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Using the science of learning and development to design practices that support the whole child


Inclusive Leadership

Strong shared leadership and ownership means establishing and prioritizing inclusive leadership as a principle that guides not only the structure and function of all teaming, but also the general shared responsibility and shared power in working toward school goals (e.g., including problem identification, decision making, resource allocation, professional learning planning, and policy development). Not only is it important that a school’s primary leadership team be representative, responsive and inclusive, it is also important that all teaming structures work together and value the expertise and experience of different staff and stakeholders in the students’ contexts (such as administrators, teachers, support staff, students and families). Inclusive leadership embodies a multidirectional view of change, includes multiple stakeholders in important school decisions, and avoids defaulting to top-down, high-control models for school change that risk replicating inequitable systems and structures. In schools with strong, inclusive leadership practices, all improvement initiatives are approached in ways that empower others in their role of achieving holistic developmental outcomes for all students.


Diverse, Representative and Inclusive Teaming

A school’s primary leadership team is inclusive and representative in some ways (e.g., includes leaders from the school’s mental health team, various academic departments, or school culture leaders), but not in other ways (e.g., there may be no pathway for student, family or caregiver voices, no involvement of people outside of formal leadership roles, or individuals on the team may not reflect the diversity of the school community in terms of race, ethnicity and gender).

As a result, the leadership team may miss critical voices, struggle to consider multiple perspectives, and fail to meaningfully engage others as partners in school goals and initiatives.

Shared Responsibility

Leadership responsibilities are distributed across some representative teams (e.g., grade-level teams, department teams, school culture teams, parent action teams, and student advisory councils), but teams may be unclear about how their work connects to others or back the larger, schoolwide priorities.

The teams may function in isolation or operate in a hierarchy where some are considered more important or powerful than others (e.g., the primary leadership team may “own” an initiative and simply direct other teams on what to do, or a school culture team may be asked to contribute in less substantial ways than a department team).

Without a clear understanding of how they function together, the various teams may struggle to collaborate, solve problems and share responsibility of holistic schoolwide goals.

Responsive and Empowering Decision Making

Leaders approach decision making from a top-down, one-directional perspective (e.g., a group of leaders decide something, and then other staff members are informed and expected to execute). When leaders attempt to be inclusive, responsive or empowering in their decision making, it is usually reactive (e.g., after someone has advocated for more power, a bigger say, or more inclusion).

Alternatively, leaders may attempt to be inclusive but may struggle to find ways to include more than just a few people (e.g., overly relying on the qualitative experiences of a few vocal staff members, only including those with whom they have the best relationships, only inviting those with the most seniority to contribute to an idea, failing to consider how their own implicit or explicit bias may be influencing who they choose to include or empower).

A school struggling to empower others in decision making may experience stakeholders becoming increasingly disengaged because their voices have not mattered or been included in important matters.

Equitable Listening and Communication Practices

Leaders communicate in some accessible ways but may not have consistent practices established. As a result, staff are sometimes unclear about how or when different communications will be prioritized. For example, at certain times of the year, leaders might be available for listening and clearly communicate with staff (e.g., at the beginning of the year, during evaluations, near parent conferences, or in quarterly meetings).

However, other times, leaders are inaccessible or invisible, or large amounts of time pass without communication. Leaders may listen to some people but be dismissive of others, or may offer information to some people but not all. These inconsistencies may also fall along lines of difference as a result of unexamined implicit or explicit bias. Many communication practices happen reactively when people ask for updates or when people complain leaders are not listening.

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Diverse, Representative and Inclusive Teaming

A school’s primary leadership team is inclusive and representative of all stakeholders and reflects the school community, but some may not be valued as full, contributing members (e.g., members are invited to only some meetings, members are able to weigh in on only certain items, or members are asked to provide perfunctory feedback at the end of a decision-making process).

As a result, some members are fully engaged in making proposals, offering meaningful feedback, and making decisions, while others view their role as limited to symbolic or superficial participation.

Shared Responsibility

Leadership responsibilities are distributed across various representative teams. In addition, teams understand how their work connects to others and the larger, schoolwide priorities.

However, the teams may not yet have systems, structures and practices that facilitate effective collaboration across teams (e.g., regular communication systems for information sharing, larger cross-functional teaming structures that support integration, clear pathways for providing multidirectional feedback, or norms that support collaborative decision making).

As a result, teams may take some shared responsibility (e.g., when their work clearly overlaps or collaborating is easy), but at other times, they may default to waiting for directions from other teams or competing against each other for control.

Responsive and Empowering Decision Making

Leaders sometimes approach decision making in responsive, empowering ways by using inclusive processes and protocols (e.g., processes for collecting input, shared protocols for providing feedback, or frameworks for making proposals).

However, these inclusive efforts may be limited to only certain kinds of decisions (e.g., individuals may be empowered to make decisions for their own classroom but are not included in decisions being made for the whole school), or they may be experienced inconsistently (e.g., one time, a staff member may be praised for trying something innovative in their classroom, and another time, a staff member may be disciplined for trying something without explicit permission).

Because of the inconsistent experiences, a school may find some stakeholders reporting they feel included in decision making and empowered in their own roles, while others do not (e.g., these inconsistencies may fall along the lines of race, ethnicity or gender, as leaders’ implicit or explicit bias influences who is or is not included).

