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5 Cs

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Want to become a truly inclusive leader? Follow the five Cs  

IbyIMD+ Published 19 June 2023 in Audio articles • 11 min read • Audio availableAudio available

Consciousness, curiosity, compassion, competence, and courageAlyson Meister explains the importance of what she calls the ‘five Cs’ and how to integrate them into your own leadership practice. 

When Wonya Lucas was made CEO of the US production company Crown Media (now Hallmark Media) in 2020, she had to step up to a number of challenges each of them daunting and she had to go about it fast. First, she had to find her way around a new organization. Then she had to win the confidence and support of a new team. She also had to secure buy-in and build pan-organizational momentum around her vision for the company. And she had to do all of this while simultaneously navigating the vagaries of a global pandemic.  

Even for a seasoned leader like Lucas, this was uncharted territory. Before COVID-19, transitioning into a new role had always begun with face-to-face connection, establishing relationships over time, walking the corridors to build trust and influence, and forging alliances and alignment to get the work done. With lockdowns in place, Lucas had to meet colleagues for the first time on Zoom and via email: a perilous opportunity for misunderstandings and communication breakdown.  

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Lucas made a bold decision. She scheduled Zoom calls, dozens of them, with as many different and diverse team members as possible. And rather than using these calls to dig into things like strategy, processes, structures, and problems, she instead asked individuals to tell her about themselves; to share their personal experiences, challenges, and their aspirations for the organization and their future within it. Lucas also shared information about herself: her background, her leadership approach, and her own sense of connection to the organization and its culture.  

This gave her the chance to do some key things, she says: to break down barriers, to discover as much as possible about the diverse people she would need to work with, to establish trust, to open bidirectional lines of communication to surface important information, and, importantly, to create a sense of hope and optimism at a time when both were in very short supply. 

Here’s what Lucas has to say about her first few weeks at the helm of Crown Media: “In every meeting at the height of the pandemic, I worked hard to empower my team so that people felt they could communicate openly with me. I wanted everyone to be able to share personal information with me. And, without always focusing on the negatives, I did want them to feel brave enough to tell me when things weren’t working. I wanted them all to feel that they had a voice and that they were being heard. It was also about having the courage to say to a new team: ‘You know what? Yes, I am new – and no, I don’t have all the answers. But this is a journey, and it’s one we all share.'” 

Wonya Lucas: 'In every meeting at the height of the pandemic, I worked hard to empower my team so that people felt they could communicate openly with me'

A framework for inclusive leadership 

Wonya Lucas and her story exemplify what I call the five Cs of inclusive leadership. 

Inclusive leaders are those who are committed to creating and fostering a diverse environment where everyone, however different or diverse those others might be, 

feels valued, respected, and empowered to bring the best of themselves to work. They build alignment, allies, and advocates across their organizations to harness the power of difference. They model a certain transparency and vulnerability. They are aware of their own limitations or biases and acknowledge that they may not have all the answers. They ask questions, challenge assumptions, and go out of their way to seek out diverse knowledge, perspectives, and expertise across the organization. Inclusive leaders embrace difference, welcome dissent, practice empathy, champion change, and do not shirk their responsibilities even if it risks their popularity at times.  

 In my research and work with leaders across the globe, I’ve observed that inclusive leadership is built on five critical qualities – five Cs – that are not necessarily innate, but that can be learned and practiced, just like any other leadership skill. These five Cs are: consciousness, curiosity, compassion, competence and courage.  

Here’s a look at each of the five Cs, together with some suggestions on how to cultivate these qualities in your own leadership practice. 


Inclusive leaders understand and acknowledge that difference exists – and with difference, the potential for bias. For these leaders, the priority is not to minimize difference – be it based on race or ethnicity, gender or culture, neurodiversity, or generational differences between individuals. Instead, they strive to recognize, respect, and appreciate the value that difference can bring to their teams and organizations. At the same time, by acknowledging that bias and privilege exist, leaders accept and start to appreciate how these factors limit equity in organizations and systems.  

A key step here is to become more conscious of our own biases – biases we all have, and which are usually so entrenched we’re unaware we even have them. That takes deep reflection and self-analysis, not from a place of judgment, but from a desire to learn. It takes asking yourself hard questions. And it takes inviting others to share their authentic experiences with you – just as Wonya Lucas did. Inclusive leaders make it a priority to create consciousness in others and to create platforms for others who struggle to have voice and agency in the organization. And they do so in such a way that employees feel empowered and engaged to take risks, to challenge assumptions, and achieve more in so doing. 

As an inclusive leader, try to do more of these things:  

  • Accept there are challenges that different employees face in different ways – be it race or gender-related, or because of where they sit in the organization. Ask yourself if and how these challenges relate to you personally in any way.  
  • To surface your own biases, ask yourself questions. How has your background shaped things like access and experience? What privileges do you enjoy that others might not? How can you create consciousness in others?  
  • In your interactions with others, try to be conscious of any (unintended) gaps between intention and impact. Focus on things like the language you use and try to avoid learned assumptions as much as possible.  
In my research and work with leaders across the globe, I’ve observed that inclusive leadership is built on five critical qualities – five Cs – that are not necessarily innate, but that can be learned and practiced, just like any other leadership skill


Being an inclusive leader means being open to learning from as many different inputs as possible. Remember how Lucas scheduled dozens of Zoom calls with as many different people as possible? When you are purposeful about your curiosity – when you explore different perspectives from a diversity of sources – you build a bigger, more robust picture of your organization, its resources, and its people. Curiosity is about asking before assuming another’s experience or ambitions. 

