Ambition Matters

Ambition is important for exceptional leadership, but probably in ways that you’ll find surprising. Studies show that early career ambition is a plus. “He’s a real go-getter” and “She’s determined and motivated,” are usually positive statements found on the early-career performance evaluations of rising stars.

But, to paraphrase an old line, “a funny thing happens on the way to the executive’s office.” Namely, as the employee reaches higher positions within the organization, personal ambition must be transformed into something else. If not, the employee will have problems which could easily derail his or her career.  So what does personal ambition need to become? Simply put, it needs to become organizational ambition.

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins found that “great” companies had Level V leaders or those leaders who possessed incredible levels of ambition. However these Level V leaders channeled the ambition away from self and toward the institution. They were ambitious for their organizations to do great things – not for themselves to be recognized.

In my own research on college presidents, the findings over time are clear: as leaders ascend to the highest positions, if personal ambition does not give way to organizational ambition they will have significant problems.

Among other tasks, leadership entails inspiring, engaging, embracing, and mentoring others and designing cultures of performance and success.  Team members do not respond positively to the personally ambitious person. “Yeah, she’s the boss, but she’s just in it for herself,” is a common refrain.

However, those same employees will move mountains for an organizationally ambitious leader.  That leader behaves everyday with distinct humbleness and resolve to see the organization become the best it can be.  These are the leaders that create “great” organizations.

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