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Ambition… For Better, or Worse?

Excerpted from Chapter 1—
BIG THINGS Have Small Beginnings

Learn to Play the Great Game

Ambition… For Better, or Worse?

By Wes Berry

Nothing in business will get accomplished without ambition. You simply can’t play in the great game without it.

Ambition is an absolute essential. But make no mistake, for better or worse, genuine ambition involves struggle. We set out to achieve something that we believe is really worthwhile. And it is the achievement of that worthwhile goal that brings us a genuine sense of our own worth. We make a difference. We earn our dignity. But the very struggle itself, even in the absence of the success we set out to achieve, brings much of the same benefit to us. It makes us people with a purpose.

Ambition also puts considerable demands on us. It requires a whole lot more of us than just our lofty “ambitions,” our dreams in life. It requires a toughness of mind and spirit that only really grows in us once we enter the ring, once we begin to play in the great game. And success is guaranteed to no one.

But if you’re not willing to lose, you shouldn’t be playing the game.

What is ambition?

For most people the term is a little ambiguous, isn’t it? You’re sitting at your desk shootin’ the breeze over morning coffee with a co-worker, and your department head walks by.

“She’s ambitious,” you say.

Is it a compliment? Or is it a castigation? The answer to that question depends largely on whether or not you consider yourself to be ambitious, and for what reason—that is, to what end. And be assured that this discussion is not a new one.

Seventeenth-century philosopher, statesman, and jurist Sir Francis Bacon pondered this same point in his essay “On Ambition” (1612). In his now-archaic English, he writes:

So ambitious men, if they find the way open for their rising, and still get forward, they are rather busy than dangerous; but if they be checked in their desires, they become secretly discontent, and look upon men and matters with an evil eye, and are best pleased, when things go backward; which is the worst property in a servant of a prince, or state.

Well isn’t that clear as a bell? But, in fact, it sure does ring true!

He’s saying that when ambitious men are allowed to engage in their passion, they become marvelously busy and industrious. They get stuff done! The danger of ambition, he adds, usually arises when such men are denied the pursuit of their ambitions, and then become a veritable danger to society, primarily out of the frustration and the consequent bitterness that follows. Rather than steering their formidable energies toward the good of society, they instead channel them toward its damage and destruction.  Their frustrated ambition could end up frustrating the success of a venture.

More than a few business writers have drawn parallels between the characteristics required for success in business with those required for success in war. With certain obvious limitations, it makes sense. The challenge, in both war and in business, of pitting oneself against fierce competitors, merely scratches the surface.

Bacon addresses this as well, but points out that an overly ambitious man may crave the accolades of greatness more than the doing of the great thing for the right reasons. He might report success where none existed solely for his own advancement.

An overly ambitious military officer might look forward to chaos. Chaos might well be his opportunity for advancement! He would crave the opportunities that battle presents. He might even wager selfishly with the lives under his command. Hmmm, talk about ambition gone awry, right?

There’s little doubt but that an openly ambitious man in the military is a recipe for disaster. As such, these very ambitions will block the achievements that an ambitious man strives for. Is it any wonder that highly ambitious individuals are almost chronically beset with dissatisfaction? In a military structure, this trait could lead to real complications.

Balance

The trick is to have just the right amount of ambition. The “Goldilocks” zone of ambition is ideal for a military career. Too little ambition and nothing gets done; too much and you are constantly discontent, leading to unwise or dangerous actions that could prove disastrous. Just the right measure of modest ambition, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a truly effective and trusted officer.

The great Chinese General and war strategist, Sun Tzu, victorious in battle after battle back in the 6th century BC, elaborated on this quandary with his The Art of War, certainly one of the greatest books ever written. Even today, it is studied in virtually all military academies. And now the business world has grown well aware of the application of Sun Tzu’s war principles and practices to the current art of business.

As the great general says, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” And yet, while Sun Tzu recognized the impact of this principle, he also clearly cautioned military leaders to maintain a discerning eye over an overtly ambitious man, one who could abuse a chaotic condition to advance his personal glory rather than for true battlefield success.

