The Origin of Leaders #2: Ambition – Breaking the chains of mediocrity

by Conor Neill on November 12, 2010

On 9th August 2010, Ed Stafford arrived at the sea, having walked the length of the Amazon river.  Over 860 days of walking, 20,000 mosquito bites, 5,000 leeches, poisonous spiders and snakes.  No boss told him to do it.  Nobody paid him for it.  Why did he do it?  How did he keep going for almost 3 years?

Steve Jobs is worth billions.  He founded Apple with his friend Steve Wozniak.  Wozniak left 20 years ago worth millions.  Jobs is still there, still working, still pushing, still innovating new products.  Why?  What keeps him going?

Madonna was a star when I was 13.  She is still a star today.  She continues to tour, create new music, and maintain an exercise regime more intense than many professional athletes.  Why?

Ed, Steve and Madonna have ambition.  Each in a different way, each from their own source – but each have keep their own journeys going for long periods of time.

We began this series with a look at Imagination.  I called imagination the unique human skill.  However, an idea alone is worth nothing.  Execution is everything.  It is ambition that drives a person to keep going on the journey towards what they have imagined.

What is Ambition?

Where imagination guides the rudder, ambition powers the sails.  Knowing what to do but not doing it is the same as not knowing what to do. Dean Simonton, professor at USC-Davis says that: “Ambition is energy and determination. It calls for goals too.  People with goals but no energy are the ones who wind up sitting on the couch saying ‘One day I’m going to build a better mousetrap’. People with energy but no clear goals just dissipate themselves in one desultory project after the next.”

Ambition is the ability to transform purpose into disciplined action.  There are two components to this ability:

  • Visualization of the future – the mental effort to turn an idea into desire (imagination).  The clearer the image, the more powerful the feeling related to the image, the more powerful the energy.
  • Chunking – identifying the next simple step and taking it

A professional climber will look at a mountain and imagine what it will be like to achieve the summit.  He will begin climbing and shift focus to the single next hand movement, the next foot movement, the next breath…  the next meter…  but never more than the next meter during the journey.  Spain Ultraman? “just another 5 minutes… anybody can run another 5 minutes”.

Where does Ambition come from?

There is a genetic component – identical twins show a 30-50% overlap in their level of ambition.  There is an environmental component – FDR’s bout of polio gave him a sense of mission that led him to the presidency, Lance Armstrong survived cancer and won an unprecedented 9 tour de France victories.  Nando Parrado at age 19 was in a high altitude crash in the Andes, watched his friends and his sister and mother die – and when he walked out he took 100% ownership of his life.

Ambition is stronger in those that have a clear purpose in life

Nietzsche “Those with a clear why will overcome whatever how”.  To be good at what you do, you can depend on others…  but to be great, it must come from within.  You must find your source of ambition, the fire in the belly, the drive to give the last 1% that nobody else would notice if you didn’t give.  Only you can know.

Andre Agassi spoke about how he was number 1 in the world, playing great tennis…  and one day woke up and realized that he hated tennis.  It had lost meaning for him.  The goals of being number 1 were no longer important.  Over the next few months he dropped down to number 50 in the world and put on 10 kilos of weight.  After five months of drift he decided that he would open a school in his hometown.  He put effort into creating the foundation, fundraising and marketing the school.  He realized that his most powerful tool to further his aim of creating the school was playing tennis.  It was his most effective way of creating visibility and raising funds.  He returned to the top 10 and won 4 further US open titles.  He re-found a purpose that engaged him and gave him ambition.

One of the greatest books is Victor Frankl’s “Man’s search for meaning”, his autobiographical account of surviving the Nazi concentration camp system. 1 in 30 of those that entered the camp system survived.  Frankl saw that it was not random.  Those who survived had a purpose outside of themselves that kept them going, minute by minute, hour by hour as they overcame brutality upon brutality in the camp system.  Frankl identified the 3 sources of meaning and built a whole branch of psychiatry called logotherapy using tools to search for one of these 3 sources in each of our lives.

How to find your purpose?

What do you do that gives you energy?  What activities in your life seem to fly by?  You look forward to them when you know they are coming up.  You feel more energized afterwards.  I would ask that you do two things:

  1. Take a notebook and spend 5 minutes a day for 2 weeks and note down the specific activities  of that day that give you energy, and the specific activities that suck your energy.
  2. Say “no” more.

Identity – Marshall Goldsmith – what do you do because other people expect it of you, or you look to impress them.  What do you do that comes from within?

