What is the problem with ambition? Well nothing really. I love being ambitious; in fact it’s one of the words I write down to remind myself of my goals and strengths. But lately, there’s been a nagging feeling that maybe ambition, in and of itself, is not a good thing.

We know the story of Macbeth and the tragedy of his leadership – ambition, left unchecked, corrupts. It’s definitely a buzzword we see all the time in business and corporate magazines, as well as in leadership discourse. Ambition, the relentless pursuit of “something”, is praised and espoused as the golden ticket to success.

However, I’m going to argue that ambitious people need to know why they are doing what they are doing before they set out to be the best at it – or the fastest, or the youngest. You’ve probably stumbled across a book written by a leader or business “guru” elucidating the tenets of being a passionate and ambitious individual to realize your dreams by aiming to be the best and aiming to get the most.

Yet the problem with this is that our measurement of success is in part defined by our relationship with others and how they will perceive our achievements. By aiming to be the best, you are invariably comparing yourself to others. Your success is necessarily defined by the success of your peers and the order in which you fall. Did you place first, second, or third?

Furthermore, there are qualities more valuable than pure ambition, and when combined together, they have an explosive potential. I’m starting to value honesty much more in the professional world (not that I haven’t before or that I don’t value it elsewhere.) I think it would be amazing if people were more honest and open not only about their goals and ambitions but also about their limitations and uncertainties. And I think this especially applies to “leaders”. We’re presented with the image of a leader as someone that is steadfast in their endeavors and knows how to unflinchingly make a decision and act on it.

That’s great, but I think there needs to be more focus on why you want what you want. Why are you volunteering so many hours? Why are you working on so many projects? Why do you want to achieve this or that goal? Is it because you want to check something else off on your list, or does it stem from an internal desire? And most importantly, how are you measuring your success?

I’ve learned that the only true way to know yourself, limitations and strengths, is to compare your present self to who you were in the past, whether that be yesterday or last year.  Yes, you need a vision if you want to make a change and that starts by being ambitious. But you also need insight into your weaknesses and the driving force behind your ambition. Do it all, but be honest with yourself and people around you about why you want to reach a certain point.  There are more important things than padding your resume or winning awards and seeking external validation – something I like to call self-growth and wisdom.

Ambition is not the key to leadership. In fact there really is no key because that means you have to unlock a chest or some magical box, and voilà, you’ve attained leadership! Rather, I think leadership is something you grow into; something that you work toward achieving.

Instead of just ambition, you need a good mix of personality traits and characteristics. And that’s where I think honesty comes in, and an understanding of your weaknesses, along with real insight. Who are you? What are you doing, why are you doing it, and where do you want to go?

And then there’s focus. I think that sometimes, ambitious people focus on the wrong thing – they focus on success. But focusing on success won’t make you successful, just like reading about making money won’t make you money. All that ambition asks is what do I want and when can I get it? It does not necessarily ask how do I achieve it, and it rarely asks, on its own, why? Working on a hundred things at once means you’re more likely to be mediocre at all of them instead of excelling at a few of them. Focus on what really matters and be honest with yourself about what you can and should do.


Navneet is a political science major currently enjoying Edmonton’s fantastic summer. You can follow her on twitter @navneetkhinda.

CC photograph courtesy of Celine Walker on Flickr.