Your Guide to Organizational Leadership Degrees with a Focus in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

Written by Scott Wilson

diversity, equity, and inclusion skills

Great leadership has always been about bringing people together. As social creatures, humans just function better in a culture where they feel included and supported. Knowing your coworker has your back is a powerful, even primal, kind of motivation that has been proven effective time after time throughout history.

Fostering that kind of inclusiveness isn’t always easy, however. For some of the same psychological reasons that group behavior is so powerful, group membership is elusive. People instinctively fear difference and change. In a multicultural society, that brings inclusion right into a head-on conflict with diversity.

When you want to avoid group-think and inflexibility, you need a team that can bring different kinds of expertise, different perspectives, and different lived experiences to the table.

Yet diversity itself has been proven to be a valuable quality for organizations and groups. Right down to the biological level, our differences make us stronger and more resilient.

That’s what makes diversity, equity, and inclusion so important in leadership.

Why Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Are More Than Just Legal Obligations for American Organizations Today

diverse group at workDiversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, has really emerged onto the radar of business and other organizational leaders in the United States since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Equal opportunity employment was originally an imposition placed on companies by government regulation. But the early implementations of diversity, equity, and inclusion in many organizations was half-hearted and haphazard.

By the turn of the century, though, serious research and modeling revealed important advantages for organizations that had implemented diversity in earnest. Building cultural diversity into the workforce increased engagement and flexibility in a global marketplace; cognitive diversity boosted corporate innovation.

At the same time, it became clear that actually implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion in a meaningful way was far from a piece of cake. Leaders who fumbled inclusiveness actually created more dissension and greater divides. Tension and conflict in the workplace could absorb creative energies and take staff’s eye off the ball. Shoving diversity down throats could do more harm than good; not creating enough pressure for inclusion could do the same thing.

Why Organizational Leadership Offers Solutions To Long-term DEI Training Failures

training failuresDiversity, equity, and inclusion training has exploded in the United States over the past few decades. But there’s an unfortunate reality to what should be good news in the diversity, equity, and inclusion department: a lot of that training doesn’t work.

In some cases, according to the Harvard Business Review, diversity has actually decreased, particularly in management circles. Lessons learned in diversity training is often forgotten within a day or two. Worse, in some cases the training itself causes a backlash effect that actually increases bias.

The good news is that organizational leadership itself brings many of the solutions to bad DEI training to the table. The role of top-down, coercive management styles in ineffective DEI is well-documented. Organizational leadership does away with that style entirely, however.

The interpersonal nature of solid organizational leadership also encourages the kind of connectivity and inclusion that traditional management styles leave behind. Where the good-old-boys network that evolves in top-down management structures tends to promote from within, organizational leaders are taught to get to know all their staff, and to seek out strength and innovation through diversity.

Finding the balance is tough, and it’s way out of reach of workers themselves. In between societal tensions and the evolving mix of cultures, attitudes, and employment laws on the books, it’s clear that most organizations today need leaders who have worked and studied to develop real expertise in diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The Skills Leaders Need To Cultivate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Within Their Organizations

What do leadership skills in DEI look like?

It starts in the same place that all good organizational leadership skills do:

Empathy. A leader who can place themselves in the shoes of their staff starts off in the right frame of mind to offer meaningful inclusion support.

They also have to cultivate listening skills. Incorporating feedback and seeking an understanding of different perspectives is crucial in diverse environments, where initial impressions can be fueled by both bias and simple unfamiliarity.

Strong communication is essential to craft messages that aren’t subject to varied interpretation by different parts of a diverse audience.

Ethical standards also have to be high for leaders who value diversity, equity, and inclusion. Respect is an important quality they must offer to their staff, but it is also something staff have to have for their leader in order for decisions to stick and for conflicts to be resolved.

Finally, a strong familiarity with employment law and regulation is a part of leading diverse and inclusive organizations. Compliance with the current state of workplace rules is an important first step in creating an inclusive workplace… as well as avoiding the distractions of legal cases brought by employees.

Organizational Leadership Degrees That Teach Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Skills

diverse students laughing togetherHow do leaders cultivate all these critical skills? It’s clearly not a type of expertise that you can pick up just by winging it. Instead, degrees in leadership offer specialized and specific training for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

For the most part, these are programs that are offered at the graduate level in college. The kind of sensitivity and life experience that it takes to cultivate a genuine connection in DEI means that most organizations will put this responsibility on executives who have already been in the business world for a few years.

So master’s degree programs are the most common organizational leadership offerings with specializations in DEI. You’ll find them with titles such as:

In other cases, leaders who need a brush-up on their DEI skills may not want or need to invest in a full one or two-year master’s degree. Or they may already hold a master’s in OL, with a different specialization. That makes another option, that of the graduate or post-graduate certificate program, a common one.

