Inclusive Leadership in the NSW Public Sector


As I read through the NSW Public Service Commission’s State of the Sector reports, with a focus on disability, it seems clear that Inclusive Leadership is a concern.

Here I have to make an almost embarrassing confession. Inclusive Leadership was scarcely a thing for me – as a discrete idea. It is strange how one can go through life dimly aware of a concept. Yes, of course the principles of Inclusive Leadership were everywhere. But the actual words “Inclusive Leadership” were in none of the sources I had been engaging with deeply. Not even the State of the Sector reports used the term. I searched ‘inclusive’ in the 2020 (appears 5 times) and 2021 (appears 8 times) and it was not once associated with the word ‘leadership’. This was despite the following statements.

Empowering public sector staff to work flexibly in ways that work for both them and their team is crucial to developing an inclusive and diverse workforce that reflects the community it serves.” (2020)

Our people are the key to having a world class public service. The sector would not be able to deliver world class services without an inclusive and diverse workforce that is fully engaged.” (2021)

I got curious about what was available on Inclusive Leadership online. There’s quite a bit. I put a couple of audiobooks into my audible wishlist and will listen to them in the next couple of weeks and write an essay on them.

Then I got curious about what the NSW Public Service Commission had to say on the theme. Not a lot. There was a cheery page with a downloadable PDF poster.

That poster

I have copied the poster’s content below for ease of reference. The worrying thing for me is that the PSC, which surely should have a commitment to Inclusive Leadership, doesn’t seem to give it too much energy. The 2021 State of the Sector report notes that:

This year, the People Matter survey expanded its focus on wellbeing by asking employees about their experiences of discrimination and racism in the workplace. As with other negative workplace behaviours, the numbers are low. However, any level of discrimination and racism is unacceptable, and we need to work together to ensure that everyone has a positive experience at work. 

I have a concern that saying, “the numbers are low” sends the wrong signal while saying “any level of discrimination and racism is unacceptable” If any level of exclusionary conduct is unacceptable numbers do not matter. Mentioning low numbers suggest no urgency, surely.

The poster’s content is not wrong so much as unhelpful. It assumes factors not in evidence:

  • The reader (leader) knows how to do what is listed.
  • The reader is confident that they will be supported within their leadership culture.

There is a huge difference between ‘what to do’ and ‘how to do’ – as any novice cook or brain surgeon well knows. Providing a cheery list of whats while offering no hows suggests one, or all, of the following prevail:

  • Saying what to do is considered good enough (it’s not the PSC’s role to do more than that, or that’s considered sufficient in itself).
  • Inclusive leadership really isn’t as important as it’s said to be.
  • There aren’t the resources to say or do more.

Please read through the poster’s contents below. As you do, imagine this has been presented to you are an action item. What thoughts and questions do you have?

Be Committed

What I say:

  • I consistently share how important it is to me that others are treated with fairness and respect. 
  • I speak up when I observe non- inclusive behaviour, and affirm inclusive behaviour. 

What I do:

  • My actions reflect equality as a core value to me. 
  • I regularly check-in with others to see what else they need to feel included. 
  • I allocate resources (e.g., time, energy) to improve inclusion. 

Be Courageous

What I say:

  • I understand where my weaknesses may exist and share them openly. 
  • I share my own stories and personal challenges in relation to diversity and inclusion. 

What I do:

  • I do not act as if I am above others. 
  • I help others to learn from my own strengths and weaknesses.

Be Conscious of Bias

What I say:

  • I ask for feedback from others to raise my blind spots and be more inclusive. 
  • I talk about how personal biases can create a lack of equality in the workplace. 

What I do:

  • I look for and correct bias in the system. 
  • I assign tasks / evaluate performance fairly. 
  • I intentionally put in processes to ensure my personal biases do not influence my decisions about others. 

Be Curious

What I say:

  • I communicate calmly and respectfully to my team in the face of pressure. 
  • I deliberately ask the quiet members of the team about their views in meetings. 

What I do:

  • I am approachable and open to new ideas. 
  • I listen closely and make time to better understand the diverse experiences of team members. 
  • I work comfortably with ambiguity and uncertainty. 

Be Culturally Aware

What I say:

  • I ask questions to learn more about others’ backgrounds. 
  • I change my verbal communication style appropriately when a cross- cultural situation requires it. 

What I do:

  • I seek opportunities to work with people from different backgrounds. 
  • I accept that different cultural situations may require me to adapt my behaviour 

Be Collaborative

What I say:

  • I communicate to team members that they should feel safe to raise any issues or concerns
  • I highlight shared goals to help different team members to work together

What I do:

  • I work hard to accommodate different working styles and preferences to get the best out of others. 
  • I create an environment where team members feel safe to take a risk. 

Telling or suggesting a leader should be committed, courageous, conscious of bias, curious, culturally aware, and collaborative is all well and good. But some of these are attributes of character, and others are skills. They are not hats that can be popped, and off, on at will. Being committed, courageous and curious are attributes we hope leaders have, but do they? Being conscious of bias, being culturally aware, and being collaborative can be learned – when opportunity and means are provided – or taken.


I am perplexed that the PSC considers this contribution to promoting and stimulating Inclusive Leadership sufficient. Perhaps it believes its role is to do some rudimentary research, create a basic page and make a poster? Perhaps there is an expectation that it is up to leaders to take it from there?

The wider research and literature paints a very different story – suggesting that skills are certainly lacking, and in some cases, character attributes as well.

The Diversity Council of Australia’s study Building Inclusion: An Evidence-Based Model of Inclusive Leadership, released in 2015 produced some concerning findings, including:

  • Interviewees rated the current level of inclusive leadership capability of senior leaders in their organisation relatively low. The average score out of ten was 5.8 with 26% rating it as either 5 or 6; and 17% rating it as being below 5.
  • Earlier DCA research found only 11% of Australian workers strongly agree that their manager actively seeks out information and new ideas from all employees to guide their decision making – a key capability of inclusive leaders. And Australian workers from culturally diverse backgrounds are up to three times less likely to experience their workplaces as inclusive.

Inclusive leadership is important for a variety of reasons. To begin with, we are all different. It is leadership for all. Effectively practiced, it can cut through the biases that impede genuine inclusion to ensure the workplace is safe for all – a place to belong, not just endure. 

The demand for such leadership is growing. For a public sector agency to deliver, it must see that Inclusive Leadership is non-trivial and requires investment of effort and resources to be effective. The individual staff member is the ‘tool’ leaders and managers employ to make the things they are charged with doing happen.

There’s an old saying that ‘a poor workman blames his tools.’ He also neglects and abuses his tools – I learned that as a kid. My stepfather was an old school carpenter and joiner. I wasn’t allowed to touch his tools until I learned how to care for them.

In a knowledge economy people are the ‘tools’ of organisation. Neglect or abuse them, and things don’t work. To have a ‘world class public service’ you must have world class inclusive leaders. It isn’t optional.

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