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Ambition and getting in the way of yourself

Having a bit of ambition is a good thing, isn’t it? So why is ambition one of those words that some of us don’t like? For some, ambition means ‘at the expense of others’. For others, it means clawing your way to the top (also at the expense of others). Both of these definitions have negatives built in that aren’t a true meaning of the word ambition, a word defined in the dictionary as ‘ a strong desire to do or achieve something/success’ The ‘at the expense of others’ is an ethical/moral choice that has nothing to do with having ambition or not.

At Altris, we work with leaders and I’ve got to say that I like to see some ambition in a leader. Imagine leadership with no ambition? Imagine a world where the ‘tall poppy cutters’ have their way and everyone is neutral with regards to ambition, patiently accepting our lot or waiting for our just reward to come? That sounds like a world without change and lives without personal growth, so yes I like to see a bit of ambition in a leader.

When we work with coachees we find that their unconscious bias towards ambition can be a double edged sword. People who are strongly guided by their desire to keep moving forward can have very strong expectations of themselves. Again, a leader that has no expectations of themselves? Someone who doesn’t hold themselves accountable or responsible? Yup, that’s not a leader. But people with ‘very strong’ expectations of themselves can only notice what they didn’t achieve, and are overly hard on themselves when they don’t meet those ‘high bar’ expectations. There is little long term motivation from only seeing your failures.

Ramp that up a tad and you get a compulsion that can mean that these people may look after their physical and mental well being, ignoring their own emotional needs as they drive to be who they ‘should be’ often through long hours, working weekends and opening their laptop to work late at night. It’s no surprise that at some point they come down to earth with a bang, feeling like they have lost a bit of themselves and have become a corporate player/super mum because in not paying attention to themselves they have lost the sense of who they are.

On the other hand people who are unconsciously inattentive to where they are heading can find themselves hesitant about the long term (5 year plan? I’m not sure I will be here) and often have a feeling of dissatisfaction with their current reality without really knowing why.

So a bit of ambition is a good thing because knowing where you are heading can keep you going through tough times, guide you when you need to change tack and keep you motivated. But if you’ve got more than ‘a bit’ or less than ‘a bit’ of ambition it’s useful to know what the consequences can be and how to manage the negatives to keep the positives.


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