to culture add when evaluating candidates. Success is bringing someone who is additive to your culture. Aim for culture add by assessing whether a candidate enhances your culture (Auger-Domínguez, 2022, p. 109).

  • Ask better interview questions. Ask open-ended behavioral and hypothetical questions to understand a candidate’s potential, separate from his or her background. Talk about how they problem-solve and build relationships (Auger-Domínguez, 2022, p. 109).

  • Standardize how you debrief and decide. This is when you bring everyone together to compare notes and determine if the candidate should move forward. Be ready to push back on feedback with thought-provoking questions (e.g., Why did you feel that way?).” (Auger-Domínguez, 2022, p. 109).

Finally, it's also noteworthy to point out that although some DEI leaders do have a "formal role" to represent DEI matters for their organization, many (in particular, women of color in these roles) "are usually doing work beyond what they were hired to do" (Purushothaman, 2022, p. 96) and "many women in these roles feel like companies want to do the right thing but don’t have the structures, processes, or budget to support it. Many may have the title and salary but not the staff or budget, so to reach success they must do a lot of extra, unpaid work" (Purushothaman, 2022, p. 96).

As Deepa Purushothaman aptly shared in her book (another DEI book I highly recommend), The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America (2022, p. 97): "I know women who have recently accepted these roles (inclusion leaders in formally paid roles) only to be sadly disillusioned a few months in because they do not have the support to make the changes that need to be made. These women have high levels of burnout, and they feel strongly that what was promised to them when they accepted the role is not what the company provided them once they were in the seat."

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.

Organizational & Leadership Development Leader


Auger-Domínguez, D. (2022). Inclusion Revolution: The Essential Guide to Dismantling Racial Inequity in the Workplace. Seal Press.

Brown, J. (2019). How to Be an Inclusive Leader. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Brown, J. (2022). How to Be an Inclusive Leader (2nd ed.). Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Morukian, M. (2022). Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Trainers: Fostering DEI in the Workplace. ATD Press.

Purushothaman, D. (2022). The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America. Harper Business.

Winters, M-F. (2020). Inclusive Conversations: Fostering Equity, Empathy, and Belonging across Differences. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Disclosure: I received a paperback copy of How to Be an Inclusive Leader (2nd ed.) as a complimentary gift in exchange for an honest and thorough review.



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