“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”— Booker Washington

“You’re a good ally.” The first time I heard those four words, I wasn’t exactly sure what to think. What is an ally? What makes someone an ally? How do you become a good one? And what did I ever do to become an ally to someone?

The answers to those questions aren’t particularly complicated, but they can be enlightening. My journey to becoming someone’s ally wasn’t a path that I knowingly took, but more the end result of my own personal leadership style. How I lead is rooted in a truism instilled in me early on in my military career: “If you take care of them, they’ll take care of you.” This is the Golden Rule of leadership, and the heart and soul of servant leadership. It’s also the first step toward becoming an ally.

IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU—IT’S ABOUT THEM

Robert Greenleaf first coined the term servant leadership in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” Servant leadership begins with putting the needs of others first. For some people, that’s a difficult proposition. Fundamentally, though, leadership is about building teams, and ensuring the wellbeing of others and helping them to reach their full potential are central tenets of teambuilding. Not surprisingly, the same holds true with being an ally. If you want to be a good ally, you have to be willing to set your own needs aside and instead focus on the needs of those who depend on you. It’s not about you, it’s about them.

Servant leadership also depends on empowering others. As a leader, it’s relatively easy to be dictatorial in execution. But a true servant leader allows others a voice in decision-making. The responsibility for the consequences will remain with the leader, but the benefits of sharing in the process belong to everyone. In the same vein, a good ally will raise the voices of those around them, pulling their perspectives into the conversation. That empowerment is essential to servant leadership, and another key to good allyship.  

SETTING YOUR EGO ASIDE

Unfortunately, the same obstacle to effective servant leadership often stands in the way of becoming a good ally: the fragile human ego. Humility, compassion, and empathy underpin successful servant leadership; without them, you’re only paying lip service to servant leadership. Those same qualities are essential to allyship. If you can’t relate to the emotions and concerns of others, you can’t be an effective servant leader and you’ll never be a good ally.

You want to be a good ally? Set your ego aside long enough to demonstrate that you really care about other people. Recognize your own biases and rise above them. Start with the core principles of servant leadership and you’ll be well on your way to becoming the ally those around you deserve.

Listening.

It’s amazing what happens if you stop talking long enough to listen to others. Listening is the first principle of both servant leadership and allyship. You want to be a good ally? Make a commitment to listen to what people are saying. Don’t interrupt them in mid-sentence or cut them off to make a counterpoint. Give them your full attention. Take note of their body language. When they’re finished, acknowledge what they’ve said, give them constructive feedback, and have an open and honest conversation.

Consensus.

Servant leaders are consensus builders. Although they understand that they possess the authority to make unilateral decisions, they instead use persuasion to build buy-in among their followers. By forging consensus, others feel empowered and included in the decision-making process, and have a personal stake in the success of the team.

Foresight.

Servant leaders tend to be deeply experiential, lifelong learners. They possess an uncanny ability to see over the horizon, to anticipate the opportunities and challenges ahead. In doing so, they posture others for success in ways that a less intuitive leader might miss.

Stewardship.

Simply put, stewardship is leading by example. To a servant leader, this is natural. They take responsibility for their actions, live the values of their organization, and serve as a beacon for their people. A servant leader won’t ask something of someone they aren’t willing to do themselves, nor will they hold someone else responsible for their own failings. As Harry Truman was fond of saying, “The buck stops here.”

Teaching, coaching, and mentoring.

Servant leaders are committed to the personal and professional growth of others. Invest in people. Help them to achieve their full potential. All it costs you is the time you invest. But the return on that investment is immeasurable.

Team Building.

Servant leaders don’t just build teams, they build families. No one exemplified this as well as former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. His legacy extended far beyond the basketball court and into the hearts and minds of his players. Long after he coached his last game, he was still a central figure in their lives, his lessons in life, love, and leadership resonating across the years. They weren’t just members of the greatest dynasty in college basketball history, they were a family. And the bonds that allowed them to win so many games held them together in a way that transcended sport.

Compassion and Empathy.

Servant leaders possess an exceptional level of emotional intelligence. They strive to not only understand the emotions that drive those around them, they leverage that understanding to better relate to intentions and perspectives. They care. And they use that genuine concern for others to make better decisions and to approach situations with a more open mind.

Wellbeing.

If a team is only as strong as its weakest link, the power of a servant leader comes from ensuring that the team doesn’t have a weakest link. A servant leader is truly and deeply concerned about the wellbeing of others and actively involves themselves in supporting them emotionally as well as physically. You might not find a servant leader doing 22 pushups a day on Instagram, but you will find them making routine buddy checks on those who need them most.

Self-Awareness.

Recognizing your own strengths, weaknesses, and biases is critical for a servant leader. Self-reflection and self-awareness are essential tools for growth, but they assume an even greater role when interacting with and supporting others. The same holds true for your biases. We all have them but knowing what they are and how to prevent them from obstructing progress is foundational to effective servant leadership.

Vision.

In most literature on servant leadership, this is described as “conceptualizing.” What it is, however, is vision. A servant leader sets a positive vision and empowers their team on the path to fulfill that vision. Any leader can set a vision, but only a servant leader will unify and empower their entire team toward that end.

THE ALLY IN ALL OF US

So, you want to be a good ally? Then start with servant leadership. If you possess the key leadership traits and can master the skills of a servant leader, you are well on your way to becoming a good ally. Then, when the opportunity arrives, stand by them, give them a voice, and watch them succeed.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.