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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Leadership Development in Nonprofits: Identifying Toxic Signs of Ego in Your Development Space

Nonprofit organizations have added pressure in the area of Leadership Development due to smaller staff sizes, with smaller salaries. This means people are expected to do more for less. Volunteer bases, while passionate, also sport high turnover. Volunteer managers are constantly training, on top of everything else they do. Between being understaffed, stretching resources and constantly training new people, little energy is left over to put into leadership development. 

Even in the age of technology and virtual meetings, the most impactful moments of development happen in regular face-to-face meetings on a daily basis. Your conference room (or coffee shop table) is sacred space. Use the moments in and around meetings to foster the kind of leadership that will support your organization.

Here are a few toxic signs of ego to watch out for that will invade your sacred meeting space and derail leadership development:


To steamroll a conversation is to take the focus off a subject and turn it into being all about one person. If you witness a person is consistently taking over a conversation to talk about themselves, you can veer the focus back by kindly acknowledging what they were saying using reflective language, and then saying, “but this meeting is about X and we need to hear from Mr. Y.” It may not work the first time, but you’ve taken the first step to establishing a precedence for your meeting space.

Being a bottleneck. 

A bottleneck is an area of a bottle that narrows, only allowing a small flow out the spout. A person who is a bottleneck typically ties up the project flow by not delegating or insisting on approving everything before releasing it. This person may get good clean results, however, to their team they feel like control hogs. As nonprofit leaders, if we are bottlenecking a process without good cause, we have misunderstood our role. 

“Not being a bottleneck requires having a great deal of trust,” says Matt Solberg, owner of Phoenix Comicon, “My first few years I micromanaged, which was a reflection of my trust level. My people are trustworthy and when they say they are going to do something, they do it. Consistently (M. Solberg, personal interview, October 11, 2017).” 

If you are training your leaders, or if you are training your board, you may want to remind them to focus on the goal, then draw the pipeline to visualize where any bottlenecks may occur. Then simply ask, “how can we get this done more effectively?” 


Possibly the number one killer of both projects and morale is passive-aggressive behavior. This behavior can be identified by a person who says “yes”, but then undermines that statement with tongue-in-cheek comments or actions that can be described as sabotage. The culprit? This person may ignored or passed over, so while they verbally committed to seeing a task through, they want everyone to know how dumb they think it is.


This emotional response may or may not be based in logic. One way to deal with this type of behavior is to call out that whether or not the team wanted to do the project, they have all agreed to do it and are now expected to own it. If the team succeeds, they get the credit. If they fail, you take responsibility. (Remember, that’s your job as a leader!) Therefore, there is little risk to them either way. What happens between now and the completion of the project needs to ultimately build a team that trusts each other, and passive-aggressive statements and actions do the opposite. Every time you witness this behavior, repeat the phrase, “This is our project, we need to own it.” 

The temptation will always be there to get projects done quickly. If we, as nonprofit leaders, put the intention on creating space to develop more nonprofit leaders, we are fostering leadership development in the most mundane of organizational places: the meeting table.


Anderson, A. (2017). Passive-Aggressive Behavior Will Destroy a Company's Culture. Forbes. Retrieved from

Jenkins, R. (2017). Leadership vs. Control. The Chronicle Of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Mooney, M. (2017). Simon Sinek: The Secret to Leadership and Millennials Is Simply Purpose. Retrieved from

Sims, R. and Quatro, S. (2015). Leadership. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, p.107.

Solberg, M. (2017). Interview with Matt Solberg.

Trani, R. (2016). 6 Common Leadership Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them. Government Executive. Retrieved from

Disa McAlister, MNLM, is the founder of the Museum of Science and Sustainability, a portable museum serving the Greater Phoenix area. She was the license holder and head curator for TEDxMesa, has worked with gifted youth, youth in crisis and children with special needs. She served on the Executive Committee of Greater Phoenix Mensa for several years, and was Assistant Regional Vice Chair serving Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Hawaii, Southern Nevada, and parts of California. Disa believes grassroots organizations can save the world.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog