Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness at Segal

Why Are We Ambivalent About Ambition?

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Image: Election (1999)

Imagine meeting an assistant professor who has just joined your institution. As you check in on how she is acclimating, you learn she has created a sophisticated organizing system to keep track of all her projects, established a schedule that will allow her to stay on top of both teaching and writing, mapped out several professional interactions that will increase her visibility, and set up several lunch dates with potential collaborators. If asked to describe her, what words would you use?

Now consider it is 15 years later, and that same woman is an accomplished full professor looking to make a move into a leadership role. While she understands there is a typical administrative trajectory, she has her sights set on becoming a provost, and eventually a president. She is active in professional societies and has been intentional about securing leadership roles on campus committees with actual decision-making power. She regularly lunches, hikes, and hosts dinner parties with key influencers. Wanting to learn more about fund raising, she has joined the boards of two local nonprofits. She has begun writing and speaking on the future of higher education and is emerging as a “personality with a point of view.” If asked to describe her, what words would you use?

Based on several conversations I’ve had lately, the assistant professor might be considered “driven,” “organized,” or “focused.” And while similar adjectives might also be used to describe her 15 years later, chances are good that another descriptor would be added to the mix — “ambitious” or even “overly ambitious.”

Is this a gender thing? Or do we feel the same about ambitious women as we do about ambitious men? While there are constant reminders that ambitious women are viewed more harshly than their equally driven male counterparts, I regularly hear complaints about both. Why? Two recent conversations offer some important clues.

Conversation No. 1:

Them: “She is atrociously ambitious.”

Me: “Meaning what?”

Them: “From the moment she arrived, it was clear she wanted to become dean.”

Me: “And that is a bad thing … because? ”

Them: “Who is she to be dean? She is barely a department head.”

Me: “Is there an established time-in-position requirement before she will be ready?”

Them: “I just don’t understand who she thinks she is. People can’t just decide they want to be a dean. There needs to a more organic process. Plus, her research is strong. Why is she prepared to give that up? Something is not right with her.”

Conversation No. 2:

Them: “You know, he has always wanted to be a president.”

Me: “So he should try to be a president.”

Them: “Are you kidding me? Such arrogance. I hear he even has a little book where he charts his plans. Every decision is orchestrated. If a request moves him toward a presidency, he says ‘yes’ and anything else is off the table. He’s completely, maniacally ambitious.”

Me: “I think that’s called being strategic.”

Them: “More like cold and calculating.”

These exchanges — emblematic of dozens of conversations I have had over the last few years — suggest that it is OK to be nominated or courted for a leadership role, but wholly inappropriate to express interest oneself. Unlike the corporate sector where failing to express ambition can be a sign of laziness, we in higher education tend to want our leaders to be reluctant warriors — ready to venture into battle only if called upon to do so. It is fine to be recruited for a leadership role, but it is morally suspect to deliberately pursue such a position.

Why is that? What makes us insist that people emerge rather than apply?

About 10 years ago Gary A. Olson, now president at Daemen College, examined the concept of ambition in an essay in The Chronicle entitled, Why Settle for Second Best? In it, he noted that many of our colleagues tend to distrust ambitious people out of fear that they value their careers more than they value our institutions. That’s why, he writes, we say things like, “He’ll last three-five years, tops, and be on his way.” We assume it’s somehow better to have someone mediocre forever than someone dynamic for only a few years. We reject ambitious people because we fear they will quickly or eventually abandon us.

I think Olson is right, but the desire for loyalty and long-term commitment is just part of the answer. Perhaps the scorn we feel for those who express ambition is also a reflection of our own sense of inadequacy — the fear that we are not good enough. How often do we fail to express interest in a promotion or a new role, believing we are not ready or fully qualified, only to see it given to someone with less talent than us? It is easier to throw around terms like “overly ambitious” or “power hungry” than to acknowledge we don’t know how to play in a bigger pond or are too afraid to go for what we really want.

Leadership roles are not for everyone, of course, and there are plenty of people who pursue them for the wrong reasons — to control others, to satisfy narcissistic needs for recognition, to divert resources to pet projects — but not all leadership aspirants have impure motives. Many simply see a job that needs to be done and believe they are as qualified as anyone else to do it. No pretense, just practicality. It is essential to separate those with ulterior motives from those who just want to get things done.

So the next time you’re engaged in a discussion about professional ambition, listen for clues about what is really driving the conversation. Is the ambitious person’s character or competence truly worthy of scrutiny? Or is your discussion partner actually revealing a crisis of personal confidence?

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