Every now and then I stumble upon a “are leaders born or made” article, and I suppose there are arguments to be made for either side of that discussion. However, I do believe the following two statements are true:
- “Born” leaders are also ambitious by nature
- You can’t be “made” into a leader unless you have the ambition to do so
If you believe those two statements, then you have to conclude that ambition is a critical leadership ingredient, regardless of the path you may have followed to a leadership role or position.
So what is ambition? A search on the term “ambition” will uncover a variety of answers to that question, but it can be generally be defined as “an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, and the willingness to strive for its attainment.” It’s the second half of that definition that makes the difference, because otherwise it’s just goal setting, daydreaming, or wishful thinking. All leaders, born or made, must have the willingness to strive to attain an achievement, accomplish a goal, or turn a vision into a reality.
Let’s be clear – “leadership” and “ambition” are not interchangeable terms. While I do believe all great leaders are ambitious, you have to agree that all ambitious people are not leaders. Leadership guru Simon Sinek authored a blog posting a few years ago on this topic. The article specifically called out politicians who are clearly ambitious, but perhaps lacking the leadership skills needed for a President, Governor, or other elected officials. He goes on to say the same holds true for many CEOs and Presidents of large public companies. While they may be personally ambitious, their inability to lead a company, especially in tough economic times, can be devastating to their organization.
Another distinction Sinek draws out is the difference between those who are ambitious without leadership skills will focus on themselves and their personal goals, as opposed to true leaders, who will leverage their drive and ambition to help a group or organization attain a common goal.
Sometimes ambition can camouflage false leadership, as the person will have the appearance of wanting to “do good”, or help others, but in fact all of their actions are driven by personal greed, self-promotion, and a disregard for the collateral damage their actions cause in the pursuit of their own goals.
Can you imagine, by comparison, an unambitious leader? I think the term is a classic oxymoron – in my opinion, you simply can’t be a leader if you are not ambitious. Leadership requires drive, passion, and ownership, all of which are by-products of ambition.
Ambition can be such a powerful tool for a leader. Sometimes unplanned opportunities present themselves, and a true leader will seize the moment and take advantage of that opportunity. Plenty of strong business leaders can point to ambition and unplanned opportunity to thank for their company’s success. Military leaders seize opportunities, and their ambition and drive to do so can change the outcome of a battle, or even the war itself. While outnumbered and poorly skilled compared to their British counterparts, the American military leadership had far more drive, passion, and ambition to be victorious in battle, which proved to be a tremendous advantage in eventually winning the Revolutionary War.
Ambition is the fuel for change, and strong leaders help focus it to achieve great things. Without ambition, Henry Ford does not become an auto industry leader and fulfill the vision of making cars affordable to the average American family. Without ambition, the Apollo program, under NASA’s leadership, does not land a man on the moon. We didn’t have to do those things, we choose to do those things – grand visions requiring tremendous drive and passion, and strong leadership to achieve them.
America has historically embraced ambition. From the earliest colonists, through the Industrial Revolution, and into the post-World War II baby boom, ambitious Americans have seized opportunity and led us to being an incredibly prosperous country. But has that ambition plateaued? Has the pendulum swung from the ambitious “go get it” culture of our parents, grandparents, and forefathers, to the entitled “give it to me” mindset of some of today’s youth? If you agree with my original premise that leaders must have ambitious qualities, and are also concerned that the historically ambitious culture of the US is diminishing, does that mean leadership within our society and culture are also at risk? I’m sure there will always be a subset of those with drive, passion and ambition – I just hope the right ones step up to be the leaders of tomorrow.