I’ve got to agree with Sun Tzu. It is entirely true that some are simply too ambitious to serve in the military. I’d rather say that some are not meant for a peacetime military; although I would prefer to say that some have an affinity for audacity, a willingness to take surprisingly bold risks. In the words of Fredrick the Great “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace,” or, as translated and re-quoted by WWII’s outstandingly-successful war leader General George Patton, “Audacity, audacity, always audacity!”

Let’s face it. Ambition is a powerful sword, and appreciably so when it’s wielded by a person of integrity. When it is associated with a few individuals who are unafraid to openly strive for success, the results can be substantial.

Timing

There is one key factor which may be largely out of your hands: timing. Perhaps it is all about timing—when you are born and when you come of age. If the skills and traits you possess are in need, and your course is set to take the greatest advantage, then you can achieve what you were born to be.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about little things here. If you believe you are meant for greatness, and refuse to let failures distract you, then you can achieve great things. And these great things will advance not only yourself, but those around you. In fact, with an additional touch of good fortune, you may well end up advancing Society or Mankind itself primarily as a result of your intrepid audacity!

When an outlier happens to possess the physical and mental strengths required, and has the audacity to act boldly with his or her ambitions, in the right place at the right time…well…this is the making of a Caesarsar. And it was owing to the ambition of a Caesar that the greatness of Rome was born.

Julius Caesar

Greatness? You bet. It was none other than Julius Caesar (100-44BC), and his immediate successors Augustus (63BC-14AD) and Tiberius (42BC-37AD), who converted the early Republic of Rome into the mighty Roman Empire, ushering in the Pax Romana (Latin for “Roman Peace”), a period of relative peace and prosperity that lasted throughout the known world of that time for over 200 years. To date, this is the longest period of widespread general peace the world has ever known.

Yes, Caesar was ambitious for himself, but also for his friends and for Rome. You might ask how this can be, for ambition is thought of as greed. I tell you ambition, greed, and all the baser forms—thought of as the darker side of human nature—are simply tools. Like a gun. In the hands of a criminal, a gun affects society with pain. But, that same gun in the hand of the hero protects the innocent, and enforces the security that society requires to conduct the gentrification of its citizens.

Caesar’s identity was Rome, and so his ambition was for Rome. What greater gift than audacious ambition for the citizens of Rome?

Granted, much blood was spilled for Rome to be Rome, and, true, justice and security were reserved mostly to those who were Roman citizens. Still, in the provinces it was better than it had been. The fall of Rome just before 400AD began the onset of the Dark Ages, and the consequent loss of the amazing peace, stability, and protection of its citizenry that were such hallmarks of the Empire

So was Caesar an ambitious man? I’m sure he was. It’s certainly fair to say that Caesar played at the very top of the great game. He had the audacity to be ambitious, and the mindfulness to use these traits to impose his willfulness to unite his countrymen.

Was he perfect? Hardly. But, even with all his faults, and all of Rome’s faults and limitations, the ambition and greed of Rome evolved into the audacity to force the peace. Yes, the desire of greed enforced the peace.

How, you might ask, can this be? Simple. Peace was the ambition of Caesar, and it was the ultimate ambition of Rome. Because with security comes prosperity, and the greed of Rome created prosperity. Sure, it was imperfect, as all institutions made by man inevitably are plagued with imperfections. However, with Rome, life was grander and better than what the world was without it. Rome changed the world from one of relentless tribal barbarism to one of organized, cooperative civilization. The societal revolution it ushered in, made possible by the force of the Pax Romana, brought advancements to the civilization of humankind that are practically impossible to sketch out in full.

If you’re worried about your own ambition, pause a minute. Especially if you’re worried about risk and about failure…well, then join the group. We all face it. If you’re concerned that maybe you just don’t have the critical leadership traits to be successful in the great game, maybe you’re right—for now. But I’m here to tell you that all of what you need can be learned. It’s the learning, the relentless attention to the small beginnings that will make all the difference.

 

About Wesley Berry

Wes Berry is a keynote speaker and the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of the book Big Things Have Small Beginnings. His business career took him from a $60-thousand-dollar-a-year failing family flower shop in Detroit, from which he built a $60-million-dollar international company with more than $750 million dollars in sales. Wes can be contacted at wes@wesberrygroup.com or you can learn more at his website www.wesberrygroup.com.