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Leadership: Ambition–Vice or Virtue?

A pair of new books on Senator Hillary Clinton, as described by the Washington Post, draw a portrait of a woman who is smart, shrewd and very “methodical.” Both books, one by Carl Bernstein (Her Way) and the other by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, Jr. (A Woman in Charge), describe a woman bent on achieving her aims and very ambitious. In other words, she’s a politician. But consider what would a politician be without ambition? Someone standing on the sidelines watching others do the work!

A pair of new books on Senator Hillary Clinton, as described by the Washington Post, draw a portrait of a woman who is smart, shrewd and very “methodical.” Both books, one by Carl Bernstein (Her Way) and the other by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, Jr. (A Woman in Charge), describe a woman bent on achieving her aims and very ambitious. In other words, she’s a politician. But consider what would a politician be without ambition? Someone standing on the sidelines watching others do the work!

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Ambition is after all the inner drive that pushes someone to achieve. It is absolutely essential to leadership. Yet so often, as in the case of Mrs. Clinton and most other politicians, ambition is perceived as a negative. Why? Because it is how the politician channels that ambition as in putting the means to end ahead of the end. For example, Huey Long, the crusading governor of Louisiana in the Thirties, wanted to raise the standard of living in his poor state. He did improve the state’s infrastructure (roads, schools, hospitals) through public works, but he achieved his aims through ruthless means and corruption top to bottom.

The same might go for corporate executives like the Rigas family that took Adelphia from obscurity to a multi-billion status; they made plenty of money for shareholders, but also robbed those shareholders blindly by, treating the company, as one prosecutor put it, “a personal piggy bank.” Clearly ambition was misplaced for personal gain.

Ambition, however, can be force for the good. Here are some ways:

Use ambition to capitalize on opportunity. Sometimes opportunity is staring us in the face but we may not recognize it. Ambitious people look at the status quo and see ways to do things differently. It may be to develop a new product, a new process, or a new service. Looking to do things differently can be a force for the good. Entrepreneurs are folks who channel their ambition into looking for new opportunities.

Use ambition as a tool for change. Ambition may be the driver that challenges assumptions. Part of a leader’s responsibility is to identify the need for positive change and to usher in that change. It may provoke us to say why are we doing things this way? Asking the questions may stimulate debate and ultimately action that will cause new ideas.

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Use ambition as tool for personal growth. Ambition is wanting to move to the next step. Fulfilling that dream may require more schooling, more training, and more experience. Ambition can be the spark that pushes you to achieve your dream, often when hard work is involved.

Ambition by itself is neither positive nor negative. What you do with the drive, like all human drives, is what matters. As 18th century political theorist, Edmund Burke posited, “Ambition can creep as well as soar.” If ambition causes you to cut corners ethics-wise so much so that you sacrifice integrity and values then ambition can be destructive. Conversely, if you channel your ambition into fulfilling organizational goals that build a stronger and better company and do it in ways that help employees and customers then ambition is a positive.

Source
Peter Baker and John Solomon “Books Paint Critical Portraits” of Clinton Washington Post 5.25.07

John Baldoni • Leadership Author/Speaker • Baldoni Consulting, LLC • john@johnbaldoni.com www.johnbaldoni.com