Allyship – Beyond Declarations and Performative Actions

Neil shares a new, yet old view of being an ally. He frames the illusion of allyship present in the current societal narrative and how it limits our success if the goals are inclusion, equity, and belonging. This episode challenges the status quo, and invites individuals and corporations to rethink their strategies and actions. You will walk away, not only with a lot to think about, but with a high-level overview of a 6-point conceptual model for doing allyship work that Neil created using his expertise as a Organization and Relationship Systems Coach, Co-active Leader, and personal and professional experiences.

You can connect with Neil on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. You can email him by clicking here.


Neil: I am Neil Edwards, and this is The Leadership Range, where we elevate the voices of Black and brown coaches, leaders and allies and have soulful conversations about all things at the intersections of leadership, relationships and teams, well-being and inclusion. In today’s episode, I share a model for allyship that challenges the status quo. In some ways it is so simple it is silly, but it does require us to break habits that do not serve if we really want an inclusive and equitable society, a place where everyone belongs. I spend time framing why the approach is important, where it came from, the illusion we are living in, and calling for new ways of being. I ultimately lay out at a high level the center of a new model for allyship as an invitation for listeners to cross one of our edges to think about and approach allyship and inclusive leadership with a new layer or a new way. Open your mind, open your heart. Sit back and let it sink in. When I searched for “I am an ally” on the internet, I got 82 million results. When I searched for “corporate declarations to support anti-racism,” I got 192 million hits. Now, of course, I didn’t read or look at all of them. The point is allyship is getting serious action with people who want something to change. If you do your own perusing, you’ll see list after list of things to do and things not to do. You’ll see big corporate donations for high schools and inner city education, money for HBCUs, nonprofits and advocacy groups, employee support groups kicking up action, all presumably intended to fix an underrepresented minority or Black people problem. You’ll see diversity reports and all sorts of data. You’ll see hiring of D&I experts, new diversity officer roles all over the place, and on and on. All of these things are generally good. The question is, will they create more just an equitable spaces where underrepresented minorities feel like they belong? I’m not seeing any verifiable evidence that they do, and it bothers me to see the same things over and over with little to no results while people continue to suffer in society and at work, and it’s bothered me for years, and as recently as this week, actually. It’s on my mind daily, you know? I’m always thinking about it. But almost every time there’s a tragic killing, we see this cycle of declarations and commitments from people and companies bubbling up, then, you know, we see it die a slow death as the actions yield unremarkable results or people get fatigued. I hope this last pickup in energy since George Floyd’s killing is long lasting, or at least longer lasting, so that there’s a meaningful change. But, you know, I’m still personally and professionally disappointed at what I’m seeing around me for the last six years or so now, while coaching, advising and leading people who have come to me with specific desires to do something, to support anti-racism or be more inclusive. There’s this clear gap across the board with allyship that needs to be addressed, and I’m about to address it here today. Allyship requires personal and collective leadership to be successful, and when I say leadership I mean people need to challenge the status quo that is not working or just working poorly. For individuals, well-meaning people, it takes more than reading books, doing book discussions and watching documentaries like Thirteenth. Those things are all good, but there’s more. For companies, it takes more than targeted recruiting, upscaling, and leadership development for underrepresented minorities. Working with the white majority in the workplace is great, again, but there’s more. These things are–they’re all well and good, but they’re just insufficient, and the data shows us that fact. It takes a few additional courageous steps for aspiring allies and for those who are allies for this to work out. And understand that what I’m about to share with you is just skimming the surface. I’m remembering when I did the trailer for this podcast with Zach several weeks ago, and he asked me what people can expect. One thing I promised was sometimes it is just gonna be me. I said that because my friends and colleagues who encouraged me said they want to hear what I have to say and learn from me. I really don’t like listening to my voice. That’s my own edge. But I do have something to say, so I’ll say it, and my hope is that you come away with a reasonable understanding of what I’m calling you to do. So whether you are an individual out in the world doing your thing, an influencer among groups that are around you or a CEO, the top of a major corporation or small business, it really doesn’t matter, how to organize around this will have some differences, but the underlying structures and processes are basically the same. As for me, I’ve done this personally with people, allies in my life over time, and with specific intention, and have had certain types of conversations in this area. I’ve used these processes in coaching with couples, with small groups and with groups in business. They work. But again, they take courage and commitment beyond what we typically see in the broader narrative, which is declarations and transactional behaviors. For a backdrop on how I came up with these ideas, they are inspired primarily by organization and relationship systems work from CRR Global and collective leadership from the Co-actve Training Institute, but also influenced by elements of well-being, design, thinking, improv, and the influencing underpinnings of all of those things. The bottom line is I took a bunch of stuff, you know, that I’ve learned, my professional and personal experiences, and created a model for allyship that’s functional for individuals and organizational systems. Now, obviously, you cannot see any models. This is a podcast, and we are not going into details today. That is the sort of thing that comes with deeper dive approaches. So here we go. Recall I said allyship requires personal and collective leadership. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – everyone is a leader. Leaders have edges to cross to expand their leadership range, whether an individual or a big business. There may be multiple edges to cross here. So what I ask is that you open your mind and your heart as you listen. Allyship is fundamentally a relationship, and essentially none of the declarations address relationships that I’ve seen out in the world. Think about it. I can’t honestly go out and declare my commitment to a person or group without entering into a relationship. If I declare my love for a celebrity, say, and just keeps showing up, that would be called stalking, not allyship. If I keep sending unwanted gifts, that might be considered harassment, no matter how good my intentions. At best, it is just free stuff. A nation that is a brutal dictatorship can’t simply declare themselves an ally to the UN, there needs to be a conversation, multiple conversations with agreements. Otherwise, it is simply nonsense. There is no established relationship. And even if there is an established relationship, it is probably an unhealthy one and perhaps historically a violent one. Think about this – what trained mental health professional would advise a woman who has been subject to repeated abuses to jump back into the hands of the abuser because of declarations he’s made and money he’s suddenly spending on it? Not one. Not a single one would do it. So why is it that we have been so generally accepting of declarations of allyship and commitments from people and corporations around the work and anti-racism? Why, you know, a space that has a long history of imbalance and harm, inequity and oppression? Why would we do that? You know, that’s a rhetorical question, but something serious to reflect on. What kind of relationship is that? Where we just accept these declarations as they are? But we’re not going to dig into that today. It’s just something for you to chew on later.

