Ambition: Look what it’s done

By Jeanette Cowley on May 30, 2017

Ambition: sounds a bit cut throat, doesn’t it? You scratch my back, I’ll stab yours. Surely not part of a kinder, gentler world? The images that ambition summons up can be very negative, not least in the world of work. You know the script:  the hard faced executive, devoted to the pursuit of personal and corporate aggrandisement, driving themselves and those around them into a materialistic frenzy as they pursue the almighty profit.

My point is that these are only narrowly cast perceptions of ambition.

One problem is that it’s easy to condemn ambition too quickly and thus remove it from any moral or intellectual context. Even now, there is a certain residual coyness within British culture about acknowledging and celebrating ambition even when it is utilised for positive, constructive purposes.

In fact, ambition does not have to be inextricably connected to self-centred ruthlessness, detached from a socially responsible morality. The reality is much more complex, interesting and often inspiring. Ambition can be the driving force for a huge range of personal and collective achievements. Reaching our personal potential can so often have benefits for wider society. Think about the social contributions made by a skilled surgeon, a compassionate care worker, an innovative scientist or engineer, a business leader with accomplished strategic and management expertise.  Ambition in a chosen field can help nurture some of the highest professional and personal achievements.  Within any organisation, the collective value of a skilled, ambitious colleague who has honed their ability to a high level can be immense

It’s a notable feature of modern life that politicians are regularly disparaged for their supposed mendacity, greed and all-round awfulness. Well, I’m sure we can point to many examples of those failings, yet it’s worth remembering that ambition in politics has brought other impacts than sleaze, personal gain and unearned privilege. In Britain, the creation of National Health Service is regarded across political boundaries as a shining example of social achievement. The key issue here is that the NHS was partly the result of drive, commitment and ambition by politicians who sought to produce a universal system of health care that would support people irrespective of their wealth and status. This ambition paid off and to this day the NHS, despite its many failings, remains a touchstone in British life as evidence of a civilised society. The NHS shows how ambition can successfully combine ethics and aspiration.

The British Museum is the most popular visitor attraction in the United Kingdom. It always strikes me when I visit this magnificent institution that it represents the very best in cultural and historical attainment.  It is both inspiring and endlessly fascinating.  I see this museum’s deserved success partly as a tribute to the ambition and hard work of its current and past leaders. The millions of people who visit the museum experience the tremendous value of an institution that has an enduring significance in the cultural life of the entire world.  Where would this world-class museum be without the ambition of its leaders?

As ever, it’s all about context. So next time you hear someone – including yourself – sneering about ambition, why not think again? You could even take a look around and count just how many positive aspects of modern life are the result of men and women’s ambitions, maybe starting with your local NHS hospital.

©Steve Burniston 2017


About The Author

Jeanette Cowley

Jeanette Cowley is the Managing Director of Go For Growth. She is a London based mediator, team and executive coach who is often called on to moderate on-line sessions and speak about negotiation and personal presence. Jeanette has many years of commercial experience, culminating in the role of Group HR Director for a FTSE 100 business. She is a pioneer of using art in business to unleash the creative mind, accelerate success and deepen self-awareness. Jeanette’s current research into how senior executives sustain momentum, builds on work she carried out at Henley Business School. Jeanette is the creator of Voicing Possibilities Art-based Coaching Cards. These cards are used by meditators, coaches and consultants to help clients and individuals decide if, how and when to move forward. Contact: jcowley@goforgrowth.com