Good morning dear reader & welcome to my world. This week I would like to discuss ambition, & whether it is a blessing or a curse. It can bear tremendous fruit & when restrained by humility, ambition can be a powerful motivator. But when it is hijacked by self & ego, it can leave a wake of destruction in its path.
I have wrestled with this issue for most of my life. If you have leadership gifts, you know what it is to be captivated by vision. You know what it is to have dreams of what could be. You know what it is to want to do something significant with your life.
Here is where it gets sticky. Is this drive, desire & motivation all about me? If we are honest, we would have to admit our hearts are entangled with self-directed motives. Sorting them out is complex. A discussion of motives & ambition takes us to an inner place, hidden from everyone. Part of what makes ambition so dangerous is when it resides in the unseen world of the soul. 1
I think in one way or another every one of us is wired into a creative tension. On the one hand, we have what is referred to as a “fire in the belly.” This is our inner source of vision, our longing to make a difference, our will to achieve. In recent years I believe we have been pouring gasoline on these fires.
At the same time, there is sure to be in us the need for quiet, solitude, rest, serenity & reflection (a healthy soul). To find a healthy rhythm of life. I like to refer this part of us as locating a place of rest, solitude & peace. It is more about being than doing.
Whilst one needs a fire in the belly the problem is this reality creates a strain in our lives.
Think of it like this. Imagine this fire in the belly (ambition) is like raw electricity. It is alive, energetic, powerful, exciting & full of potential, but it can also be dangerous & potentially fatal. Then think of a healthy soul as a transformer. A transformer serves to regulate, channel, direct, & control electricity. A transformer takes what is potentially harmful & deadly, turning it into something useful & helpful.
It seems to me we are reaping the results of a generation where it has been all about raw electricity. We need to be just as serious about building transformers as we are about generating raw electricity.
My first job was in a small city, Invercargill, which had been the same size for a generation or more. I had huge energy plus lots of ambition & drive. The emotion & the pressure were mostly self-imposed. The emotions I felt had to do with my own ambition. In my mind the only successful person was one in the fast lane. My obsession with size & growth set me up to feel like a failure.
Now, let me reveal the other side of my struggle with ambition. Fast forward a few years to a time when I was advised, & according to my performance reviews, the talk of the town. All indicators were up & to the right. By everyone’s measuring stick I was & we were a success.
Unlike previous reflections, I often found myself in a conversation looking for a way to turn & manipulate the dialogue about the things we had achieved. This was a whole different set of emotions than what I experienced in my small home town Invercargill, but it was nonetheless related to ambition. I remember being advised by my mother once, a person is tested by being praised.
Success can be just as challenging a test as failure. I am not quite sure when, but somewhere along the way, the measuring stick for what it means to be effective switched. The target was no longer personal, it became external. My concern became the measuring stick of size alone which can fuel a kind of ambition which becomes destructive.
If there is one thing I have learned in recent years, it is this: numerical growth alone is no indicator of favour or leadership.
Rick Warren talks about catching waves. We do not get to decide when the wave comes, where it comes, or how big it will be. But it is our privilege to ride a great wave & participate in the doing.
My fear today is, leaders will no longer stand on the shore looking for a wave. When ambition does not have a healthy soul attached to it, we can start trying to create waves ourselves. So dear reader, take a few moments to reflect on this issue of ambition. Are there any signs of unhealthy ambition for you?
Thank you for taking the time to be with me once again. This is Kenn Butler in Paradise, Nelson; I hope my thoughts may encourage you also. & my best wishes for February, 7% of the year gone, already.
1 Lance Will is author of the book Replenish, which is dedicated to helping leaders live & lead from a healthy soul.