Neil: If you haven’t yet picked up on it, the fundamental missing piece from ally ship is relationship. It seems so simple, right? It’s relationship. And if you look up ally in the dictionary, a good dictionary–and if you’re like me, you will look up the etymology and realize how we’re treating ally now is modern. Why the newer definitions? Who does the new definition serve? And what does it serve? But allyship is basically a relationship where parties come together with agreements and relationships and hard work. I mean, I remember when I did a lot of change management, change leadership work on large IT projects, and hardly nobody wanted to do the people work on those projects because they were so messy. And the folks on those projects love having people like me around to assign these people process work, these people process components of projects, too, because, you know, they were falling apart from a people perspective. Anyway, relationships that require difficult conversations around race and more importantly racism may seem impossible for a lot of people for good reason. Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” John Maxwell said, “Relationships are the foundation of leadership,” and Simon Sinek said, “Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank.” So one, this is doable. Two, it says something about the scope of your leadership foundation when it comes to inclusivity. And three, no matter your rank, you have a yes or no choice to make. If you choose Yes, the framework I’m sharing with you is what you would be saying yes to or something like it. I would love to say it is a simple framework through and through, but it is not. It may be simple on the surface for some of you who are familiar with this type of work, but it does require skill, depth, practice, and probably support, which hopefully you can appreciate because, you know, we’re talking about human relationships, and they’re complicated. To start to nail in why this is crucial, it is not just that there is not a relationship lens in the current narrative on allyship. The current approaches do not create healthy, lasting, meaningful relationships between allies. It’s just astonishing to me that we are in a cycle where those making declarations remain separate, at a distance, often protected and isolated from meaningful human connection between ally and allied. How could this separation possibly lead to an inclusive mindset? How could the maintenance of this separation reconcile the dehumanization over millennia? The current narrative and approach allow the white majority to essentially remain separated in white space over there at arm’s length, doing good deeds, but avoiding inclusion and equity and placing metaphorical miles between isolation and what’s the now ubiquitous call for belonging. It is an oxymoron if I ever saw one. I mean, staying at a distance and naming belonging as the goal makes no sense to me. If I am kept out of relationship distance, where exactly do I belong? Our individual and societal behaviors doom efforts for inclusion, equity and belonging before they even start. All we need to do is look at the diversity and inclusion data from companies and the social division in society right now to see the distance. Hopefully, this framework encourages you to cross an edge and close that gap. I love this quote from an inspirational speaker and trainer from Amsterdam, and his name is difficult for me. Alexander den [?]. I hope I didn’t mess his name up too bad. But anyway, the quote goes, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it blooms, not the flower.” So let’s get into the conceptual model. There are six things that require conversation. Each requires the parties in allyship to take an honest and authentic look at what is, what’s desired, and then make agreements. The first one is relationships sentiment. We’ll call it that. Two, power. Three, rank. Four, privilege. Five, allyship design, and six, behavioral agreements. And we’ll take a look one at a time, and I’m going to give you a short framing for each. So here we go. First one, relationships sentiment. This is about the relative perceived strength in the relationship from low to high and the character of the relationship from negative to positive. Where there is no existing relationship, for example, the strength might be at the lowest point. Where there is high regard, the character is more positive. So low regard on the character is more negative. Brian Tracy said, quote, “The glue that holds all relationships together, including the relationship between the leader and the lead is trust, and trust is based on integrity.” Hold that. Number two, power. This requires a look at the power of the parties entering the relationship, how the various powers come together, and how the powers may serve the relationship. When looking at power, it ranges in quantity from lower to higher, and it has direction or orientation either toward self, myself, or other, the person or people over there. Either I hold more power or they hold more power. Power gives influence and the ability to get certain things done or make things happen, but power can be used to control or dominate a relationship. There needs to be a conversation about power and asymmetrical power in the relationship and how it is used or not used in service of the allyship. When there is a relationship or allyship that is intended to create change and great ideas all to the power balance in the relationship, that is why great ideas are initially resisted. Who gets to produce ideas that get taken forward matters, especially when it affects the power dynamics in a relationship. So this is really important to look at. Three, rank. Although similar to power, it is not the same. Rank does not necessarily result in power, yet it could, and vice versa. Rank is more formal and dependent