What True Ambition Really Looks Like

At the heart of any quest is a real ambition, and achieving your goal is as much about inspiring others as it is about tenaciously pursuing it. Here’s the formula for true ambition.

What True Ambition Really Looks Like
[Image: Flickr user Jason Hickey]

Leadership starts with a special kind of quest: a real ambition. Numbers, facts, or figures do not motivate people. Rather, people are enchanted when they have the chance to create something extraordinary and when they can see clearly the opportunities they have to participate. Real ambition is the engine of any endeavor, it’s the creation of something good that didn’t exist before. Establish it, enlist for it, and fight for it and you’ll achieve whatever you seek for yourself and for the people who will make it happen.


A real ambition is a picture of an exciting future that will mobilize the people who follow you. As you codify this desire for your future, remember that real ambition is not a hope for, it is rather a will be. It has these characteristics:

Noble Intentions

The real ambition must serve an overarching goodness. It must be of benefit to all constituencies, both inside and outside the organization. The real ambition appeals to the core in all of us that wishes to be part of creating something special.

A Statement of Clear Intent

Real ambition is not a destination or a “hoped for” goal. It is a statement of unequivocal intention and certainty of purpose that cascades to all corners of the organization.

A Seemingly Impossible Goal

Real ambition is not about increments or percentage points. It’s about a great leap to a completely new state of being and, most importantly, a positive air of certainty that it can be done. People are moved when they know they are creating something special and that the real ambition is not a far-off dream but an ironclad certainty.

We Will

The simplest way to think about a statement of real ambition is with these two powerful words: “We will.” With the mental picture you create, beginning with these two words, you’ll change history, for yourself and your organization.

A real ambition is based on igniting a human desire. You may be setting out to save the whales, but there’s no prize if none are saved. The notion of real ambition has two important parts: real and ambition.


Ambition is based on drive, focus, and a will to attain something. It has elements of competitiveness, a streak of blinding will, and a vocabulary that has one word: win. But, a real ambition is so much more. It is creating something amazing that didn’t exist before.

I celebrate the long-awaited and wise recognition of the vital importance of emotional intelligence in business. This recognition represents a tectonic shift toward people not as assets but as catalysts. In this new era, achievement comes not through a chain of command but via an ignited community, which is why I use the word real.

Real modifies ambition, giving it a noble purpose. Real ambitions are the things that fire people up to get out of bed in the morning and wait with anticipation for that six o’clock conversation. Believe me, it’s not percentage points or bar charts. Everyone wants to be part of creating something special, and real ambition helps you achieve that quest.

The Mental Movie

Putting words to the real ambition is essential but can be daunting because its articulation seems crazy and overly audacious. Real ambitions I was involved with, including “We will make the city safe” and “We will redefine marketing communications,” sounded preposterous; these statements seem so bold as to be embarrassing on one hand and potentially overconfident on the other. Worry not, this kind of audacity and language are absolutely essential.


Real ambition is not about practicality. In fact, it must be entirely devoid of practicality. What would’ve happened to these famous endeavors if the planners had calibrated?


We will put a man on the moon in this decade.

We will make an airplane that flies from New York to London in three hours.

We will create a drug therapy that stops HIV from killing people.

Be bold. Be confident. Let nothing stand in your way. Identifying and sharing a real ambition is the first and vital step.

–This article is an excerpt from the book The Case of the Missing Cutlery (Bibliomotion) by Kevin Allen, reprinted with permission. Allen is founder and chairman of employee engagement company Planet Jockey, which specializes in gamified learning and collaborative mentorship platforms, and re:kap, a business transformation company that counts Burberry, Smythson, Swedbank, and Verizon among its global clients.