Real-Life Ambition

I believe there is only one inherent character trait that is essential for effective leadership: ambition. You may not think of yourself as ambitious, but relax. Even the saintly Gandhi had ambition. When asked why he had abandoned a successful law career (and a well-cushioned lifestyle) to pursue a risky, self-sacrificing career of political leadership, Mahatma replied with a single word: “Ambition!” Granted, it is not necessarily an attractive personal trait to desire power, distinction, and public approval. Gandhi chose exactly the right word to describe the force that compelled him to risk all — even his life — in the pursuit of a worthy goal.

By his early 40s, he had come to feel terror at the prospect of living to old age in conventional comfort. He trembled when he imagined himself on his deathbed uttering the most tragic of all last words: “I could have done much more with my life.” Then, for 40 years, he focused his energies on the single goal of Indian independence. Although few leaders are as admirable in their behavior, as noble in their goals, or as successful in their craft as was Gandhi, all leaders are driven by ambition.

All effective leaders desire to help their own family, company, organization, or nation to achieve its highest potential. They willingly put themselves on the line to achieve that end. Ambitious leaders are not satisfied with current performance. Their ambition distinguishes them from timid leaders. They not only want true greatness for their organizations, they are committed to do all that is necessary to realize the potential. That is appropriate ambition. They realize that most organizations are seriously underperforming. Few come anywhere near to achieving their potential.

Worse, most individuals in positions of authority are either satisfied with the status quo or fearful of assuming the risk to transform their organizations to achieve greatness. In sharp distinction are those few individuals who have high ambition for themselves and their organizations. Those who act on that ambition are leaders. When Lou Platt became CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HP) in 1992, he was only the third person in the company’s history to hold that title. He was an experienced executive, he had worked at HP for 26 years, and, because he was the designated successor to CEO John Young, he had time to prepare for the challenges of leadership.

But in spite of all that experience and preparation, he faced the same question every new leader must answer: “Where do I start?” Here’s what he did:

1. He established a leadership team. In selecting the team, he sent a signal about his priorities, goals, and agendas. He looked for people who were compatible team players, but also people who represented a diversity of perspectives.

2. He listened and set an agenda. He spent many hours “walking around” in the HP tradition, listening to the needs, concerns, and aspirations of employees, managers, and customers. His long-term concerns were the challenges of revitalization and continual growth: “Nobody stays on top forever. Since HP has moved from challenger to a leader, what worries me most is complacency.”

3. He built the case for change. Platt spent only 25% of his time on operations. He devoted the other 75% to communicating the need for breakthrough performance. He did this by going on the road and talking directly with HP people. He challenged them to perform at higher levels, even as he restored pride in HP’s principles and values. He pushed responsibility for change down to operational levels, and held the appropriate people accountable for realizing the needed changes.

4. He concentrated on what only he could do as CEO. Platt spent more time dealing with HP’s key constituencies. He reached out to customers, opened effective channels of communication with the HP board, and, of course, spent more time listening to employees and communicating the importance of ambition and change.

(Ed. Note: James O´Toole is the director of Booz-Allen & Hamilton’s Strategic Leadership Center and author of “Leadership A to Z — a Guide for the Appropriately Ambitious”, from which this article was adapted with permission. This is one of thousands of articles about leadership, management, and business success that are available on the “Instant Consultant” CD from Executive Excellence Publishing. If you’re interested in learning more about it, click on