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Keith McCambridge

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The addiction to ambition

It takes a great deal of gusto and drive to make it to the top. Indeed, we would argue there needs to be an unusual amount of personal ambition to pursue a career right through to the upper echelons of organisational decision making. However, this drive is not always a positive emotion for the individual. Many executives are spurred on by difficult events or environmental issues that affected them in their early lives. The resulting irrepressible quality to their leadership can lead to extraordinary results for the person, and for their organisation. But it can also bring an unfulfilled life.

Take Peter, for example, who was such a natural at school, he did not study for his A levels and missed out on the opportunity to go to Oxford. He has lived with the crushing disappointment ever since and has redoubled his efforts and conscientiousness so that complacency never rears its head again. As a result, he has over-achieved, using this relentless desire to right that earlier wrong. Nowadays, he does not know how to work any other way. He makes decisions in his wider life that prioritise his need for career advancement over personal relationships.

Then there is Nita who was brought up in a poor family and saw her father go through redundancy in his 40s. He never really worked again and this set the tone for her own drive – she never wanted to find herself in that situation, and so determined she would work hard to make herself safe. Nita saved her money, trained and developed herself continuously and eventually launched a successful start up business.

What is interesting is both Peter and Nita have not eased off – Peter is still driven by the fear of complacency and failure, and Nita continues to strive to make her family even more secure and safe, despite the fact she is now a millionaire many times over. These are not contented souls, they are high achievers who run the risk of failing to enjoy their success.

Work is a critical part of many people’s lives – it creates financial security, allows for individual expression and personal achievement. It can bring meaning to life, but should it define a life? How we approach work in the early stages of our careers can set the tone and create habits that last throughout our working life. Peter has answered his self-criticism and Nita has assured her future but the habit of striving to prove something or eradicate a fear stays with them albeit unconsciously. Patterns of behaviour often persist long after the original cause of them has receded. These events that shape early ambition leave an indelible mark unless one consciously stops and asks oneself a few key questions:

  1. Are you doing what makes you happy? Or are you doing things to assuage your fears and flow from your habits of ambition?
  2. What do I want achieve and build now? You might have set out to make yourself financially secure or to counter earlier failures. Do you still need to be doing that? Or is it time to tick that box, and set new objectives that excite you?
  3. How do I want to be? Now that you have gained a level of success, you perhaps don’t need to be fearful of failure any more. Your behaviour can now be a conscious choice, rather than a consequence of insecurity.

Answering these questions can define a new époque in a career, and in our experience often leads to a sense of contentment that stems from work becoming a positive force driven by constructive intent. Without this recalibration of ambition, executives can feel unfulfilled as they continue to achieve in order to overcome earlier experiences. Their task can feel endless and without a finish line. They become addicted to ambition, and therefore a captive to it.

So if these stories ring any bells for you, ask yourself some questions. Have I proved them wrong? Have I build the security I need? Have I made amends for my earlier lack of focus (or other shortcoming)? If the answer is “yes” – congratulations! The prize is very valuable. You now get to choose what you do, and how you want to do it.

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