The Intersection of CEO Humility & Inclusive Environments

Posted January 29, 2024 | Leadership | Amplify
The Intersection of CEO Humility & Inclusive Environments


Additional authors: Tanny Carmona, Jordan Jessup, and Montserrat Sanz Mondragon

Tiffany Maldonado, Tanny Carmona, Jordan Jessup, and Montserrat Sanz Mondragon explore the role of CEO humility in shaping inclusive environments within organizations. Acknowledging the progress made by organizations in embracing inclusivity, the article discusses the concept of an inclusive environment, emphasizing the importance of valuing uniqueness, promoting belonginess, and integrating differences in decision-making. The authors suggest that humility is a key character dimension of inclusive leaders, impacting the development of an inclusive environment both internally and externally.


In today’s changing environment, stakeholders are demanding more than just financial results from organizations. They’re increasing the pressure on CEOs to encourage strong ethical behaviors in their organizations, address social problems, and take a stance on current events. The worldwide increase of social injustice, both inside and outside organizations, demands that CEOs establish cultures and processes that are inclusive of all people.1 This article positions humility as a character trait that helps leaders impact organizational success by developing and maintaining an inclusive environment.

Inclusivity is not a new concept, but organizations have struggled to integrate existing findings due to the challenges leaders face as their organizations become more diverse in perspectives, backgrounds, and demographics.2 Top leaders can be highly influential in shaping the outcomes of their organizations in this area, with firms such as Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, Aerie, Crayola, Gap, and Nike paving the way for others to embrace more inclusive environments.

Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, which includes Fenty Skin and Savage X Fenty, is an exceptional model, having provided inclusive environments before consumers began demanding diverse options (instead of making do with what was available). Fenty seeks individuals of various shapes, sizes, gender identities, races, and abilities to join the company and appear in its marketing. The company’s products include gender-neutral clothing in a wide range of sizes and styles and a foundation line in a large range of skin tones and undertones.

Singer Robyn Rihanna Fenty, Fenty’s founder, has been vocal about the brand’s message, stating in an interview with the Associated Press:

We don’t believe in division. We do not believe in excluding anyone. That has been our message from day one and it’s not going to change now because everyone is having that realization.3

Inclusion is rooted so deeply in the Fenty brand that its marketing focuses on ensuring individuals from all walks of life know they are seen. Sandy Saputo, former marketing director of Kendo Brands, which includes Fenty, explained in an interview on the podcast Think with Google:

The best way to break through with inclusive marketing is to share authentic stories that are rooted in culture and are emotionally meaningful to the consumers you serve.4 

What Is an Inclusive Environment? 

It can be difficult to nail down exactly what an inclusive environment is. In part, our sense of inclusion depends on what we experience with our leaders, peers, and team members. We can probably all agree that inclusion is not a one-size-fits-all approach — what one person considers acceptable, others may not.5

Before we go further, we must note the difference between diversity and inclusion. HR expert Neelie Verlinden explains that workplace diversity refers to a workforce made up of people representing different ages, cultures, geographical locations, abilities, disabilities, religions, and sexual orientations. She notes that true workforce diversity extends beyond these social categories to include everything that makes individual employees unique from one another.6

Put simply, diversity is the what and inclusion is the how. Diversity in an organization refers to differences in age, gender, ethnicity, education, and so forth, and occurs by the very nature of gathering different people together. Inclusion refers to the removal of obstacles such that all individuals in the company are treated fairly and respectfully while providing equal opportunity, leading to advancement and organizational success. Diversity and inclusion work together to create organizational success.7

Research conducted by Renate Ortlieb et al. describes inclusive organizations as an ideal entity where social minorities feel valued, unique, and have a sense of belonging.8 Additional research conducted by Beth Chung et al. finds there is a need to understand under which conditions inclusive practices and values are most likely to be beneficial.9 Armed with this information, CEOs and managers will be able to prioritize the values and practices that best benefit the conditions of their organization or department.

Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, frequently noted that due to the war for talent, PepsiCo prioritized creating an inclusive environment. In the company’s 2014 annual report, she wrote:

Our proud legacy of diversity and inclusion continues to this day. It is our strength. Indeed, PepsiCo’s focus on a diverse and inclusive workforce has only heightened in recent years, as the war for talent among leading, global companies has escalated.10

PepsiCo committed to attracting the best talent available and found that becoming an inclusive organization made that goal more achievable. Individuals want to feel a sense of belonging and safety in being unique, and this is one reason inclusion has become a critical factor of employee retention.

