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4.1 What It Takes To Become An Effective DEI Leader

More than Passion

Passion for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion alone is not enough to become an effective DEI Leader. Similarly, DEI expertise by itself will not enable a DEI professional to lead the organization where they seek to take it. While these attributes are desirable for any DEI professional, much more is required to achieve the requisite level of DEI education, experience, and judgment that an effective DEI Leader has mastered.  

While they have a burning desire to change the world for the better, DEI Leaders also recognize that they cannot do it alone. They are driven by partnering with others, being creative, and developing the best solutions, not just the solutions desired by others.  

DEI Leaders approach their role from a holistic perspective. They view every aspect of their work broadly and strategically, considering the current and future impact on the entire organization. They offer sustainable solutions built upon DEI values and concepts that strengthen the organization for both the short-term and the long-term.  

We have identified six essential personal qualities, substantive expertise, and interpersonal skills that are essential for becoming an effective DEI Leader.   

The Need for Courage 

“Why are only White men in the C-Suite?” “Are women receiving pay equal to that of their male counterparts?” “How do our workforce demographics compare to those of the markets where we sell our products or services?” These and other important DEI topics necessarily involve an examination and discussion of race, ethnicity, gender, age, and other dimensions of diversity. 

Most people are extremely uncomfortable having open and honest conversations about DEI. Even broaching a topic like race can immediately put people on the defensive.  

We have identified six essential qualities and skills needed to become a DEI Leader. 

The work of a DEI professional can be isolating. Sadly, because many employees view DEI as controversial, they choose to distance themselves from those doing the work. Others misunderstand the objectives of DEI and view its proponents as trying to undermine their individual success. Even the person to whom a DEI professional reports may spend little time with them, frequently because they don’t know enough about DEI to act as a mentor or manager.  

Without a doubt, it is easier and less risky to avoid tackling highly charged topics head-on. But if a DEI professional is afraid to challenge the organization and its leadership, instead deciding to “go along to get along,” they will never be effective. Without the courage to act they are doing a disservice to themselves, their organization, and to what all DEI Leaders are trying to accomplish.  

A DEI Leader must be able to speak truth to power and have the mettle to have difficult conversations by asking tough questions and educating their organization’s influencers and decision-makers about DEI.   Rather than being inhibited by a fear of personal downside risk, they seek opportunities to teach and lead. They understand the value and the need to proactively go to those places that are uncomfortable to get to the best solutions.  


Changes that a DEI professional seeks to implement rarely happen  as quickly as they want. It is not uncommon to feel as though their organization has taken two steps forward only to then take one step (or more!) back. DEI advocates face one roadblock after another. Neither the organization’s power structure nor its rank-and-file employees are likely to experience an epiphany about DEI that results in improvements overnight. Change is likely to occur, if at all, at a slow pace.  

Even after centuries of fighting for civil and human rights, the advances that have  

been made have come slowly and grudgingly from the dominant group. Should it be this way? No. But the human values that seem so clear and noncontroversial – inclusiveness, equity, equality – are either misunderstood or viewed by those in power as something negative, especially for them as individuals. At bottom, the United States’ purported aspiration of equality for all has been thwarted by those determined to exert and retain power over other citizens. 

A genuine DEI Leader recognizes what they are up against but refuses to give up. Drawing inspiration from history’s great civil rights leaders, they persevere, advancing their mission despite the challenges that come their way.  

Organizational Intelligence as a DEI Tool

Many DEI professionals who are knowledgeable about the discipline are unable to articulate what is important to their organization. As a result, they lack the organizational intelligence to implement DEI initiatives systematically. Organizational intelligence includes the political savvy, strategic perspective, holistic vision, tactical skills, and business acumen necessary to navigate an organization’s workplace culture through cross-functional engagement.  

