Activating Ambition

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

Ambition2Concept description

Merriam-Webster provides two definitions for ambition: 1) an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power; and 2) desire to achieve a particular end. Managing oneself in a leadership role requires dealing with both.

The tensions between the two definitions are reflected in famous quotations. Shakespeare’s Brutus tells an approving crowd: “As he was valiant, I honour him. But as he was ambitious, I slew him.” But Salvador Dali asserted that “Intelligence without ambition is like a bird without wings.” The first century Roman rhetorician captured the two sides with: “Though ambition itself is a vice, yet it is often the parent of virtues.”

More recently, Susan Davis, writing in AllBusiness (at, accessed 21 February 2016) says that ambition is one of the qualities of true leaders. She says: “while ambition has an ugly side, it also creates the inner fuel that helps drive people toward their vision.”

  • People with ambition don’t just sit around and say, “gosh it would be nice to influence events in my town.” They get up and run for City Council.
  • People with ambition don’t simply wish they could own their own businesses – they go ahead and develop the business.
  • And people with ambition don’t dream of writing books, or having their photographs hang in galleries, or developing non-profit organizations to help sick children in third world countries – they write the books, and contact the galleries, and set up the organizations.

She concludes that, although it’s OK not to be driven to reach the top of their fields or change the world, “to be a leader, a good dose of true ambition – especially the do-gooder kind of ambition – really helps.”

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Nathanial Foote and his colleagues (reference below) describe how a bigger ambition than just strong economic returns – one that includes benefits for the broader community and building social capital with the organization – actually helps organizations survive difficult economic times.

Although activating ambition in leaders is usually good for the enterprise, it is worth noting how this is likely to affect the other elements of managing oneself. Ambitious initiatives are likely to increase the need for Managing Stress and Developing Resilience, and will make Finding Balance more difficult.

There is a growing literature on gender differences in career ambition. For example Sylvia Hewlett and Melinda Marshall (reference below) report that:

“… women start out wanting the brass ring almost as badly as men do: 47% of women 30 and younger describe themselves as “very ambitious,” as compared to 62% of men. But this fire burns out, typically during the child-bearing years when pursuing promotions at work clashes headlong with fulfilling dreams on the home front. Only 32% of highly qualified women over 40 describe themselves as very ambitious (compared to 46% of men).”

In their 2015 article in Harvard Business Review, Orit Gadiesh and Julie Coffman describe a study in which more than 1,000 men and women were asked whether they aspire to top management and whether they have the confidence they can reach top management.

“Women with two years or less of work experience slightly led men in ambition. But for women who had more than two years on the job, aspiration and confidence plummeted 60% and nearly 50%, respectively. These declines came independent of marriage and motherhood status, and compared with much smaller changes for men, who experienced only a 10% dip in confidence.

“When we asked more senior managers the same questions, the percentage rose for both genders, but women never regained the level of aspiration that newcomers had. It remained 60% lower than men, whose rates shot up. Most jarringly, the percentage of male more-senior managers who have confidence that they will reach top jobs is almost twice the percentage of female managers.”

These issues were famously addressed by Sheryl Sandberg in her TED Talk and book entitled Lean In, and LeanIn.Org ( describes its role as:

“The book Lean In is focused on encouraging women to pursue their ambitions, and changing the conversation from what we can’t do to what we can do. LeanIn.Org is the next chapter. We are committed to offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals. If we talk openly about the challenges women face and work together, we can change the trajectory of women and create a better world for everyone.


Nathaniel Foote, Russell Eisenstat, and Tobias Fredberg (2011), The Higher-Ambition Leader, Harvard Business Review, September, 2011, at, accessed 21 February 2016.

Sylvia Hewlett and Melinda Marshall (2011), Does Female Ambition Require Sacrifice? at, accessed 21 February 2016.

Orit Gadiesh and Julie Coffman (2015), Companies Drain Women’s Ambition After Only 2 Years, Harvard Business Review, 18 May 2015, at, accessed 21 February 2016.

Sheryl Sandberg (2010), Why we have to few women leaders, TED Talk (with almost 6 million views), at, accessed 21 February 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Managing Oneself (core topic) in Leadership Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 25 February 2016.

Image: SlideShare, at, accessed 21 February 2016.