Do You Aspire to Be a Leader?
If you aspire to be a leader, you're not alone. So many corporate employees aspire to leadership roles in their organizations. They seek out high-profile projects, promotions, and executive sponsors. To really stand out in a company, though, you need to stand for something other than your own self-interest. Specifically, you can position yourself as a leader in your organization by being an ally to others.
You Have More Power Than You Realize
Many of us are tricked into thinking that because we marginalized in some way, we cannot (or need not) be allies for others. You have more power than you realize. You may lack privilege in some situations. But there are countless ways you may be taking your own privilege for granted.
Recognize Your Relative Power
I’ve compiled a list of examples, organized alphabetically, to help stimulate your thinking.
If you are… you can be an ally to…
Able-bodied … people with disabilities, chronic illness, chronic pain, and/or mobility issues
Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American … Each other
Cisgender … transgender and nonbinary individuals
Employed … people who are unemployed or underemployed, independent contractors
Female … men and nonbinary individuals
Gay or Lesbian … people who identify as bisexual/pansexual
Hearing … people who are deaf or hard of hearing
Heterosexual … LBGTQ individuals
High school or college graduate … someone without formal education
Industry insider … someone new to your company or industry
Literate … someone who cannot read
Middle- or upper-class … the poor, the working poor, people who are or who have been homeless
Millennial, Gen Z, Gen X, Boomers … Other generations
Native English speaker … someone for whom English is a second language
Neurotypical … people on the Autism spectrum, people with mental illness
Non-caregivers … people caring for adults with physical or intellectual disabilities, people caring for elderly parents or parents with dementia
Non-veterans … veterans and active-duty military personnel
Not in prison … people in prison or with a criminal record
Parent … people without children (and vice versa); partnered parents can also be allies to single parents
Safe at home … someone in an abusive relationship
Seeing … people who are blind
Sober … people with addictions to drugs, alcohol, or prescription painkillers
White … people of color
Be Honest with Yourself
Can you identify one or more areas where you have more power than others (in other words, privilege)? Is there an identity, experience, or demographic group that you’ve noticed has been belittled, bullied, ignored, or excluded in your workplace?
Now be honest. Have you contributed to this abuse in the past? Or have you been complicit by staying silent when you know abuse is taking place? You may have missed opportunities to be an ally in the past. You may not have recognized that you had a role to play.
Where to Begin
Begin your ally journey by reading books, blogs, or magazine articles from the perspective of someone with a marginalized identity, demographic, or experience. Do this often. Soon, you'll begin to see nuances in different people’s perceptions of the world from within a shared perspective.
Think critically about how different individuals would feel in the situations you’ve witnessed at work. You may not know yet how you will intervene in the future, but training yourself to recognize opportunities is a good start.
Build a Relationship
Next, imagine you’re having dinner with a famous person whose identity, experience, or demographics match those you seek to support. You would probably talk to them about their body of work, their family, their upcoming travel plans. You wouldn’t ask them to educate you about their experience of difference.
Now, can you imagine a similar conversation with a colleague? Invite them out for a cup of coffee and get to know them as a person.
Do the Work of a Leader
Finally, speak and act with courage. Leaders must be willing to do what is right, especially when doing so goes against the grain. When you speak up for others by addressing microaggressions or calling out blatant discrimination, you establish yourself as a person of integrity. Others will see you as a leader and an ally. And, in those times when you feel you are being cast aside, you might find that you have new champions who speak up for you.
After all, you’ll already have set an example for them to follow. And isn’t that what makes a leader?
Amy's passion is to help others develop their leadership skills and reach their full potential at work. She is am the Founder and CEO of Lead at Any Level LLC, and the author of the book Network Beyond Bias. She speaks and writes on leadership, diversity and inclusion, and career management.