Ambition of Great Leaders

"They didn't define themselves by money, fame or power. They defined themselves by impact and contribution and purpose." Jim Collins & Morten T. Hansen, Great by Choice.

Is ambition bad? Wikipedia defines ambition as simply, "the desire for personal achievement." Like many attitudes and behaviors of great leaders, ambition can go either way.  There can be a good side and a bad side.

The Bad

Ambition gets some pretty bad press. Check out this demotivator.

Ambition isn't the problem. The object of our ambition is. Ambition that's focused on a small group or a small objective, is a small ambition regardless of those that hold it. When I think of ambition, I contrast the greed that drove Bernie Madoff, or Bernie Ebbers or Kenneth Lay to an ambition of a different kind. I was involved at a competing company during the telecom boom. I saw several people ambitious for gain. It was the first time I ever worked at a company who's objective was to be sold. Everyone seemed to be building a company to sell it, rather than trying to create something that provided lasting value.

The Good

Great leaders, those that Collins & Hansen call 10Xers, have 4 characteristics. They balance three core behaviors and a single motivating force. These are the leaders who built companies that, at least for the study periods, outperformed their industry by at least 10 times. In future posts, I'll review the book further and talk about the 3 core behaviors, fanatical discipline, empirical creativity and productive paranoia.

But underlying the 3 core behaviors, there is one motivating force. Collins and Hansen call it Level 5 Ambition. "It's a passion or ambition for a cause or company that's larger than themselves... They have egos, yes, but their egos are channeled into their companies and their purposes, not personal aggrandizement."

Level 5 Ambition

Level 5 Ambition knows that impact and contribution are always measured by others. People rate a leader's impact by how it benefits them. People value the contribution of others. Value is always set by the beholder. When our values are short-sighted, we end up pursuing gain to our detriment as I did in the telecom boom. My values were short-term. What made the most money in the short run. What created the greatest stock market value.

The long run shows that the greatest market value goes to the companies that create the greatest value, period. 10X leaders apply Level 5 Ambition to strive for the greatest goal, the highest purpose. They work to create a company (or serve an idea) that brings value to many for years to come.

How's your ambition? Is it focused on a small group or a short-term goal? Chase the biggest, best dream you can imagine. Our world needs people who will dream great dreams and pursue those great dreams with equally great passion.

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