I just finished reading an article on CNN’s website titled Leadership Secrets from the Ancients.  The author identifies several leaders from ancient times and explores how their example and lessons might apply in the modern world.  One of the traits that is identified is ambition which has been an area that I thought about when I was writing Sidestep Complexity.

I was curious as to whether ambition can tell us something about the individual.  Are there correlations between the amount of ambition that a person has as compared to their ability to lead?  The conclusion that I keep getting to is that ambition is a double edged sword.  While it is necessary in helping shape a leader’s vision in terms of where they want to go, personal ambition is very destructive in that it demonstrates a great level of egoism in an individual.

The complicating factor is that so many of today’s leader come with a larger than life personality.  They are hailed are visionaries and game changers, yet they are seen as having a big ego.  Indeed ambition and ego seem to not cause followers and stakeholders a huge amount of issues so long as the leader meets the commitments and achieves success for their organization.

Frankly though something does not sit right with me as I think about this issue.  Ambition leads to a belief that the leader is more important than the followers.  It carries with it a sense that everyone on the team is expendable except the leader.  This is a dangerous way of thinking especially on projects.  While success on projects does depend on strong leadership, it is completely unattainable without the team.  So while we might suffer under less than stellar leadership, we are likely guaranteed to fail without strong execution by team members.

Some may say that the two are closely related to one another and they would be correct.  However, I find that true leadership, the kind that does not come with a huge ego or false humility is often capable of reaching heights that are far greater than the kind of leadership results that are achieved by ambition.

One of the best examples of this is the kind of leadership that Bill Gates, former CEO and founder of Microsoft, is demonstrating on the various charitable causes he is involved in.  His commitment to ending deseases such as Polio, which seems based on humility and genuine concern,  has galvanized others into rallying behind the cause to a point that it seems realistically possible.

So much of this is based on the way leaders choose to focus their energy.  The more they are caught up in their “legacy” and ego, the less likely they are to achieve the heights they aspire to reach.  That indeed a great lesson in irony when it comes to leadership.