Mika de Waart says that we are driven by emotions.  “I should do more exercise”, “I should lose weight”, “I should get another job”…  are not driven by my own internal emotional drive – these are “shoulds”.  These are things that I want to do to impress others, to look good, to feel a significant member of my tribe.  Only when I convert a should into a must will it begin to be something that takes place in my life.  A must connects to my emotional inner life, into what is important for me.

How do I convert shoulds to musts?

Realize which are only ever going to be shoulds.  If you have 20 very important goals, you don’t have any.  If you have 1 or 2 then you have important goals.  If you don’t ever say “no” to people, then you are dividing yourself up into such small chunks that you will result in nothing real or lasting.  Let go of the shoulds that will never be more than shoulds.  Write them down on a piece of paper and set fire to the page.  Let them go.

“Carpe Diem. Memento mori.“  This was what was said to triumphant Roman Generals when they paraded through Rome on the day where they celebrated their greatest triumphs in battle.  Seize the day.  Remember you shall die.

Only in realizing the scarcity of our time and the reality that our time is limited will you have the strength to say no to the non essential.  Ambition is an expensive impulse, it requires an enormous investment of emotional capital.  In the words of Seth Godin: “only start what you mean to finish.”  Don’t burn yourself up on the unimportant.

Focus on process, not outcome.

Life is a marathon, not a sprint.  Marathon runners say “I ran a marathon” they don’t much focus on times.  Everyone who has completed a marathon is a winner.

These tips for ambition are not just for the Ed Staffords, Steve Jobs and Madonnas of the world – they are most importantly for you.  You are here for a reason.  We need to you bring your talent to the world.

How can you develop your ambition?

  • Do less, get 3 important things complete each day
  • Say “no” more.  Stop using “busy-ness” as a badge of honour.
  • Meditate on how it will feel when you are old, when you look back on what you have done with your life
  • Don’t run from your fears.  Turn and face them.  Hidden in your fear is a message about your purpose. Demons are never as scary when you look them in the eyes.
  • As a parent, praise your kids for disciplined effort and not for results.  Same if you are a boss.  Same to your friends.

Commitment creates clarity. Do one next small step now.

Conor NeillConor Neill is the professor of Leadership Communication at IESE Business School in Barcelona and an entrepreneur who has founded four companies. Years ago, he was a manager in the Human Performance consulting practice of Accenture. He loves rugby, mountain climbing and will run a marathon next march. Conor frequently blogs at conorneill.com and tweets as cuchullainn
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  • Pablo Roux

    Hi Conor! What about to develop ambition in people around you? Let to get in situation illustrate the question through a selection from Hafiz, a Sufi. Consider:
    The small man
    Builds cages for everyone
    He
    Knows.
    While the sage,
    Who has to duck his head
    When the moon is low,
    Keeps dropping keys all night long
    For the
    Beautiful
    Rowdy
    Prisoners.

  • http://www.conorneill.com Conor

    I think you can develop passion in those around you. You can ask them questions. “Who are your role models?” Who inspires you? What do you love doing? What is your dream?” A good life is built on the intersection between your passion, your uniqueness and being of value to others.

    I think you can develop the skill of “chunking”: You can help them with the skill of identifying the one next thing and doing it. Every productivity system in the world essentially boils down to the following: pick the 1 most important thing, do it until complete, reflect, pick next 1 most important thing…

    Thanks for the great support Pablo. Have a great weekend.

  • Btreasurer

    As usual, Conor offers some sound advice. Ambition fuels success.

    In my own life, ambition has been essential to my personal progress. That said, ambition has gotten me into trouble too. When I have been overly ambitious, my competitive need to win – even in situations where winning is silly – has superseded my need to consider others. So while ambition is absolutely essential to leadership, there is a danger in being overly so. Just as you shouldn’t ingest gasoline, drinking too much ambition can be poisonous. But without any at all, you’re not going to go anywhere.

  • http://www.conorneill.com Conor

    Bill – thanks for the thought. Ambition for the wrong goals or for very one-dimensional goals can lead to an empty life, or other important parts of life crumbling under the lack of care and attention. I would say that this is misuse of a powerful tool rather than the tool being damaged. There is need to separate thinking/reflecting time from action time – in thinking/reflecting time we allow self-doubt to overcome our pursuit of action and will fail; however only action time will not give direction and steering to the footsteps of your journey. I look forward to your new book! 😉

  • Pingback: The origin of leaders #3: Learning – Growing through the crucibles in your life « Active Garage

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