What Drives Ambition — and Are You Going Too Far?

What Drives Ambition — and Are You Going Too Far?

You need to be ambitious to be successful. But excessive ambition can get you into trouble.

Our research has found that leaders who don’t handle their ambition properly can damage their careers and undercut organizational success. Excessive ambition can cause you to:

  • Show poor follow-through and make poor strategic decisions;
  • Have difficult interpersonal relationships; and
  • Lose the trust of others.

How to Recognize Excessive Ambition

There are 3 basic needs driving ambition — and all 3 can be over-done, leading to excessive ambition and negative consequences.

The need for competence.

Of course, you want to be competent and you want others to see you as competent. Being right, making the right decisions, and doing the right things make you confident and capable.

But beware of being intensely driven by the need to get it right the first time, every time. If your need for competence is on overdrive, your sense of superiority, competitiveness, and pride are taken to an extreme. Your desire to be right, win a fight, and achieve your own goals will affect your ability to get things done with others — and ultimately affect your career prospects.

The need for achievement.

You value hard work and top performance. The need for achievement pushes you to drive yourself and others with intense pressure to perform. Being in charge — having power and control — may fuel you, but you run the risk of behaving unilaterally. You don’t want to be seen as abrasive and needing to boost your interpersonal savvy.

When overdone, your drive to achieve pushes too far, exhausting yourself and those around you. You work constantly and expect others to do the same. But more hours don’t translate to more productivity; overwork leads to burnout. Carried to the extreme, this will have negative effects on your co-workers, teams, and the organization — as well as on your friends, family, and your long-term health.

The need for rewards.

You want to be successful, feel successful, and be seen as successful. You want the perks, privileges, and honors that accompany success. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and it’s part of building your leadership brand.

But in your desire for recognition, avoid over-selling yourself. If you are too concerned about elevating your personal profile and leadership image, you risk losing sight of the work and the larger context. When you take the desire for status to its extreme, you’ll spend too much effort on protecting your level and its privileges. You want the right amount of authentic self-promotion at work. When you over-promote yourself, others are likely to resent you — again, undermining your ability to motivate and collaborate with others.

Managing excessive ambition requires a high level of self-awareness, as well as an understanding of your context. Some organizational cultures and some situations (such as pushing to finish an important project or working towards a promotion) may require you to dial up the intensity of your ambition. But moderate, rather than excessive, ambition is usually the best solution for the long haul.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Upskill your team so they understand the importance of avoiding excessive ambition and balancing self-promotion with authenticity. Partner with us to create a customized learning journey for your leaders using our research-backed modules. Available leadership topics include Authenticity, Communication, Conflict Management, Emotional Intelligence, Listening to Understand, Psychological Safety, Self-Awareness, and more.


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April 4, 2018
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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