No matter how you put it, leadership ego is a real adversity every leader has to deal with. Constantly pursuing growth and success can be overwhelming and addictive at times, and it falls upon you to keep this silent enemy in check. Aila Malik, Founder of Venture Leadership Consulting, sits down with Dr. Kevin Sansberry II to talk about proper leadership ego management that leads to healthier organizational cultures. She discusses the red flags and early signs you need to watch out for before it escalates into a toxic and unfair work environment. Aila also explains the proper way to help other leaders grow without robbing them of the right to lead themselves.
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Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach with expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance. Over the years, Kevin has focused on providing research-informed solutions in various settings such as higher education, nonprofit, sales, and corporate environments.
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How Managing Leadership Ego Can Improve Your Organizational Culture with Aila Malik
A lawyer by schooling and nonprofit executive by trade, Aila Malik has been a change agent in her community and the nonprofit sector at large for decades. This episode is important because of Aila’s unique management consulting firm, Venture Leadership Consulting. Aila works in the nonprofit space and focuses on building leadership and writing the wrongs of inequality. Aila provides tremendous insights into what current leaders and change agents can do in this often-overlooked industry of business. Let’s get to it.
We have Aila Malik. How are you?
I’m great. Thanks for having me.
I’m so excited to talk to you. One of the things I’m interested in as we have our discussion is your journey and knowing how your relationship with conflict evolved as it relates to toxicity. Before we get to that, let’s let the audience know a little bit about yourself.
It’s funny to talk about toxicity but I’m excited to talk about it in the spirit of dealing with it and preventing it. A little bit about me, I’m a lawyer by schooling. I have been in the nonprofit field for decades. I’m a mom of three that are now starting school, so I’m in multitasking mode. I’m a Bay Area California native. I have been here my whole life and focus on equity, how it is that we can be working on as a culture, as a community, and as individuals on expressing our true authentic selves for the purpose of closing gaps of inequity and injustice? I have been very much in that space for my whole career.
What got you in a nonprofit space?
I’m a first-generation American from Pakistani parents. The max in our house was that you had to work. The minute you could get a work permit at fourteen, you were going to be working but the job didn’t matter. You’ve got to choose. I realized that I had always been attached to schools or nonprofits in teaching, teaching support or some roles.A company will eventually outgrow a leader who only cares about ego. Click To Tweet
When I look back at the nonprofit space, I entered into it because learning of myself and from other people was a huge opportunity in the sector. A quick personal background. I have come from parents who struggled with their own limitations with substance and mental health. I was the only child in those households for much of the time. Learning how to take care of myself and others was a big part that naturally drew me into the sector.
You are on the Toxic Leadership Show, where we do have fun talking about some hard things sometimes. As it relates to toxic leadership and toxic organizational cultures, what’s your foray into that area, your experience, and the information that you have gleaned about it on the news every week? Every week we hear about it. What’s your knowledge on that?
I was looking up before the show. What is the definition of toxicity? I hear that word and I think of the skull symbol and warning. Toxicity, by definition, can be poisonous, something harmful or unpleasant. I take that to even mean that it can be dormant, poison, harm, an unpleasantry that’s a little bit asleep or a little bit dormant.
My relationship to toxicity is that it is life. It’s the human condition to error. In our error, we are either asleep and not recognizing areas that we could have improved our health or we might be perpetuating poisonous or harmful ideas. My relationship to toxicity has been one of curiosity and trying to understand what is manifesting, what do we think the root of that is coming from, trying to recognize and understand my own relationship, fear to that root, drama, harm and/or my own contribution of trying to correct it.
My role is to work with organizations from the inside out. I often take interim seats, drive change and turnover artistry for organizations in the nonprofit space across the country. Learning how to immerse to new cultures, scan and look around for what are those kindnesses and overt harmful behaviors but also what’s maybe dormant, and sleeping underneath the symptoms is an area that I have gotten to spend a lot of time in.
That’s something that I talk with people a lot about. It’s about the overt and covert or antacid. The more things you see visibly in how we have defined toxicity. Most of the toxicity that you see is not what you see on the news because that’s the overt, obvious stuff. Not obvious to them but that’s the beating on the tables, discrimination, harassment and stuff like that occur.
