Leadership advice

To be an ally, you can’t just hold others to account

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

Trust is the glue that binds relationships. It’s an essential component of leadership. It’s the fuel that drives high-performing teams. 

Trust is confidence, in the face of risk, that the other person will do the right thing. 

Trust is also essential to earning the title of “ally,” because an ally is a trusted force for good

An ally uses power and privilege to support those who have traditionally had less. But just as you aren’t a leader unless others choose to follow you, you aren’t an ally unless others trust that you qualify. And it is those who’ve lacked a seat at the table who get to sit in judgment.

Think about the risk involved in granting you that trust. Think of the grace it must take to believe that in a world of overabundant bias, someone who has been its beneficiary will set aside self-interest and act on behalf of equity. 

There’s risk that an aspiring ally won’t do the hardest work. Won’t learn enough to truly grow or to inform others. Won’t speak out in the moment when witnessing wrong. Will stop at small, symbolic actions and not challenge systems. 

And here’s another risk: That their view of allyship will begin and end with holding others to account. That when they are personally challenged, corrected or criticized, their default response will be defensive at best, aggressive at worst. 

It’s always been hard to be criticized and human to be defensive, at least initially. Tell me I’m late for an appointment  and I’ll remind you how hard I’ve been working lately. Tell me I tend to dominate in meetings and I’ll assert that other people don’t contribute useful ideas. Tell me I should have looped others in on a decision and I’ll explain why I didn’t want to bother them. 

In my head, my intentions are always good. Hence, the defense. It takes emotional intelligence and a desire for healthy relationships to overcome the urge to automatically push back against a critique.

Now imagine that the criticism has to reach across differences. Across gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, age or power. Imagine that you, the aspiring ally, are told that something you said, did or failed to do showed ignorance or caused harm. How will you respond?

I ask because your response will determine whether it was worth trusting that you’d suppress that self-defense impulse and be open to listening and reflecting. That your primary goal would be to take ownership of the problem rather than securing the absolution you probably crave. (Not to mention that you wouldn’t shout, swear, cry, pontificate, retaliate, go silent or leave the room and the relationship.)

I ask because as we address issues of inequity and injustice, these difficult conversations are as inevitable as they are important. And those who aspire to allyship can’t expect that their good intentions and their work-in-progress provides them a shield against scrutiny. If anything, allyship should invite it. 

Scary, isn’t it to feel you could be judged or misjudged, stereotyped or disbelieved, hoping for a break or the benefit of the doubt – just like those who’ve been marginalized have felt forever?

Let me repeat that trust is confidence, in the face of risk, that the other person will do the right thing. To be an ally means more than striving to do what’s right; it’s also removing the risk for those who let us know we still have work to do.

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