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Ambika Pai

The End of Performative Leadership

Ambika Pai is the Chief Strategy Officer at Mekanism 

Ambika’s Top Values




 How I know Ambika


Ambika and I met in our very first job out of college at an advertising agency in Chicago.  As ambitious 23 year-old children of immigrants and women of color, Ambika and I used to have long existential conversations about the unanswered questions of culture, life, and career planning.  There was so much we knew we didn’t know and were hungry to learn.  

Fast forward to today, we still have those conversations but the topics have evolved to leadership, motherhood, and giving back to our communities.  I always walk away with my heart and mind full.   As the CSO at Mekanism, Ambika forged her path to the top as an original thinker and truth-teller.   I’m beyond thrilled to share her story and perspectives with you all today as one of her biggest fans.

Our Conversation 

Q: As a strategy leader working in Communications, what is your perception of the state of the world today? 

We are experiencing unprecedented levels of individual and collective grief right now. Whether it’s children grieving the loss of a school routine and connecting with their friends daily, or an adult grieving the loss of a family member, the loss of their solitude and freedom. We have this tendency to make grief comparative, but when it comes down to it grief is grief. As David Kessler says, “every grief is your own,” and whatever it is each of us is going through, we feel it with our own sense of enormity. 

It’s important to acknowledge what every person walks into a (zoom) room carrying – anxiety and depression are at an all-time high for most of society right now.  

Q: So given that context… What’s the role of the leader today and how might it look different than the past? 

So I’ve been deep in Leadership TikTok lately and it’s been eye-opening. There are a lot of hacks and repurposing of old leadership principles that were created 10-15 years ago by middle-aged white men, and it’s often the same (again, relatively homogenous) 4-5 content creators driving the majority of content. But that isn’t the makeup of leaders today. And it certainly won’t be, and shouldn’t be, moving forward. 

I think the one thing we need to acknowledge is that leadership can no longer be performative and one-dimensional. We can’t all behave as if we’re the same sort of leader we’ve grown up under just because that’s the only example we’ve ever seen. 

Leadership is a deeply vulnerable experience that requires a balance of humility, authenticity, and confidence. In order to be an impactful leader, you need to be able to make important decisions at the drop of a hat. If you’re constantly asking yourself what everyone else would do, you’re exerting unnecessary cognitive energy. You’ve gotten to where you are because of your instincts, style, and smarts. Use your energy to hone that – not to bring yourself closer to leaders who’ve come before you.

 Q: Tell me more about instinctual leadership.  For instance, what are the stepping stones to unfolding this? 

We commonly talk about the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as the order of things.  But I recently saw an alternative framing that resonated more deeply for me and addresses what you’re asking. 

In 1938 Maslow visited the Blackfoot (Siksika) Nation and interpreted their hierarchical model to develop his now-famous framework.  But the Siksika version wasn’t a pyramid; it was a tipi reaching towards the sky.  And self-actualization was actually at the base of the tipi, not at the top. 

I fundamentally believe that understanding ourselves is the basis for everything.  The belief that until we belong, we cannot unlock self-respect is a dangerous way of living.  Belonging cannot be the gatekeeper to self-esteem – in fact, it’s the opposite.  I also believe that self-mastery precedes community and cultural impact and outward expansion.  It has to. Without it we get into tyrannical leadership and exploitation of power.

So instinctive leadership is about developing that trust and respect in yourself first and building from there.  

Q: If you map this against stages of your career journey, what advice would you give to your 20-something year old self? 

I would tell her to figure out what aspects of who she is naturally aligns with the communities she’s part of – as opposed to trying to mold herself to fit in.  If we understand the connective tissue with people we want to belong with, we are able to stay rooted in who we are rather than performing.   

This is especially true for people who feel like outsiders.  I was one of the only people of color in my school growing up, my name was mispronounced constantly, and I just wanted to fit in.  There were so many times that I dramatically betrayed myself for external validation.  Now I wish I had chosen to see more of what connects us versus what makes us different from each other.  We are all part of humanity and occupy similar worldviews when we dig deep enough. 

Q: If you think about where you are today, what role does work have in your life now?

I see my work as a platform in service of me, not the other way around.  What I mean is that I bring my whole self to work – who I am, my deep values, my perspectives – and work on things that align with who I am.  For example, putting lactating breasts of real moms on television for the first time ever with Frida Mom as I was going through being a new mom…   anti-rape… vaccine hesitancy… Joe Biden’s visual identity… I always look to work with companies that have aligned values with me rather than just being in service of the company.   

I’ve learned along the way that it’s dangerous to pour my entire self into one outside entity.  I’ve had to rediscover my relationship with work multiple times.  As a new mom, I’m discovering this all over again.  Being a working mom is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  There were moments when I gave my everything to work, but there hasn’t been any moment when I feel like I’ve been able to give my everything to my daughter.  And I feel guilty about that.  Truthfully, I’m still processing it all. 

Frida Mom campaign by Mekanism

 Thank you for sharing your wisdom with me and my audience, Ambika! 

Do you know any inspiring and values-driven leaders whom the world should know about? Shoot me an email if you’d like to nominate and introduce that person. You can reach me at themillennialexec@gmail.com  

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