There are a lot of adults who want to make a difference in the world by becoming an adult ally to young people. However, many get frustrated because they don’t know what it takes. This article is about the traits of adult allies.
After more than a 20 years of teaching people around the world how to do it, I’ve developed the following list of what adults need to have within them in order to be an adult ally. This list is grounded in my experience talking with thousands of young people about what matters most to them. I also pulled from a variety of research and proved these traits in the fires of more than 50 projects over the years. The following traits make the difference between adults who talk about being adult allies and those who are actually adult allies.
These traits of adult allies determine what we can do, who we can be, and where we are with young people. If it helps you understand them better, think of this as a list of capacities, skills, dispositions and abilities.
Please leave your questions, comments, concerns, considerations and critiques at the bottom.
Traits of Adult Allies
- Change Management—Adult allies can successfully move young people, adults, leadership, and constituents through transitions and times of change.
- Humility—Adults develop and maintain a modest view of their own importance in public and personal perspectives regarding our efforts. Learn more about adults being humble »
- Collaboration & Teamwork—Adult allies build and sustain the necessary group and cross-group cohesion and operations needed to maintain success.
- Learner Mind: Adult allies work to S-T-R-E-T-C-H themselves both personally and professionally. Learn more about adults with learner mind »
- Conflict Management—Adult allies identify and successfully navigate conflicts and problems with youth as partners from an operational, day-to-day perspective as well as in the big picture.
- Transparency: Adult allies are open and honest with young people. They are appropriately available and vulnerable with children and youth, and work to create strong relationships built on trust and courage. Adult allies foster strong and appropriate relationships with young people to accomplish so much more than adults can on their own, and recognize that it’s not easy getting there! Striving to always act with integrity, be compassionate and loyal, and try to be a good listener. At the end of the day it’s not what we say or do, but how we make people feel that matters the most. We care about others, both personally and professionally. Peeling away the layers, we work to be open.
- Passion: What keeps us going? It’s passion for engaging people. We’re inspired because we believe in what we are doing and where we’re going – even when we don’t know where that is! We don’t take “that’ll never work” for an answer. A lot of people tell me that the Engagement Revolution will never happen; imagine if we had listened to them so far! We have positive and optimistic attitudes because we have open eyes and are inspired by everyone around us. We are passionate.
- Decision-Making—We discern how, when, where, and why to make decisions, and how to help others make decisions, both on a micro- and meta-level scale.
- Community: We want to build community, not just colleagues. We serve children, youth, adults, and organizations by removing obstacles and enabling people to succeed on their own terms. The best decisions and ideas are made by people who take action, and we want to foster action among people. We collaborate with people and organizations to address the challenges in their worlds. Beyond that, we watch out for our community and care for others. We work together and play together with our community because our bonds go beyond the typical consultant/coach/trainer/speaker relationship. We work to build community.
- Diversity & Cultural Competency—We acknowledge, embrace, and enable all sorts of differences as powerful motivators and assets.
- Amazement: We seek amazement in this work, and we seek to amaze others when it happens. To amaze, we differentiate myself by doing things in an unconventional and innovative way. We go above and beyond the average level of action to create an emotional impact on people and organizations and to give them a positive story they can take with them the rest of their lives. We seek to amaze.
- Coaching—We guide, transition, and mentor others through their daily professional and personal challenges without attempting to teach or lead them.
- Boldness: We are bold and try not to be reckless. We aren’t afraid to make mistakes because that’s one way we learn. We take appropriate risks and we encourage others to take risks too, and we use risks to make better decisions. We believe gut feelings, and we know everyone can develop gut feelings about decisions as long as they are open to new ideas and can allow failure to happen.
- Motivating & Empowering—We constantly seek to engage others in consistent, substantive, and sustainable ways that are motivating, empowering and sustainable.
- Drivenness: We constantly change and embrace it with open arms. We never accept status quo and I’m always thinking of ways to change processes, perspectives, and opinions, hopefully for the better. Without change, we can’t continue to be useful to myself or other people. We are driven.
- Personal & Professional Goal Development—We recognize our own goals and their relevance to our position, as well as help others do the same.
- Open-Heartedness: Help is a key word for us. We offer it and ask for it often. Often, we can’t do everything required in a project, so in a large part, part of our livelihood is helping others do their projects successfully. We are not expected to know all the answers, but we know where we can go to ﬁnd them, and we share that with others. We help myself help others.
- Knowledge Management—Using diverse ways of identifying, developing, sharing, and effectively using the knowledge of communities, we work to expand the knowledge of individuals and organizations.
- Humor: We have a sense of humor, and we know it’s good to laugh at ourselves frequently. Living shouldn’t be drudgery or toil. We have fun and can be goofy even when there’s work to get done, and we get lots done. Being a little goofy requires being a little innovative, and we are always looking for a chance to fully engage in life by bringing out the fun and goofy side of it.
- Problem-Solving—We effectively, consistently and realistically identify, address, critique, and re-imagine challenges.
- Action Orientation: We avoid the risk of not trying and the regret of wishing we had done something. When we were young, we knew that it would be far more haunting to live with the regret of having not followed our instincts than to have followed our gut and failed. We have lived in action and done risky things. We see our ideas when we have them and make note of them. That’s why we always have a notepad. If we think an idea is compelling, we go after it. We live life only once, and we all die too soon. We always try. We take action.
- Training & Facilitation—We successfully identify and meet the needs of people through group training and individual learning.
- Simplicity: More and more, we realize the power of simplicity. Since we are in the business of ideas in action, we want to share them as effectively as we can in our complex world. We do that by being simple. It takes more mental space for me to create something simple or communicate something complicated in basic terms, but ultimately, that’s what people want. We don’t need to explain everything the first time around. WE need to facilitate the best tailored learning experience ourselves and our organization or community. We always need to break down knowledge into easily digestible, clear statements and actions. We work hard for simplicity.
- Listening: Engaging with young people in meaningful ways starts with listening to youth voice. This means not interpreting, translating or bastardizing youth voice; it means taking action, reflecting, and authorizing youth voice. Learn more about listening to young people »
- Release: We have to release everything we do when it’s done, and just let it go. Instead of trying to figure it out, we just let it be and accept that it is what it is, nothing more or less. It doesn’t determine our worth, others don’t validate our choices, and our contributions never go unnoticed, even if it seems like it. We release what we do when it’s done.
- Personal Engagement: We foster our own connection to the work you’re doing, maintain that connection, and sustain the relevance of the work you’re doing throughout our own life, as well as help others do the same.
- Focus: We work to transform the lives of youth, no matter what I’m doing. We do not look for fame or fortune, and we reject greed and deceit. Instead, we constantly look for opportunities to serve others, and we share our energy and efforts as often as we can. We see the ripple effect in everything we do, not just the flashy or huge things. If we don’t see the ripples, we trust the waves work. We know every action in our lives sets off an entire cascade of responses whose overall impact is huge, and we know this is true for others, too. We are focused.
- Compassion—We develop our ability to establish and foster empathy with people and places outside of our own personal or professional sphere.
- Listening: We speak by listening. Instead of rushing to come up with a quick reaction to what someone has said or done, we listen to them. When the time is right, we respond with knowledge. When we were younger, we assumed that the world was more interested in us than we were in it, so we spent most of our time talking. We were generally under-informed, we shared whatever we thought, we tried to be clever, and we thought about what we were going to say instead of listening to what someone else was saying to me. We have learned to slow ourselves down and engage rather than debate. We take time to really listen to what people say, and we try to learn from everything we hear. We listen to people.
- Systems Thinking—We see how small things that seem separated can create big things through complicated interactions.
- Facilitation: We provide appropriate support to learners. We do not train people, because we don’t do tricks or routine work. Instead, we adapt and contrast, modify and transform. We encourage learners through questions and activities that build confidence, stretch understanding, and foster engagement in learning. We facilitate learning.
- Deliberation: We regularly stop to check our intentions and affirm our actions, so that what I’m doing actually reflects who we are. If I’m not aware of why we do what we do, we are disconnected from what matters to me. If I’m disconnected, I’m ineffective. Staying aware of our intentions and being deliberate allows me to guide our work with purpose, and challenge myself when its time. We are deliberate.
- Challenge: When a we get too attached to the way things are, we lose the the greatest freedom of all: the freedom to fail. Without feeling like a failure, we don’t have to assume that a slight misstep is a deep plunge into the abyss. Instead, we step forward to challenges and see them each as an opportunity to innovate using a smart idea or strategic thinking. When I’m stepping up to challenges, we accept that failure is going to happen while I’m growing. Ultimately, we won’t become a better person because of how we respond to success, but instead, what we do with failure. We accept the challenge.
- Mindfulness: Adult allies strive to develop and maintain the constant conscious awareness and acceptance of our imperfections and inabilities, as well as our abilities and responsibilities to the young people, families and communities we strive to serve.