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Alaina Love
Leadership author

Alaina Love

Alaina Love is co-author, with Marc Cugnon, of The Purpose Linked Organization and co-founder of Purpose Linked Consulting.

Our nation's success

It is hugely challenging for leaders to create and maintain an organizational culture in which issues of diversity can be managed in a healthy way. As organizations work to become more inclusive, mistakes will be made and leaders, despite their best intent, may occasionally offend someone with a poorly worded comment, as we saw with Harry Reid.

It is important, however, to consider Senator Reid's faux pas in the context of the political environment in Washington, where Congress is in a tug of war over health-care reform while the political puppet masters are grasping for leverage in favor of their own platform. In any other context, Senator Reid's two-year-old comments about then-Senator Obama may have gone largely unnoticed, or surely would have received less national attention than what we've witnessed in recent days.

While I don't discount the opinions of those who may have been offended by Reid's statement or the importance of healing an old national wound, as an African American I personally take no affront to his words. It's true that he did not acknowledge the common use of dialect to appeal to certain audiences. This practice occurred frequently during the presidential campaign, most vividly in Hillary Clinton's speeches to African American church congregations.

Nevertheless, having worked in both leadership and diversity, I appreciate that Senator Reid's lexicon is the by-product of his experiences and upbringing; I judge him on his track record in civil rights more than his misstep in language. The teachable moment for leaders is to recognize that their own upbringing and experiences create mental tags for vocabulary that may not serve them well. It is also imperative to recognize that a less-than-artful statement delivered during challenging times may render a far greater setback than can be anticipated.

This momentary event on the political stage does not invite creation of another "don't ask, don't tell" policy to be enacted in organizations. In fact, the richness that the diversity of cultures and ethnicities brings to the quality of discussion, debate and innovation in the business environment is an opportunity that America must seize in order to recharge our economy and effectively compete in the global marketplace.

Passionate and inspirational leaders in search of creative ideas willingly invite input from a variety of individuals and recognize that mandating the elimination of discussions about race in the work environment stifles the important idea exchange that is a valued contributor to company success. We will know that we have succeeded as a nation when we can engage in respectful conversations about race without fear or censure, but instead with a true desire to understand perspectives that may be quite different from our own.

Read all responses to this week's On Leadership question>: Like Trent Lott before him, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is in political hot water over his comments about Barack Obama's race. Should leaders, in particular, be held to a "zero tolerance" policy on potentially offensive racial comments, or does that have a chilling effect, silencing all discussion of racial issues?

By Alaina Love

 |  January 12, 2010; 11:59 AM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I think that the minute that we eliminate race discussions from the workplace and instill fear in the minds of workers, we have lost the ability to attain real diversity. Real diversity is not attainable without truly respecting each other and embracing our differences, using that knowledge to fuel how we grow and change as a group/company.

Posted by: EKS1 | January 13, 2010 9:50 AM
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First of all, what in the devil is a "potentially offensive racial comment"? Would any comment that refers to a person's race be considered offensive, regardless of the content? By extension, you could say that ANY comment is potentially offensive. I could lose a few pounds. Should I find Jenny Craig commercials potentially offensive?

Posted by: pahardee | January 12, 2010 5:48 PM
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