Countless other people are facing that dormant death by a thousand cuts toxicity. Being in the nonprofit industry, what are some examples of the dormant things that may seem commonplace but maybe perpetuating toxicity and harm to people? I will give you an example of stuff that I have seen in for-profit and non-for-profit. One of the things that I see a lot of times is we do this thing where we talk about the work-life balance that we used to but we text and email on weekends, and we do that thing.
It makes it seem like you are a bad employee if you don’t engage and staying after 6:00, 5:00, whatever the time is. That wears on a lot of people. I have coached a lot of people in nonprofit and for-profit related to like, “I’m going to stop doing that and see what happens.” Sometimes people got to talk to. Other times nothing happened but we get conditioned to go into it and let that happen to us. A lot of times, it becomes toxic. That’s a quick example I’m going to share.
That’s a good one. I will bring another one into your toolbox or into the conversation around the motivational paycheck is how I usually say it. The notion of having someone that you love to work for, and you love to work with, there’s a real loyalty and connection. It starts as this great thing. It’s a great environment. If not, check the toxicity, the harm or the little disease that creeps in is codependency that becomes unhealthy.
There’s a notion of one party taking it personally if the other person can’t show up to this work meeting, taking it personally if you decide that you want to go elsewhere and leave the organization or do something else. We build this motivational paycheck of like, “You are here. You are going to do extra for me because we love each other, we are loyal, and we are in for it.” That culture becomes a codependent one that masks over how the organization can get better and oftentimes, unintentionally, silences the authenticity of those that are involved in that motivational patriot transaction.
Why would I want to rock the boat? We are all in this bubble of toxic niceness in a way. Who am I to rock the boat? What gets seen in those environments is the one that rocks the boats gets ostracized from the fake family.
On top of that, we perpetuate that family culture by hiring people. Instead of looking at like, “Here are the core competencies of the position, the people that rock the boat or the disruptors may be moving us forward, scale and impact or whatever.” We get afraid of that conflict or disruption, we hire people that are like us and/or going to keep everything smooth sailing or unintentionally may have a predisposition to codependency. That perpetuates that cycle a little bit longer.
With that being said, the cycle you get into is then you all might stay alive as a company. I’m going, to be honest. You might survive but you are not in the state of thriving because those disruptors are typically what gets you to that next level.
When you think of toxic environments, you think of a disease. Toxic environments are about survival. When you are in a healthy environment, awake environment, an environment that’s nutritious and supportive, if you look in the medical model, different bacteria, ideas, and evolutions, then you are in a thriving mode.
When we look at organizational health, organizations that have moved away from some of this motivational codependency toxicity type of culture get clear about their core competencies, costs for that talent, and costs for doing a job that’s not over and beyond, they get to see the holes in their infrastructure. As a result, they can thrive, grow and scale at a lower risk level than those organizations that are closely knit, have family ties with strange dotted lines or everybody reports to the same person. Those things over time create shade over your clarity on the ability to scale.
For the audience, I want to say, please, what we are talking about is a very tacit thing. You might not know you are in it. Read again at these traits we are describing because this form of toxicity that we are discussing is very common and people don’t know until typically mental health, physical health problems do manifest as they relate to the environment you are in.Keep your ego in check by creating multiple identities with different validations and esteem for different things. Click To Tweet
The body is resilient but there comes a time where the body keeps that score, people end up sick and they were like, “What’s going on?” They didn’t realize they were in this tacit toxic place that they didn’t even know was toxic because everybody is smiling but stabbing you in the back or what have you. One of the reasons why it’s not so obvious is because the disruptors either got terminate or left.
They don’t align, either they sense their lack of alignment with this family, Uber family culture and they either choose to leave or they are not the right fit. In the nonprofit sector, we see this squarely with founder syndrome. That has been a little bit of my experience and I’m happy to share. In the for-profit, many of the founders, the Mark Zuckerberg’s, of a particular invention over time begin to move out of the way to allow for either new CEOs to come or the board to be more involved.
