Good Morning dear reader & welcome to my world for another week. I took last weekend off & went to the ballet in Auckland. I like to do things like this periodically, in fact the most recent time was last year in new Plymouth to watch the Tasman Mako team beat Taranaki in the semi-finals.
In my reflections over the last fortnight, I have been thinking about ambition. This can be a blessing and a curse. It can bear tremendous fruit. When it is 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.
This 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.
Every one of us has 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 in my world I have seen a pouring of gasoline on these fires.
At the same time, we are also hardwired into the need for quiet, solitude, rest, & reflection (a healthy soul). I like to refer to this part of us as a place of rest and peace. It is more about being than doing.
You need both a fire in the belly & some time out to be healthy. In fact, you must have both. The problem is these two realities create strain in our lives.
Think of it like this. Imagine the 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 & turns it into something useful & helpful. 1
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 real job after High School was in an insurance office called South British in my home town of Invercargill. I came into the role with lots of ambition & drive. But all my ambition & hard work did not translate into much growth. I remember going to meetings or occasionally running into a classmate. I dreaded those conversations because I knew the drill. Sooner or later (usually sooner) we would get to the “How are things going at your work?” question. I would try to change the subject as soon as possible. I always walked away feeling inadequate & discouraged.
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 a fast growing one. Our obsession with size & growth has set up a generation of people who feel like failures.
Now, let me reveal the other side of my struggle with ambition. Fast forward a few years to a time when I was managing my own branch & we were the talk of the town. All indicators were up & to the right. By the measuring stick of everyone, we were a success.
Unlike before, I found myself anxious to talk to other people. I could not wait to get to the “How are things going at your branch?” question. I am ashamed to admit this, but I would find myself in a conversation looking for a way to turn & manipulate the dialogue so I could talk about our branch & the results we were achieving.
This was a whole different set of emotions than what I experienced in my small, rural home town, but it was nonetheless related to ambition…
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 gets switched. The target & my concern is the measuring stick of size alone can fuel a kind of destructive ambition.
If there is one thing I have learned in recent years, it is this: numerical growth alone is no indicator of favor or great 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 what is happening in our world.
My fear 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, take a few moments to reflect on this issue of ambition my friends. Are there any signs of unhealthy ambition? On reflection perhaps we should all take time to purify our hearts & motives!
Thank you for taking the time to be with me once again. I hope my journey may encourage you also. This is Kenn Butler in Paradise, Nelson, with my best wishes for the week ahead. I look forward to being with you all again next weekend.
1 Lance Witt is the author of the book Replenish, which is dedicated to helping leaders live & lead from a healthy soul.