Inclusive environments require CEOs and managers to go beyond valuing and appreciating all groups. Leadership can prioritize creating a climate in which diverse members have the opportunity to be themselves, are treated as insiders, and can learn from the differences of other team members based on the conditions of their organization.11

Leaders like Lenora Billings-Harris, president and CEO of UbuntuGlobal, engage in techniques that create psychologically safe environments to reap the benefits of innovation:

Diversity, inclusion, respect, and fairness are concepts that make some people reluctant to discuss them. I work hard to create a safe, nonjudgmental, and uplifting environment that makes exploring sensitive topics a positive journey for all…. All programs, processes, and resources reflect my belief that we are all more effective, productive, and innovative when we honor and value our own uniqueness while at the same time valuing and respecting the differences of others.12

Clearly, organizational leaders are seeing the benefits of having their organizations recognized for inclusivity and the practices that build such climates. As other organizations see this, it seems likely that they will follow suit, creating a snowball effect and setting standards for all companies to follow.

How Humble Leaders Impact the Inclusive Environment

To create an environment in which all are included, acknowledged, and valued for their uniqueness, leaders must learn to lead across differences and find ways to value and leverage all for organizational success.13 We believe that humble leaders exhibit behaviors that not only help create inclusive environments, but provide positive impacts on existing inclusive environments. 

Leader behavior strongly influences the amount of support members of an organization receive. An inclusivity study conducted by Amy Randel et al. found one characteristic increased the likelihood a leader would display inclusive leadership behaviors more than all others: humility.14 Humility can be seen as accurate self-awareness, openness to feedback, appreciation of others, low self-focus, self-transcendent pursuits, and teachability.

If organizations do not possess humble leaders, such leaders can be developed (with active management support) and reinforced by an organizational culture that supports humility.15 This creates a cyclical effect where the more top management is instrumental in developing inclusive leaders, the more refined and entrenched the organization’s inclusive environment becomes.

How to Build an Inclusive Environment

Leaders can build an inclusive climate using a variety of techniques that prioritizes the unique values of the organization. An inclusive environment has two dimensions: one that involves integrating differences and a second that involves including those differences in decision-making.16 Leaders can build these dimensions by: (1) supporting individuals as group members, (2) ensuring justice and equity, (3) encouraging shared decision-making, and (4) valuing uniqueness by encouraging diverse combinations.17

Leaders that encourage group members to fully contribute have employees with higher psychological empowerment, more creativity, better job performance, as well as reduced turnover.18

Leaders can include these differences in decision-making by ensuring that individuals of all backgrounds, not just members of powerful identity groups, are included in core decision-making.19 When various perspectives are included, companies produce better products and/or services. For example, American Girl’s diverse winter collection includes clothing and accessories for winter holidays such as Hanukkah, Diwali, Eid, and Lunar New Year. Similarly, Barbie’s Fashionistas line includes dolls of varying heights, abilities, shapes, skin tones, hair colors, and hair textures, and Crayola’s Colors of the World series “are formulated to better represent the growing diversity worldwide.”20 These products help children engage in imaginative play and create art that is a more accurate representation of themselves and society.

Shared decision-making lets stakeholders participate and contribute while being authentically themselves. Organizations that focus on this enjoy increased profitability, growth, and business impact.21,22


An inclusive environment is not only beneficial to individuals; it can boost an organization’s overall performance and help firms effectively align business strategies.23 Humble leadership is the gateway to inclusive environments because it improves the work experience for all employees and the effectiveness of the organization.24 If no such leaders exist within an organization, these humble behaviors can be developed — leaders can be taught to recognize and value everyone’s talents and ideas. When leaders provide opportunities for all members of an organization to contribute and be a part of shared decision-making, they allow staff to reach their full potential.25

Organizations will continue to become more diverse due to demographic and societal changes. Soon, having an inclusive environment will be more than a source of competitive advantage for organizations — the lack of such an environment will send a strong message about indifference and build an organization’s reputation for being an unwelcoming workplace.26 It is imperative that leaders develop these skills sooner rather than later so they’re ahead of the competition instead of facing skepticism as society views their efforts as a desperate, insincere attempt to survive in the market.