There’s a natural progression and flow in the for-profit sector that is so clear about competency and the metric that they are using to grow the business around the profit margin. They begin to understand when the company has outgrown its founder. I don’t think that’s as easy to see in the nonprofit sector. We are a lot of the tacit toxicity can start unintentionally because founders are awesome. They have vision, passion, sweat, blood, and tears to make something come to life. It’s amazing.
If they are not awake about their own ego, their own relationship to the work, where they are getting their validation and esteem from, how are they diversifying their own interests and identities if that’s not at the forefront, then oftentimes, the company outgrows them, and they are the last to realize that. In my situation, I had been a Founder by tenure. I was not the original founder of a nonprofit.
I was in the justice organization. I loved the people that I worked with. They are family and they are still my family. I would be there for them in a heartbeat if they needed anything. What I became present to was, we were truly a startup. I stayed in that organization for years and play various executive roles. Is it okay if I share a story about the a-ha moment?
Yes, let me hear it.
We used to teach young people who were on probation or in juvenile hall. We used to teach legal education and I loved it. I loved working with young people. I was either the interim CEO while our Executive Director hadn’t been on a sabbatical or the COO role. I can’t remember which but I was driving. Someone had called and said, “A volunteer and a staff cannot make juvenile hall law class. Can you pinch it? Can you drive in?” I’m driving to San Mateo County. About 30-40 minutes away from where I was.
Eager to go and plug into the class, I had this moment of, “This is not sustainable. This isn’t going to work.” It’s because the organization is used to relating to me in a crisis where all of us, the founders, either real founder or founder by tenure, are fixing, plugging holes, and knowing what to do when something is wrong. My ego liked that. I wanted to be useful, needed, and also be with the young people but it’s not my role. Now, the company is paying me way more than they should be to go and plug in into juvenile hall because we have not experienced the pain of having a vacancy and build our structures to have on-call staff and other volunteers that could plugin. I am constantly plugging into the problem.
As a result, the organization isn’t getting to feel the discomfort that it needs to be a stronger organization. It was that moment that I was driving that I was like, “Something is wrong with this picture.” It started a journey. It took me a year and a half to leave the organization. That was because nothing was wrong with my marriage. I was happy in my marriage and yet, I believed in the organization being so much more. I believed in the leadership that was there to be able to experience different trajectories. It’s an interesting moment.
I appreciate knowing that because what did have me thinking about is you are right in the for-profit. They have natural systems in play where you never see a founder stay forever in a for-profit but then, in a nonprofit, you see it all the time. What you illustrated is the organization was so reliant on the founder that the organization didn’t build the muscle to be able to plug in extra people physically. One thing I will state that also occurs is you also don’t build a muscle for people to plug in cognitively, either because they rely on that person or the tenure. In your situation, they relied on you to know all the answers a lot of times. I would imagine, too. I could imagine you metaphorically had to turn your car around, drive back and provide that support.
I probably did it. I’m going, to be honest. That showed up in the organization’s lack, initially. They have grown since this time. This is an old story but there was no decentralized decision-making because it’s exactly what you are saying. It was like, “I should do this but Aila or the other two founders, what do you think?” People were not stepping into their own power. A lot of that, I will take responsibility for.
It was me dormant and not realizing that I needed to add the two cents to everything, strive for perfection or doing things the way that we have always done was squashing the ability for other people to step up. I was taking up too much space and unintentionally for the love of the mission. I have taken up too much space and not allowing other people to be able to step in and contribute their best selves.
That ego drive gets in the way of a lot of leaders and in this position where you and your role got the positive reinforcement every time they asked you a question. You knew the answer because you had been there. Your direct reports and your team didn’t even feel safe to grow or didn’t get the chance to grow because you’ve got in the way. Not even purposely, though.
It was a beautiful thing. A lot of those teammates, we are still connected, take hold of each other, and all of this and yet, I didn’t mean to but now looking back, I probably impeded the speed of their growth or their ability to grow. It was authentic at the moment but the vantage point that I came from was deep mentorship and having people feel safe that I won’t let them fail but there’s so much love, learning and failure. That Uber mentorship becomes smothering and becomes a stop-gap for someone’s ability to reflect and grow if it’s overplayed. When I look back at my own learning and if I’m honest, that’s an area that I still work on. I work on how do you partner and lead from the side and behind, and how does that look?
