Is Ambition Okay?

By Roger Bretherton

Why we do what we do, is more important than what we do.

An Unconvincing Substitute

I regularly receive a philosophy lecture from my ten-year-old. Usually when we are driving home from school, he regales me with whatever insights into life’s mysteries have struck him over the course of the day. Some of these are quite profound. Like how Marvel movies would be much shorter if the baddies just learned to forgive. Or how the indisputable purpose of dogs is fun. The other night he offered me a short synopsis of his developing philosophy of euphemism. He wondered if I’d noticed that swear words (as we quaintly call profanity in England) are just naughty words for normal things. He had a few examples to share. But ultimately I felt the need to stop him, while causally wondering aloud whether he’d recently been hanging out with Jonny, the hands down sweariest kid in his class. But his main thesis was solid. Some words are dirty and we find other words to replace them.

The church often resorts to euphemism when it comes to leadership. On the one hand, we are more obsessed with leadership than any other group of people I can think of. We want good leaders. We want people to lead well in church, at work, and wherever they find themselves. We talk up leadership and train more leaders than any other organization on the planet. But at the same time, we are mindful of all the biblical injunctions to humility: the first is last, the servant is the leader, the least is the greatest. It’s a fundamental tenet of Thomas Jay Oord’s relational and open theology: we love, live, and lead like Christ in giving up status and giving away ourselves. We are rightly wary of the need for dominance that often drives those who seek to lead.

While our instincts are right, our solution is often wrong. We resort to a euphemism that wouldn’t fool a ten-year-old. Given that the pursuit of power is obviously wrong, we swap a dirty word for a slightly less dirty word. We don’t want power, I hear people say, we want influence. It’s not a very convincing substitute, but it is symptomatic of our confusion around leadership. We don’t always know how to make sense of ambition.

Two Worlds of Ambition

Our translations of the New Testament don’t help us very much in this respect. The word ambition is used in most English translations to render Greek words that could not be more different. One of them (the root word eritheia) is usually translated selfish ambition. Paul says it is unanimously bad. So bad in fact, that he tells the Philippians (2:3) not to do anything out of selfish ambition. It’s a work of the flesh (2 Cor, 12:20; Gal 5:20). It leads to disaster (Rom 2:8). It connotes strife and electioneering—the kind of self-interest that creates factions for its own advantage. Not one for the character wish list.

The other New Testament word often translated as ambition strikes a markedly more wholesome tone. Paul uses it to describe his ambitions to preach (Rm 15:20), and his desire to please God (2 Cor 5:9). At root, it’s the word philotimeomai, and it forms the basis for what is arguably one of the most beautiful instructions in the entire New Testament: make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands,” (1 Thes 4:11). It speaks of the love and honor connected to the privilege of rising to a task.

These two Greek words that have both been translated as “ambition” belong to different worlds. One is disastrous and should never motivate us. The other gives life and is a core motive of who we are. Both have been translated as “ambition,” so it’s no wonder we’re confused.

Do it for its Own Sake

Psychologists have also picked up this duality in ambition. Some would draw a distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Put simply, extrinsic motivation is when we do what we do not because we inherently care about it, but because we want to obtain the external rewards of doing it. The student volunteers to help the homeless because it looks good on their resume. The employee seeks promotion for the money, status and power. Intrinsic motivation on the other hand is when we do something because we value it in itself. The teacher who really cares about the kids, the artist who delights in subtle explorations of color, the basketball player who leaps through the air with the joy of skill and elegance, and the leader who leads from a deep sense of inner conviction. Intrinsic motivation means we value the thing we do, not just the glittering prizes that accompany it.

Our lives are a complex web of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Sometimes we go to work just to put food on the table. Sometimes we do things just for the fun of it. Occasionally work and play are the same thing. But the big challenge of the motivational literature is this: extrinsic motivation eats up intrinsic motivation. We start to do something because we love it. We then are rewarded for being good at it. And if we’re not careful, our motives are undermined by the external rewards. We switch tracks. Eventually we will only do it if we are rewarded. The footballer who once played with the verve and appetite solely reserved for those who love the game, fades in energy as the money, the celebrity, the supercar and the glamourous wife take his attention. The worship leader enamored with sharing the love of God struggles to retain this focus as the pressures of management, touring and album sales mount.

When extrinsic rewards distract us from the joy that first inspired us to do what we do, we start to feel trapped. It’s a common dilemma for those who rise to leadership. It’s tempting to believe that guy from Galilee was right when he told us to beware of performing our righteous acts for the approval of others, because in the pursuit of an immediately bankable reward we can lose sight of the ultimate lasting reward—the God who dwells secretly in every given moment.

How we Live our Passions

Psychologist Robert Vallerand brings another distinction to the table in his work on passion. Our passions, he says, are the things we consider important. We devote time and energy to them. And we attach a large part of our identity to them as well. We all need our passions; we really care about them. For those of us who call ourselves Christians, we may say that our passion is to know Jesus and to be like Jesus. Or, as Thomas Jay Oord puts it, to live a life of love. Our passion is what we live for.

But what Vallerand notes is that no matter how worthy the cause may be, how we live our passions has a profound effect on who we become. He draws a dividing line between obsessive passion and harmonious passion. In obsessive passion, we risk workaholism. We sacrifice health, family, friendship and whatever needs to go in order to pursue our ambition. We cannot help ourselves. Our worth hangs on the success and status that come with the passion. We are what we do.

On the other hand, in harmonious passion, what we do has a deep resonance with who we are—that’s why we give ourselves to it so vibrantly and with such dedication. We feel that we have freely chosen our passion, like answering a call. Consequently, we can step back from it for a time if we need to, and our passion then finds a balance among all the other spheres of life: friends, family, and health. The formula of obsessive passion is reversed in harmonious passion: we do what we are. It won’t be any great surprise to know that obsessive passion has been linked to burnout, derailment and dissatisfaction in high performers. Harmonious passion, on the other hand, leads to satisfaction with life, sustainable accomplishment and a long list of benefits to psychological and physical health.

Our Motives Matter

Our motives for leading matter. That’s why one of my favorite questions to ask leaders, in church, in education, in health, in business, or wherever, is: what first drew you to do what you do? It’s an invitation to recall their intrinsic motivation, before the red tape, the pressures and the demands of the role dulled their passion and obscured their vision. It reminds them to examine the harmony between who they are and what they do.

At no point in over two decades of posing that question to leaders in various settings has any leader worth their salt ever said that they were aiming at influence. They aimed at something else, something that mattered to them. At times, this made them influential: as the voice that speaks up, or the person people trust, or the one who takes responsibility for the team. Overall, they were ambitious to make the world a better place, and influence was a by-product.

Roger Bretherton, Ph.D. is Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Lincoln (UK). He is a Clinical Psychologist specializing in the definition and development of Character Strengths. He frequently consults, coaches, and trains leaders in large organizations.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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