Equitable Listening and Communication Practices

Leaders communicate in accessible and consistent ways. This is most evident in proactive listening and communication systems, structures and practices (e.g., systems for raising concerns or questions, structures for providing updates, and norms that support challenging discussions). These proactive lines of communication are ongoing and do not depend on specific, time-bound invitations for listening and sharing.

In their communication, leaders focus on empathetic and active listening and offer the same communication opportunities to all staff, regardless of their roles, responsibilities or power within the organization. For example, a leader would engage in open dialogue about ongoing strategy development with any staff member, not just other leaders.

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Diverse, Representative and Inclusive Teaming

A school’s primary leadership team is diverse, representative and inclusive of all stakeholders, including students, families or caregivers, and staff outside of formal leadership roles. The inclusivity goes beyond technical membership on the team or symbolic presence at meetings and extends to how all members are valued as essential experts and collaborators in working toward goals. In addition, teams reflect the diversity of the school community in terms of race, ethnicity and gender.

As a result, critical voices are heard, multiple perspectives are included, and all members are equally engaged and contributing to the work of the school.

Shared Responsibility

In addition to various representative teams, leadership responsibilities are shared with individuals outside of teams via a robust culture of inclusive leadership (e.g., an individual might contribute their expertise to a project, regardless of formal roles).

This culture of inclusive leadership involves an awareness and intentional commitment from leaders in formal roles to disrupt historical patterns of exclusion, especially of people furthest from positions of power and authority.

Not only do teams and individuals understand how their work connects, but they also have systems, structures and practices that facilitate effective collaboration. As a result, all teams and individuals can integrate their work and share responsibility of holistic schoolwide goals.

Responsive and Empowering Decision Making

Leaders approach decision making in multidirectional, responsive and empowering ways (e.g., integrating multiple perspectives into planning, making changes based on the experiences of others, and inviting others to decide).

Leaders proactively include others and avoid high-control models for decision making, because they understand these actions perpetuate harmful patterns of oppression by stripping individuals of autonomy and power. In addition, they regularly commit themselves to reflecting on the role their implicit or explicit bias may play in their decision-making practices.

In schools where people are engaged in responsive, empowering decision making, leaders focus less on who decides and more on facilitating shared understanding of purpose, shared investment in goals, and shared capacity building to support those goals. That way, everyone can align their individual actions toward shared goals. If leaders make unilateral decisions, staff understand how and why decisions were made and feel confident that their interests were understood and considered.

Equitable Listening and Communication Practices

Leaders not only communicate in accessible and consistent ways, but also work to build a culture of equitable and multidirectional communication for all. For example, leaders may encourage staff to listen to students, model this behavior themselves, and facilitate this behavior in others by removing barriers for staff (e.g., placing time in a teacher’s schedule for student communication, creating systems for how to seek support in challenging conversations, establishing norms for how to make apologies). Leaders would also model reflecting on the role bias plays in exisiting communication practices in an effort to learn, improve and disrupt inequitable patterns of listening and communication.

Strong, multidirectional listening practices are evidenced when leaders can articulate challenges and goals in ways that are inclusive of others (e.g., their unique identities, desires and perspectives), historical and systemic factors at play (such as the role of systemic racism), and root causes.

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Explore the following resources to reflect on the role inclusive leadership plays in equitable, whole-child aligned, continuous improvement efforts

Families as Fellow Leaders on the Journey to Educational Justice

Through a poignant story about a mother and son, Ann Ishimaru, associate professor, author of “Just Schools: Building Equitable Collaborations with Families and Communities,” and principal investigator for the Family Leadership Design Collaborative (http://familydesigncollab.org/), asks us to consider the potential leaders we routinely overlook and dismiss.

Which potential leaders might you be routinely overlooking or dismissing in your work?

How might approaching more people as potential leaders help foster more successful and more equitable schools?

[Video credit: University of Washington College of Education]

Inclusive Leadership Shadow Assessment


Use this tool to gain insight into how others are experiencing you as leader. First self-assess, then gather diverse perspectives on your inclusive leadership behaviors, skills and mindsets. Finally, think about what you could be doing differently to be more inclusive.


Making More Inclusive Moves


Explore this anchor visual that highlights examples of how leaders can become more inclusive in the way they team, share responsibility, communicate and make decisions.


Including Others in Continuous Improvement


This tool prompts leaders to identify ways they can be more inclusive throughout continuous improvement efforts, specifically in how they analyze data, identify and define problems, and design and implement solutions.


Additional Resources

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Introduction to equityXdesign


Engage in this free introductory course to learn more about the equityXdesign framework, including the role radical inclusion plays in redesigning for equity. This course has essential learning for any school leader engaging in system, structure, or practice change.

Inclusive Leadership


This video features a clip of Dr. Steven Jones discussing how inclusive leaders create the conditions for diversity of thought to thrive. What does he say is the role of the inclusive leader? He gives an example of a simple structure called "2 and 2" that he asks leaders to put in place whenever decisions are being made. What does he say is the impact of structures like this?"

The Diversity and Inclusion Revolution: Eight powerful truths


Read this article that draws on the findings of seven major research studies presenting eight powerful truths about diversity and inclusion. Among these truths, the author outlines six signature traits of an inclusive leader and provides insight into what leaders can do differently.

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