The difference is now I have made a career of learning how to keep my professional ego in check constantly. When I enter a new organization, it is not okay for the organization to fall in love with me or my style and not allow the next permanent leader to come in. I go in very specifically to be an interim, drive change and turn the keys over.
I take validation from an organization feeling supported. Maybe feeling like, “Aila, we would love for you to stay. Would you like the job?” That’s a proxy for me to know that I did well. Literally, in our training, I say, “You quickly say no to provide the organization clarity and you back support, whether it’s ghostwriting, propping up or being the ultimate cheerleader for the next person in.”Your identity has to be separate from what you do if you want to stay healthy. Click To Tweet
How do you essentially remove your ego and give everybody else the next person all the wins that you would have liked to have yours? The organization, if you did it right, should forget about you. They should always think of you as a great ally when they needed you but they have agreed to a sigh of relief with the permanent person. It’s difficult. I work on the ego and I don’t get it right every day but it’s a beautiful gift in my life to try to stay awake as possible to my own limitations.
That’s a big lesson learned for any traditional leaders in a role now as they listen in because taking control of one’s ego is a super humbling experience. I have had a similar experience as you described related to that ego. Mine manifested from getting my first 360 evaluation in 2014. That was tough for my team. Leaders can learn a lot from that because, as you stated before, things might look good on the surface. Your relationships, the way you described, were fine, even if your ego was in the right. What you didn’t see was the toxicity of how you were tamping down the organization’s growth, people’s growth and success. Your decision to leave was probably an internal conflict, I would imagine. Tell me about how you made that decision to leave and what you went through to get there?
It was an immense internal conflict, for me, it’s one that I sought support from. I had got a life coach. The mantra that I used for a lot of years was, “What’s my no for my bigger yes?” There was this internal dialogue for me of I know that I could be spreading wings someplace else or I know that the organization could be moving and scaling faster if I were to let it hurt a little bit. All this unhealthy rescuing was starting to form for me. This is not anybody else’s issue. This is mine. That was getting in the way of some important health.
At that time in my life, I had my second child and was trying to figure out the whole mom thing and work-life, all the things that life presents us. I had a life coach and I kept saying, “My no is I’m going to stay in this role for the next six months for the bigger yes of giving myself time to flex my personal identity as a mom.” I kept making these decisions with myself. Through that process, I’ve finally got to the place where I had said enough noes.
My bigger yes was now needing to be focused on the organization and my next growth. I gave a year-long notice to the organization and the board. I played in that year and had the most professional fun because we used my leave as a little bit of the urgency to recreate, redefine, and decentralized decision making and prepare for that discomfort and they soar. That organization is amazing. They have an amazing leader at home now. It evolves. That organization is on a great path for scale. I held as a query of conflicts for a long time.
I love that beautiful story because I want to tell people, when you hear the word dismantle, don’t be afraid all the time. You dismantled a lot of the structures. It got to be a company first. They helped you but everything has diminishing returns. You saw those diminishing returns. A lot of times, I always tell people, be wary of being blinded by past success.
With that being said, you spent that year dismantling structures of hierarchy, centralized decision-making, and codependency, which you see a lot in the founder syndrome type situation. Again, this is a beautiful way to show that it can be done in a very proactive and constructive way that will benefit the organization as a whole.
Kevin, the thing that I’m having a visceral reaction to the dismantling myself because you are right, it’s an uncomfortable word. For me, it goes hand in hand with a building. I look at that year with like, “In the dismantling of co-dependence of this need to rescue, there shouldn’t be any beat skipped or whatever is how do we build for it? How do you build for the potential?” When I think about the diminishing returns in the case that I had and those of your audience.