Unlocking your curiosity is the antidote to making these assumptions. Curiosity challenges entrenched biases and surfaces new ideas, while signaling to people that you are interested in them and that you care about their experience. As a part of your inclusive leadership toolkit, curiosity is a powerful means of discovering new resources while empowering more of your people.  

Nurture and grow your own curiosity by practicing some of the following:  

  • Routinely challenge your assumptions about people and practices. Try not to give sway to ideas that belong exclusively to your own experience – or that of other leaders. Seek out and welcome diverse opportunities to prove your ideas wrong, incomplete, or right. 
  • Ask questions of others but be sure to do your homework too. Your questions shouldn’t be redundant, nor should they make others do your homework for you. For example, if you don’t know what neurodiversity is, look into it. 
  • Welcome challenges by using language and cues that invite difference of opinion. Invite others to be curious and create the space where people feel safe to ask and answer questions about these differences. 
Inclusive leaders routinely demonstrate concern and genuine care for the experiences, emotions, and challenges facing different team members by actively listening and by factoring what they learn back into their decision-making


Inclusive leaders routinely demonstrate concern and genuine care for the experiences, emotions, and challenges facing different team members by actively listening and by factoring what they learn back into their decision-making. Cultivating and showing compassion this way can help employees overcome challenges, feel more of a sense of belonging, increased agency, and greater personal resilience going forward.  

Again, imagine how Lucas’s teams must have felt when, as their incoming CEO, she took the time to speak to them personally about themselves, their experiences, and their aspirations. Think how empowering that must have been for each individual, particularly at a time of frightening uncertainty during a pandemic. Think too how this will have enhanced Lucas’s own decision-making when information was likely more restricted and the stakes for leaders incredibly high. 

Try to build greater compassion into your own leadership practice: 

  • Identify and institute workable processes and practices to capture other people’s perspectives. Build bidirectional communications channels and systemic opportunities to solicit team members’ thoughts, concerns, and ideas. 
  • Learn to listen with empathy and actively model an attitude and approach that makes it possible for everyone to speak up and actually be heard in a way that celebrates difference and diversity across the organization.  
  • Ask yourself routinely: Do I want to make a difference? Do I care about positive change? For whom? And if so, what am I purposefully doing to make these things happen? Is there more I can do to sponsor, mentor, or build systems to support diverse individuals? 


Being an inclusive leader takes work: it’s a skill set and a lifelong journey of learning and practice. Yet, it isn’t just about working on your own personal skills and abilities. It’s also about inspiring organizational change. That means developing the competence to design and roll out new strategies, structures, and systems whenever and wherever necessary – strategies to increase representation, empower allies and advocates, ensure equitable procedures and processes, and foster inclusive behaviors throughout teams and the broader organization. For Lucas, a key priority was opening up conversations, both at the individual and the organizational level, to bridge differences and to ensure a more inclusive flow of information.  

At a systemic level, developing competence as an inclusive leader can hinge on taking action to:  

  • Create and support diverse talent pipelines by opening access in your hiring. strategies, and championing the sponsorship and mentorship of diverse individuals.  
  • Give team leaders the autonomy and the encouragement to develop their own inclusive leadership abilities – and to do so within their teams.  
  • Define and use the right metrics to effectively measure positive change within the organization. 
As an inclusive leader, there will be times when you’ll have to make tough, even unpopular, decisions. You may have to challenge entrenched practices and policies. And instituting any kind of change will be met with some resistance


Doing any of the things I’ve suggested above takes guts. As an inclusive leader, there will be times when you’ll have to make tough, even unpopular, decisions. You may have to challenge entrenched practices and policies. And instituting any kind of change will be met with some resistance.  

For Lucas, stepping into a high-profile organization like Crown Media during the pandemic, the stakes were very high and people were looking for answers fast. Even so, she had the courage of her own convictions to seek out diverse perspectives and to feed what she heard back into her decision-making. She also had the courage to own her personal vulnerability as a leader and to say so when she didn’t have all the answers. This was a journey, she told her organization, and one that they all shared.  

Being a truly inclusive leader takes real courage. Here are some steps I recommend you take to build your own courage muscle:  

  • Connect with your values and beliefs and stand up for them. Standing for something will empower you to challenge norms and assumptions when necessary. 
  • Understand that it’s ok to be vulnerable and not to have the answers right away. Transparency is key to trust and it signals to others that they can be transparent too. 
  • Set, model, and uphold inclusivity as a norm; even when it’s new or different or not easy to do so.  

Inclusive leadership is not without its challenges. The rewards and outcomes for you and your organization, however, can be extraordinary.  

It’s now three years into Lucas’s tenure as CEO and Hallmark Media has smashed its objectives, staying true to its brand while tearing up its playbook to diversify casts and storylines across its cable TV network. With Lucas at the helm, the network has also reinvented its distribution strategy, even as competition has intensified from streaming services. Accolades continue to pour in from the press and media, as well as other CEOs and leaders around the world. But perhaps the most compelling praise for Lucas as a leader comes from within the organization itself. Interviewed by CNBC about what it was that inspired her most, Head of Programming Lisa Hamilton Daly had this to say: 

“I came here for Wonya, because she shared her vision of things with me, and I said, ‘Yes, I am signing on for that.’”  


Alyson Meister - IMD Professor

Alyson Meister

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD

Alyson Meister is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior and Director of the Future Leaders program at IMD Business School. Specializing in the development of globally oriented, adaptive, and inclusive organizations, she has worked with of executives, teams, and organizations from professional services to industrial goods and technology. She also serves as co-chair of One Mind at Work’s Scientific Advisory Committee, with a focus on advancing mental health in the workplace. Follow her on Twitter: @alymeister.


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