The failure to align DEI practices with an organization’s mission and goals is the single greatest reason why DEI initiatives flounder. Because a DEI Leader guides and pushes the organization to where it needs to be, they must thoroughly understand what their organization does and how it does it. They need to be able to identify what the organization cares about and connect the dots so that its decision-makers can understand the value of DEI and how it enables the successful achievement of organizational objectives.   

Use a DEI Lens to Fully Understand U.S. History 

While the struggle for inclusion and equity is future-oriented, the future unfolds from the past. Present-day society is but a reflection of its collective history. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, “We are made by history.”  

DEI work is the deliberate, organized and sustained action necessary to educate organizations about the Dimensions of Diversity and help them identify and adopt behaviors and practices that (1) bring traditionally excluded individuals and groups into processes, activities, and decision/policy making in a way that shares power and ensures equal access to opportunities and resources (Inclusion)  and (2) ensures fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all while striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some individuals and groups (Equity).  

Many knowledgeable DEI professionals are unable to articulate what is important to their organization; they lack the organizational intelligence required to implement DEI initiatives systematically. 

Tradition is the transmission of customs, practices, and beliefs from one generation to another. Thus, one can only gain a working knowledge of who has been “traditionally excluded,” by whom they were excluded, and from what they were excluded by learning history. Likewise, the barriers to inclusion are revealed through an examination of history employing the DEI Lens.  

To evolve the norms within and without an organization, one first must discern how they came to be. A DEI Leader can be effective only by first understanding the most impactful events that have brought U.S. society and the organization they now seek to evolve to this point.  

A Thorough Understanding of DEI-Related Words

Words matter greatly within the realm of DEI – both how they are defined and by whom. The origin of DEI terminology and how its words function in society dictate the connotation that they carry in the battle for equality in practice. For example, “boy” evolved into a derisive name for Black men used by Whites, female and male, to address Black males of any age as part of their oppression of an entire group of Americans.  

In addition to racial epithets, DEI is rife with examples of words and connotations that demean humans with different dimensions of diversity. It is fair to say that no member of any group outside of the dominant group has escaped the latter’s efforts to assert superiority via a labeling process meant to lower self-esteem and assign lesser value to a particular group of humans. 

Both the corruption of definitions by those in power and the evolution of negative connotations of many human adjectives is a sad state of affairs. Both stand as major obstacles to achieving an equitable and inclusive society where everyone feels a sense of self-worth and belonging.  

To evolve the norms within and without their organization, one must first discern how they came to be.  

To overcome the corrosive effects of anti-human terms and their underlying discriminatory concepts, a DEI Leader must develop and maintain a thorough understanding of salient DEI terms. At the same time, they must also be able to explain words that support DEI (e.g., inclusion, equity, belonging) and why they are beneficial to a society that values all human beings. This includes not only the “textbook” definitions but the historical context, as well.  

Knowledge of Evolving DEI Demographics 

A cursory review of U.S. Census results reveals that the makeup of the country has changed significantly over time. The percentage of its more than 330 million citizens identified by a specific race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status is constantly changing. 

Employees, including members of an organization’s management, may not have an appreciation for the continuously evolving diversity of the country or the area where they live and work.  Their worldview may be limited by where they have spent most of their lives. 

To create programs that foster diversity in an organization, an effective DEI Leader must maintain command of key demographics – macro and micro – as they develop. For instance,  one cannot claim that their organization lacks diversity without first having a grasp of the makeup of its workforce (salaried, hourly, full-time, part-time, officers, board members – everyone). Similarly, an appreciation of the organization’s existing and potential markets yields the foundational data needed to improve products and services to make them more appealing to those markets, increasing sales through a message of inclusion. 

The DEI Leader’s Unique Skill Set

Being a DEI Leader is difficult and demanding. It requires a unique skill set. DEI professionals owe it to themselves and to those with whom they work to conduct an honest self-assessment to determine whether they are equipped to be effective in the DEI discipline. Likewise, an organization looking to develop internal DEI expertise is well advised to determine whether a prospective DEI Leader possesses these six essential attributes. 

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