on the context of the relationship. Rank also has quantity, from a relative bottom to a relative top, and if we think about sort of the combination of an individual and national level context, then the highest rank would be a president, a prime minister, the crown and so on. For a corporation it might be the CEO or chairman of the board. Rank also has scope, from narrow to wide. Rank has some formalities and some structure. Another quote here. Peter Drucker said this. Quote, “Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility.” Unquote. Number four, privilege. Privilege also has quantity from lower to higher and scope from narrow to wide. It has structure like power, but it is more socially driven and offers opportunities and advantages. Privilege often determines what access a person with power and rank has. Privilege can be used as a lever for good or for harm. Having honest conversations, again, about the privileges in the relationship can be a powerful source for allyships. Clarence Paige said, quote, “Privilege is least apparent to those who have it.” Unquote. This means it’s very important to explore the truth about privilege and to be open to others views on what they see but you maybe cannot see. Another quote that informs the allyship conversation is from JFK around privilege, and he says, “Privilege is here, and with privilege goes responsibility.” Unquote. Number five, allyship design. This is where things really get meaty. It is the process that begins co-designing what the parties to the allyship want the relationship to be like. It is the atmosphere or the climate of the allyship. The inputs to the allyship design are from the relationship, from power, from rank and privilege conversations, plus any unspoken need that person or group might have and they want to enter into it. Depending on the size of allyship, it could include these individual needs, it could be the needs of a specific defined group, and then the needs of the relationship that form the allyship also need to be addressed. And the last one, number six, behavioral agreements. This is the final component, it is the stuff we see the things businesses like, it is about setting out observable actions that support the allyship design. These are similar to the declarations and actions that dominate the narrative now, except they are driven from and unsupported by the allyship design and represent an equitable contribution to what is needed for the allyship to be healthy, to be resilient, and to be equitable. The commitments we have seen in the marketplace and the commitments individuals have been making online are primarily absent any meaning, any meaningful, co-created relationship. Declarations of actions alone are simply–they’re insufficient, they’re imbalanced and represent the built-in inequities that already exist within our cultural context at all levels. There is no relationship – just power, rank, privilege, and presumptive actions absent of any real humanizing relationship between the privileged and the marginalized. What I am calling for is the power of designing committed relationships and designing actions consistent with the relationship design. My friends, I realize this might simultaneously be a lot to take in and also not enough to run out the door and put into action, but this is not a full-on training course or workshop. This is just me talking, sharing with you that there is another way to be a good ally, and that is to get into relationship rather than keeping distance. There is another way to have inclusive spaces and create belonging. It requires building relationships that require uncomfortable edge crossings. Everyone has a role to play, and everyone has to lead if the goal is inclusion, equity, and belonging, individuals and organizations alike. I’m going to close with a quote from Henry Ford, who said, quote, “Coming together is the beginning. Staying together is progress. Working together is success.” Thank you for listening today. As always, I am deeply grateful for all who listen. I am especially grateful to my friends who have become intentional allies. Your courage and love have fueled my commitments to this work, and it’s quite frankly a source of energy to expose my points of view in a podcast. Today’s content is important for everyone who wants to do the work of inclusion, but I assert it is especially important for companies investing millions of dollars into the same strategies to improve numbers. The language has moved beyond diversity. The financial investments have also increased, but the behaviors and strategies have fallen behind. Unconscious bias and blind spot trainings and difficult conversations between and within groups are okay. Relationship conversations and intentional design are next level, leading edge and probably provocative. I suspect the most powerful, high ranking and privileged in businesses will be resistant. Yet, if we examine relationships at work, in homes, and in our communities in society, the balance of strong, meaningful relationships indicative of inclusion and belonging speak louder than any retort. My invitation is to lead through relationships at all levels. If after listening today you find you want more and want to go deeper or you do this kind of work and want to get into a conversation about allyship on this podcast, then reach out. Let’s talk. There is a lot to do, a lot to say, and a lot to share. I hope you get stretched today, and I hope you will come back to listen to episodes of The Leadership Range every Monday. As always, you can connect with me on LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram using the links in the show notes. If you have a topic suggestion or want to join a conversation here, send me an email to I look forward to you listening to future episodes.

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