“You can’t beat the smell of fresh ambition in the morning” (ANON)

Some levels of ambition are needed for achievement – the desire or will to succeed at something or to realise a set goal. Channelled correctly, ambition can bring great results. Ambition often gets a bad reputation, however, where the very characteristic that encourages someone achieving success turns into a game where winning isn’t about achieving, but rather in beating someone else. Here, the energy is going into the wrong pursuits.

While many of man’s greatest achievements are the products, or accidents, of man’s ambition, it is important that ambition is healthy. As Neel Burton, psychiatrist and author of “Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions”, notes: “People with a high degree of healthy ambition are those with the insight and strength to control the blind forces of ambition, shaping it so that it matches their interests and ideals. They harness it so that it fires them without also burning them and those around them”.

Cultivating a healthy level of ambition is tough and, amidst so much uncertainty, it may seem like a low priority. A well-balanced ambition, however, leads to creativity and innovation, greater levels of performance and deeper levels of joy and satisfaction at work, whatever “work” may be. Ron Carucci, Harvard Business Review: “How ambitious should you be?”, after a lifelong career of coaching executives, developed a helpful model to help people understand how to cultivate and convey ambition in a productive and well-balanced way:

Cultivating Healthy Ambition

You need to balance three dimensions: performance, growth, and achievement.
Element of ambition Questions to focus on Risks of too much focus… Risks of too little focus…
Realizing greater results for myself and my organization
  • What goals can I realistically attain through my own efforts?
Too many, or too high goals sets up failure; you appear grandiose and unrealistic You appear cautious and risk averse; you condone mediocrity and playing it safe
  • What goals can I guide my team/ organization to realistically attain?
People sandbag results out of fear; they stop trusting you as they avoid failure; your discontent becomes overly harsh Team gets bored and complacent; performance falls and confidence wanes; lost sense of purpose
GROWTH AMBITION: Reaching new levels of technical and personal mastery
  • What skill or knowledge will I need to improve or acquire?
Wasted effort; self-indulgence; learning without application Insufficient skill or knowledge leads to performance failure; seen as arrogant or lazy
  • What self-management capability will I need to improve or acquire?
Insecurities or imposter syndrome becomes paralyzing; seen as neurotic or self-important Derailment of key relationships; seen as obtuse; others withdraw trust
ACHIEVEMENT AMBITION: Attaining desired rewards for myself and others answers the question
  • What rewards do I hope to gain as a result of my efforts?
You are seen as greedy and self-interested; people resent you; your “cause” obscures other’s aspirations You become a martyr; you lose motivation to push yourself; you feel a sense of futility
  • What rewards do those I lead hope to gain as a result of our efforts?
Excessive individualism and entitlement become the norm; people compete with one another Team puts in minimum effort; people perceive inequity and lose incentive to try harder
Source: Ron Carucci © HBR.org

Measuring your own levels of ambition against Carucci’s framework assists with making mid-course corrections, both in attitude and in actions.

Ambition should never be harmful, not for others and neither for you. Ambition is indeed the seat of motivation to move you towards success – but it is not a manipulative power so that you can succeed at all costs. Robin S Sharma notes: “Be a warrior when it comes to delivering on your ambitions. Be a saint when it comes to treating people with respect, modelling generosity and showing up with outright love”.

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