Is Ambition a dirty word?

A couple of weeks ago, the subject of a talk by Oliver James attracted my attention – ‘The joys and perils of ambition’. It was staged as part of the Midtown Big Ideas Exchange, which has been running for a couple of months or more now. I was kind of interested in this. I have long been fascinated by the fetishism of leadership in the business environment. We are all encouraged to be proto-leaders. To become a leader you have to be ambitious! What makes this more interesting is that it tends to run counter to one of the other great pillars of modern business thinking – teams. Overly ambitious people just do not make good team players, as we all know from watching the slow motion TV car-crash in that is ‘The Apprentice’. So, the questions rattling around my mind while I was waiting for the talk to start were: Is ambition a taboo subject in teams? Are leadership/ambition and teams paradoxical? How threatening is ambition to leaders?

With thanks to InMidtownOliver James began by speaking about what motivated us all – why did we want to achieve? In the short term of course, each little (or large) victory makes you feel good. In the long term promotion brings rewards – we all do it for recognition and money. The funny thing is, often the perception of your contribution is often more important to success than the contribution itself. But why do some people really succeed in climbing the greasy pole, while others don’t?

James’s first answer to this was that the ruling elite set the rules…  Those who are successful in business/society map the criteria for those who follow. The downside of this is that over time, those who succeed are often those who are good at – well – succeeding, rather than at actually being good leaders. This is of course a well-known and worn political conundrum, but none the less true for that. He noted that many people who are successful come from troubled backgrounds – around a third have lost a parent before the age of 14 years.

This is the top image in Google if you search Psychopath...
This is the top image in Google if you search Psychopath…

He postulated that many leaders are towards the wrong end of a spectrum; most exhibit some (or all) of the dark triad of leadership qualities – Psychopathy/Narcissism/Machiavellian tendencies. The term psychopath carries a lot of emotional baggage and immediately conjures up images of a knife-wielding madman. However, there has been a lot written about this recently, and I suppose what we are talking about here is people who see everything in terms of how it relates to them and what they can get out of it. Ultimately, this leads to a certain disconnection from others and from reality .

Oliver James also talked about extrinsic and intrinsic goals. Most leaders (according to James) are driven by the former, whereas actually, there is more chance of success form the latter. He explored this in some detail, although the arguments were at times very convincing and at other times less so.

If what we are all seeking is ‘happiness’ what is that? He argued that it probably doesn’t exist and what’s more, if we try to chase it we will surely fail, like chasing rainbows. What we should be seeking is emotional health. This (he argues) is the best way to describe happiness – or perhaps to describe success? Six key behaviours demonstrate this:

  • Live in the present
  • Display Fluid two way communication – know when to listen (and learn) and when to speak.
  • Insight – spot what is about to happen
  • Playfulness – but not game-playing
  • Vivacity – enthusiasm is infectious
  • Authenticity (as opposed to sincerity)

It seems to me that we all demonstrate some aspects of all these behaviours – both the dark triad and the six healthy ones. I can certainly see elements of all of them in myself – as I guess others can. There are plenty of online tests of psychopathy, although how effective they are I have no idea! Try this one: http://www.playbuzz.com/gregs/can-you-pass-the-psychopath-test?

James continued by stating (somewhat depressingly) that we are all led by psychopaths. What I found fascinating about this was that he was speaking to a group largely made up of business leaders (or aspiring business leaders). We all, of course, lapped up every word.

His concluding argument was that our ambition should be emotional health. Perhaps this makes you a good team player? Of course (in theory) it makes you a good boss too, but would you ever get there to find out?

He finished – with a flourish – by singing a couple of phrases from a Bananarama song:

“It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it, It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it, It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it– that’s what gets results!”

*Thanks to InMidtown (http:/inmidtown.org) for the use of the Oliver James illustration – and for putting on the series!