Cortes-Mejia, Sebastian, Andres Felipe Cortes, and Pol Herrmann. “Sharing Strategic Decisions: CEO Humility, TMT Decentralization, and Ethical Culture.” Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 178, March 2021.

Roberson, Quinetta, and Jamie L. Perry. “Inclusive Leadership in Thought and Action: A Thematic Analysis.” Group & Organization Management, Vol. 47, No. 4, April 2021.

Italie, Leanne. “Rihanna Wants to Cheer Up a Troubled World with Fashion Show.” The Associated Press, 30 September 2020.

Saputo, Sandy. ”How Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty Delivered ‘Beauty for All’ — and a Wake-Up Call to the Industry.” Think with Google, June 2019.

Burgess, Charlotte, and Aleisha Coote. “Common Themes to Creating an Inclusive Workplace Culture.” HRINZ Magazine, March 2019.

Verlinden, Neelie. “Diversity vs. Inclusion: What’s the Difference?” Academy to Innovate HR (AIHR), accessed January 2024.

Panicker, Aneesya, Rakesh Kumar Agrawal, and Utkal Khandelwal. “Inclusive Workplace and Organizational Citizenship Behavior.” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Vol. 37, No. 6, August 2018.

Ortlieb, Renate, Elena Glauninger, and Silvana Weiss. “Organizational Inclusion and Identity Regulation: How Inclusive Organizations Form ’Good,’ ‘Glorious’ and ‘Grateful’ Refugees.” Organization, Vol. 28, No. 2, November 2020.

Chung, Beth G., Michelle A. Dean, and Karen Holcombe Ehrhart. “Inclusion Values, Practices and Intellectual Capital Predicting Organizational Outcomes.” Personnel Review, Vol. 50, No. 2, August 2020.

10 PepsiCo: 50 Years and Growing — 2014 Annual Report.” PepsiCo, 2014.

11 Ashikali, Tanachia, Sandra Groeneveld, and Ben Kuipers. “The Role of Inclusive Leadership in Supporting an Inclusive Climate in Diverse Public Sector Teams.” Review of Public Personnel Administration, Vol. 41, No. 3, January 2020.

12 Huang, Steven. “27+ Diversity and Inclusion Workplace Influencers to Know.” Culture Amp, 24 April 2023.

13 Roberson and Perry (see 2).

14 Randel, Amy E., et al. “Inclusive Leadership: Realizing Positive Outcomes Through Belongingness and Being Valued for Uniqueness.” Human Resource Management Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, June 2018.

15 Maldonado, Tiffany, Dusya Vera, and William D. Spangler. “Unpacking Humility: Leader Humility, Leader Personality, and Why They Matter.” Business Horizons, Vol. 65, No. 2, March–April 2022.

16 Ashikali et al. (see 11).

17 Randel et al. (see 14).

18 Randel et al. (see 14).

19 Nishii, Lisa H. “The Benefits of Climate for Inclusion for Gender-Diverse Groups.” Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 56, No. 6, October 2012.

20 Colors of the World.” Crayola, accessed January 2024.

21 Roberson, Quinetta M., and Hyeon Jeong Park. “Examining the Link Between Diversity and Firm Performance: The Effects of Diversity Reputation and Leader Racial Diversity.” Group & Organization Management, Vol. 32, No. 5, October 2007.

22 Fujimoto, Yuka, and Mohammad Jasim Uddin. “Poor-Inclusive Workplace Model: A Relational Perspective.” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Vol. 39, No. 8, June 2020.

23 Roberson and Park (see 21).

24 Randel et al. (see 14).

25 Randel et al. (see 14).

26 Thoroughgood, Christian N., Katina Sawyer, and Jennica R. Webster. “Creating a Trans-Inclusive Workplace.” Harvard Business Review, March-April 2020.

About The Author
Tiffany Maldonado
Tiffany Maldonado is Assistant Professor in the Department of Management, Marketing, and Information Systems, College of Business Administration, Sam Houston State University, where she is also Assistant Director of the Center for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging in Business Education. Her research focuses on strategic leadership, with a particular emphasis on a holistic model of leadership in which all aspects of the leader are… Read More