Offerings like a Graduate Certificate in Organizational Leadership in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion or an Executive Certificate in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion can be completed in only a few months, at a fraction of the cost of a full degree. They include only the core courses needed to give you all the grounding in DEI skills and knowledge that you need to keep your organization on the right track.

Why Online Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Training Can Be the Perfect Fit for Busy Leaders

When it comes to either degrees or certificates, the same reasons that shorter, more advanced programs are common in DEI leadership skill training are behind another trend: a shift to online classes.

For executives who are already finding success in an action-packed leadership career, it’s asking too much to put it on hiatus for a year, or even a few months, to move across the country to attend the OL program of their dreams. Remote studies let them pick the perfect program without having to relocate.

Online studies also deliver incredible flexibility when it comes to actually doing your coursework. Streaming lectures, group chats for class discussions, and online learning management portals for submitting your coursework can be accessed any time, day or night. That frees up the rest of your day for family commitments, advancing your career, or any other purpose you come up with.

Exploring the Curriculum of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Training in Organizational Leadership Programs

diverse business personsThe coursework that comes with a typical organizational leadership program will already bake in a little bit of DEI training as part of the course. After all, it’s a major area that every leader has to be aware of and sensitive to in this day and age.

But in concentrations in DEI, or certificate programs that are dedicated to the subject, have their own unique coursework that drills down into the details. These are the classes that will make you an expert in diversity, equity, and inclusion skills, with the sensitivity and strategic vision to match.

Foundations of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

This coursework delivers the basic ethical, cultural, and historical bases of the DEI movement. You’ll be exposed to the research into the field as well as learning the terminology used. It’s essential knowledge to understanding both where other cultures and groups may be coming from, as well as engaging in the kind of introspection that strong diversity leaders need.

Team Building

Leadership in DEI doesn’t just mean listening and recognizing diversity challenges. It also means forging a team out of the many varied links of unique experience and culture that employees represent. That takes team-building skills, and these courses teach you how to use them. From the realm of DEI training for staff to rope courses to behavioral psychological techniques, you’ll learn how to create the special bonds between staffers that make diversity an asset rather than a liability.

Leadership in Multicultural Organizations

Building on foundational work in DEI, coursework in multicultural organizational leadership offers some practical aspects that leaders use to build and maintain a diverse workplace. From cultural sensitivity training to strategic hiring policies, these are the tools that you will actually need to foster a diverse and inclusive team.

Managing Business Culture

Much of the success or failure of various DEI programs rests on the underlying culture of the organization. In these classes, you’ll get both the psychological and conceptual roots of how individuals come together to create culture in groups. And you’ll explore the latest understanding of how leaders can leverage and work with those phenomena to create the kind of culture that values diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Transformational Change Management

All organizational leadership programs cover the essentials of change management. Change is scary, and it’s one of the big jobs of managers to help their teams cope with everything from corporate buy-outs to new technology systems. But transformational changes in diversity are a much larger challenge, and ones that require special training. These courses help you develop the knack of selling entire new paradigms to your team, shifting worldviews and ways of doing business to incorporate new perspectives and new values.

Diversity Measurement and Accountability

Getting back to the foundations of diversity, it’s important for leaders to develop objective measures of their progress in inclusiveness. Developing the right metrics is crucial; holding team members and yourself accountable for meeting the goals is integral. These classes explain the various ways that diversity can be measured and assessed, and the advantages and disadvantages of slicing it in those ways.

Many degrees in diversity, equity, and inclusion for organizational leaders also include a wide range of electives to choose from to round out your area of expertise. These can include specialized courses in field like:

Depending on your interests and the challenges of your industry, you can use any of these to tailor your studies to the groups most in need of integration.

Degrees may also come with internship or other experiential learning opportunities, including overseas placements. These can be a huge advantage in diversity studies, putting you in a position of observing the real-world challenges of inclusion in active organizations, and exposing you to a variety of cultures and perspectives on team-building.

Finally, in most master’s programs, capstone experiences offer a chance to put research and planning skills into practice. You will typically have the opportunity to participate in a project that involves real-world DEI challenges, and put your training to work devising plans to deal with them. Those plans might actually be implemented at your own organization or with university partners, giving you valuable reflection and experience along the way.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion can be one of the hardest leadership skills to cultivate, but it can also be among the most rewarding. Developing a workplace that brings out the best in every worker and reflects the broad, colorful, multicultural society we live in is a real accomplishment. And it’s one that an organizational leadership degree in diversity, equity, and inclusion can help you realize.