Diversity and Inclusion

March 16, 2021


Much is written and discussed about the subject of diversity and inclusiveness and exactly what it means.  There are for sure the “visual” considerations related to the color of one’s skin, nationality, sex, and age.  Less visible are the focuses on faith and religious practices, sexual preferences, and gender of origin.


An executive development and coaching colleague of mine presented an interesting question recently.  In preparing a client for a job interview, it would not be unexpected for an applicant for a high level position to be asked this question:


“How has your background and experience prepared you to be effective in an environment that values diversity and is committed to inclusion?”


A first inclination to oneself might be, “Oh no, I don’t want to get involved in a political discussion and end up in a rabbit hole.”  Another response could be along the lines of, “I don’t have a prejudiced bone in my body and have always treated everyone the same regardless.”  How about, “I just hire the most qualified applicant, it’s as simple as that.”  Fine answers, but has the question really been addressed?


If you were asked the question, how would you respond?


For many of us, the quandary we may find ourselves running up against is that imaginary line in the sand.  You know which one.  The one that says “no matter what, I will not have my values and beliefs compromised.” 


John Wooden coached UCLA to national championships in basketball an unprecedented 10 times in 12 seasons during the 1960’s and 70’s.  A devout Christ follower and principled disciplinarian, Wooden not only developed a remarkable formula for success, but recruited extraordinary talent.  One of those was a 7 footer out of New York, a dominant center by the name of Lew Alcindor.


Not only an outstanding athlete, Alcindor was also gifted with high intellect and his own strong set of principles.  He would eventually subscribe to Muslim religious beliefs and become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.


During the late 60’s, as a way of expressing deference to his African American heritage as well as the emerging trends being set by young people of that time, Alcindor allowed his hair to grow out.  A conversation between the coach and his star player ensued and went somewhat like this:


Coach:  “Lewis, I see your hair is becoming longer.”

Alcindor:  “Yes coach, I’m wanting to be more expressive of my heritage as well as follow the more contemporary trends of my peers.”

Coach:  “ I see, Lewis.  One of the things that is so important is one’s principles and I applaud you for that.  If a man doesn’t stand up for what he believes in, what is he, really?  Lewis, I have strong principles as well.  One of those is that when an athlete steps out on the floor in a UCLA uniform he represents the entire university.  I want everyone in our university environment to be proud of our team.  I also care about the health and well being of our student athletes.  Shorter hair will dry faster after games and practices.  Therefore, I have a certain standard that requires that an athlete’s hair be of a certain length.  The choice is yours, Lewis, as to where your values and principles stand in relation.”


Shortly thereafter, Alcindor made a trip to his barber for a modified “trim,” yet maintained his Afro.  You see, John Wooden had also adjusted his expectation. 


Coach Wooden and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar maintained a respectful, sweet, and loving relationship between two men of very different viewpoints until the Coach’s death in 2010 at the age of 99. 


More than 20 years ago my employer sent me to a diversity workshop.  The facilitator was an African American professor at a local university.  Fully expecting the subject to be first of all dry and second to relate to things like race, gender, and age, I settled in for the ride.


To my surprise the seminar began with a question.  “How do you feed a family of five on $25 a week?”  Initially I didn’t know where he was going with the question.  Secondly, I embarrassingly was not sure of the answer or even if it was even possible to do what he asked.  Lastly, to my astonishment, several of my fellow attendees nodded as if they confidently had a response.


I didn’t know the answer because I had never been in the poverty known by some.  As a result my perspective changed and I learned a valuable lesson that has stuck to me to this day:  the importance of trying to understand someone else’s circumstances. 


Business thought leader Tom Peters was ranting several years ago to corporate executives.  “Hire ‘weird’ people,” Peters exhorted.  Without thought diversity, organizations become merely a mirror image of themselves, comfortable with the status quo, not learning, not growing.  “Excellent firms don’t believe in excellence—only in constant improvement and constant change.”


“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.”  Mahatma Gandhi


Finally, back to the family of five.  Beans and rice can be procured in bulk; peanut butter also can be obtained in large containers.  Water comes from the tap.  Though a diet of just these elements undoubtedly gets tiresome, it also contains the vitamins, minerals, and fiber required to nourish, feed, and support oneself. 


The Seed Sower