For those of you who have been at maybe your organization for-profit or nonprofit for a long time, what could be if you were to have left? Not to say that everyone should leave and not to make anyone feel guilty for their tenure. That’s a beautiful thing if it’s working. If you are living in the same house, people acquire so much more stuff than those that are nomadic and know every 1 to 2 years because they know the pain of packing and they know that we don’t need it at all. When you sit in the same space, you begin to become a little bit dormant to the things that you could be building for.
The diminishing return is about, not necessarily what’s being taken from now but how slow is your potential for tomorrow? There’s a little bit of the pace at which you can. In my case, the organization was fine. We were “healthy enough” for the present moment. What we were not going to be able to do was have a hockey stick approach to scale because everything would have fallen apart.
Everything was being held by relationships, rescuing and codependency. Not everything but a lot. What is this dismantling but for the spirit and purpose of building for our young people that deserve it for the mission? It was a beautiful way to exit. I’m still learning how to do some of that in other companies in the sector.
This is great. I appreciate all your wisdom, your real-life scenario, and what you have done to grow. What words of wisdom would you leave our audience with?
I would ask your audience to get to know themselves. What I mean by that is to ask the mantra, “What now in your life professionally and personally are you saying no to for a bigger yes,” and evaluate that. Are you saying no to promotion because of comfort and safety? Are you saying no to looking out at a different job because of fear of the unknown? Is that the right bigger yes? Ask yourself, where are you saying no, where are you saying yes, and what’s the balance for you in those? That will be one.
The other thing I would say is and I would say this for everybody, part of what helped keep my ego in check in any given one place is to create multiple identities, to have a multipreneurial identity where there could be different validation and esteem for different things. Ask yourself, if you are somebody, whether you are tenured or not, do you have the other things that you are passionate about and that you are getting esteem, excitement and joy from?
Maybe it’s teaching a night class at a college or leaning into an activist role or a community council role in your neighborhood or your community. What is it that you are doing separate and apart from your work so that even if you love your work, it doesn’t meld into your identity? Your identity has to be separated from what you do if you are going to stay healthy. That would be my advice.
How can people reach you and what are some things you are working on now that we would love to hear about?
The best way to reach me, I have a website, AilaMalik.com. It has all the social media handles. I’m on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn. It’s always @AilaMalik or @AilaMalikAuthor. Things I’m working on now? I’m passionate about this gap that we see in our sector. It happens to align with people of color. A lot of BIPOC people are, I feel, a little bit in a glass ceiling at senior level management and don’t have the exposure, the skill set or even the formalized way of training to be thinking of themselves as full executives.
I launched a Venture Leader Academy course for number 2’s and 3’s and organizations to become executives to step into their executive readiness. We do hard skills and soft skills. It’s a twelve-week Bootcamp and it went well. We are launching another one in October 2021. If you are interested in that or if anyone that you know is, please send them along to VentureLeader.org. It’s a great way to step into a different vantage point and learn how to maybe grapple with some of these conflict questions around what’s your greatest intention and voice in the movement of equity and justice.
Thank you. This has been wonderful. I appreciate being able to cross paths with you. It’s amazing.
Likewise. I have been a fan of you since our first Zoom call, so I will be a fan of any initiative, podcast, book or anything you launch, Kevin. I’m there.
Whenever we do episode number two, you will be here. I love that. Thank you.
Thank you, Kevin. Appreciate it.
Thank you for reading.
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About Aila Malik
A lawyer by schooling and nonprofit executive by trade, Aila Malik has been a change agent in her community and the nonprofit sector, at large, for over two decades. In 2015, Aila founded a unique management consulting firm, Venture Leadership Consulting, partnering with not-for-profit organizations to drive performance and scale solutions that close systemic gaps of inequity. She has received recognition for her leadership, activism, and tireless service.
In 2018, Aila and her family (husband and three children) realized a decade-long dream to travel the globe together for 54 weeks. With an emphasis on building empathy and a global community through humanitarian and environmental learning, the family of five (Franklin Street Globetrotters) visited 41 countries and partnered with over 25 NGOs/initiatives to preserve cultural and natural wisdom.
Living with intention as a compassionate advocate of community kindness, planet protection, and family togetherness, Aila is deeply committed to contributing to a world in which disparity does not limit people’s access to opportunity.