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The Key To Inclusive Leadership: Love With Your Ears

April 11, 2023

It Happened Like This

An instructor sang a refrain from an African American spiritual directly related to that day’s history lesson. A student filmed and posted to social media. In reaction to the viral video, the administrators required sensitivity training for the instructor.

Elizabeth T


In today’s sensitive workplace, everyone’s on edge regarding diversity and inclusion issues. People are afraid of offending someone and then being disciplined or even losing their job.

Organizations strive for more diversity and inclusion within the workforce. With this comes the pressure to ensure that individuals feel included and have a voice. In theory this should be a given. But hiring talent from diverse backgrounds is not enough. With diversity comes complexity – complexity of values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and life experiences which can lead to misunderstanding, conflict, and distrust among employees.

Concerns about politics, religion, gender, age, ability, race, ethnicity, social issues, and more are at the forefront of employees’ minds. Discord rather than harmony is created when people emphasize their perspective as others become more defensive and polarized in response.

The problem is that organizations don’t become inclusive just because there’s diversity. And people don’t get along simply because they’re told to or are required to attend awareness workshops or one-off training sessions.

Often, no matter how skilled a leader may be, the issues are complex, emotional, and potentially explosive. Leaders experience relational fatigue and stress while trying to manage their team when sticky situations arise. It can feel like walking a tight rope.

Cultivating Inclusive Leadership

In the situation described above, how could the leadership team have taken a proactive stance rather than a reactive one in order to thrive rather than simply survive in these turbulent times? The key is to develop inclusive leadership capabilities.

What Is An Inclusive Leader?

Inclusive leaders are aware of their unexamined assumptions and are able to recognize different perspectives by withholding judgement as they adjust their responses to the challenges that come their way. They don’t rush to action but take a step back to consider all angles of the situation. They are bridge builders who recognize that differences exist and find ways to bring people together. They have learned to actively seek opportunities to learn about others – this makes collaborating, managing their teams, and making decisions more effective.

There are three things that cultivate inclusive leadership:

1. Inclusive Leaders Understand The Connection Between Diversity And Inclusion

Diversity is the mix of people in an organization – it’s the differences represented by various groups (e.g., instructor, student, administrators) who are represented within the organization. Inclusion is making the “mix” work by helping people feel valued for who they are and what they bring to the organization. This is established through organizational structures and policies to ensure engagement and contribution. Inclusion is assessed by how well an organization and its leaders value its diversity and how it pragmatically sets procedures in place to be ready when challenges arise.

For example, how can diverse teams manage their differences in order to achieve better business results while at the same time improving employee engagement? People are going to disagree. They will say or do things that are misinterpreted. Inclusive leaders work towards a corporate culture where all members feel respected, valued, and safe regardless of their position. When an instance arises, the leadership team’s top priority is to ensure that all parties involved are heard, are treated fairly, and are not afraid of the power dimensions.

In the beginning scenario, it would have benefited all to understand the context of the lesson, the learning goals of the instructor, the motives of the student, and the underlying concerns of the administrators. There were missed opportunities for learning and personal growth that could have come out of this situation rather than rushing to take action. Understanding what diversity and inclusion mean is the first step to becoming an inclusive leader. This leads to the second point. Combine Different Approaches: Explore a combination of learning methods, such as using apps for foundational knowledge and participating in project-based learning activities for real-world application.

2. Inclusive Leaders Look At Situations From Multiple Points Of View

They examine an event from a stakeholder perspective. This would include the following:

WHO. Identifying who were the primary groups involved (instructor, student, administration)? Who are the secondary groups that could also be affected (e.g., the student body, other employees, the public, the donors)?

WHAT. Asking what were the respective needs, perspectives, possible motivations regarding what happened? Was the student upset? Thought it was funny? Wanted to get “likes” on their social media channel? Perhaps the student thought it was a great lesson and wanted to share it with others.

HOW. Encouraging how each stakeholder’s role contributed to the situation. This also includes examining how the organization plans for situations and how they choose one response instead of another.


In the opening scenario, there was a rush to judge one person over another rather than trying to understand all points of view. When strategies aren’t in place, those in leadership positions by default put themselves into a reactive versus proactive stance. The inclusive leader understands that each person must be heard and feel valued without a rush to judgement. Rather than assume the worst and respond with a knee-jerk reaction, there should be a calm discussion from all angles. Everyone has their own needs, motivations, and limitations which are based on the underlying values, beliefs, and attitudes that people often aren’t even aware of. To include only one perspective is to exclude the other. This leads to the third point.

3. Inclusive Leaders Invite All Stakeholders Into A Dialog

The goal is for everyone to take a step back and think about what happened by giving benefit of the doubt. The leadership team must talk through the incident with the instructor to understand their motives and purposes. The leadership team must create a safe environment for dialog with the student about their motives and reasons. The leadership team must also think about their reaction and examine what decisions might have been made by hasty assumptions. Then, the leadership team must involve administrators, instructors and students working together to create a structure that could be used in the future to open DIALOG rather than shut down and name, blame, shame.

Inclusive Leaders Love With Their Ears

At LifeHikes® we say that leadership is about courage. When leaders understand themselves and their stakeholders, they create a culture of trust and respect. Leadership is also about the courage to communicate openly regardless of the circumstances. It’s easy to sweep things aside because people-to-people interactions are difficult. In our communications and leadership training as well as executive coaching sessions, we encourage our participants to LOVE WITH THEIR EARS. It’s about listening skills and empathy. It’s about withholding judgement and not making assumptions.

Here’s what this means when considering the mix of people to make them feel included.

Determine what happened
Initiate conversation
Acknowledge other perspectives
Let go of judgement
Open up opportunities for all
Give benefit of doubt

Using this framework of DIALOG could have helped the administrators when dealing with the problem of the singing sage.


What You Can Do

Leadership skills aren’t formed overnight. It’s a developmental process that enables a person to understand who they are; understand who others are; and then understand how they react to differences. When a leader uses the DIALOG framework, it becomes their new superpower. They learn to listen more and talk less by finding out where the other person is coming from – and then truly listening to understand based upon the person’s perspective.

While it’s natural to think about your response when someone else is speaking, when you love with your ears, you are putting that person’s needs above your own – you are then able to ask non-judgemental questions that inform you about their perspective rather than trying to promote your own. You learn how they see the world and frame issues that matter to them.

Inclusive leaders understand how to make the “mix” of a diverse group of people feel included; how to look at issues from the point of view of all involved; and how to invite those people to dialog and learn from each other.

Find out how you can become in inclusive leader by checking out the courses and coaching with LifeHikes®!

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