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Leading with Redeemed Ambition

Have you heard of Rajat Gupta?

Gupta was raised in Kolkata, Indiana, and was orphaned in his early teens. But he excelled in his studies and later completed his MBA at Harvard Business School. Gupta became the CEO of McKinney and grew his personal net worth to around 100 million dollars. He also served with the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, and partnered with well-known philanthropists like Bill Gates. Quite a success story, right?

In 2008, however, Gupta was arrested for insider trading. Despite his achievements in career, education, and recognition, he risked it all. Gupta’s misguided ambition led him to lose everything. 1

Now, there are many factors at play here, but personal ambition has the power to compromise ethics and humility, leaving behind broken promises, damaged relationships, and burned bridges, all for the sake of personal gain or progress.

But is ambition always a bad thing? (That’s a rhetorical question, of course). The answer is no! However, unrefined and misguided ambition can be unhealthy and even dangerous. Just think of the Greek myth of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun, or the cautionary tale of Rajat Gupta we just read about.

In a helpful article by the Harvard Business Review, three types of ambition are defined:

  1. Performance ambition: focusing on achieving results for oneself or the organization.
  2. Growth ambition: focusing on personal development and growth.
  3. Achievement ambition: focusing on external rewards for oneself or others.

Each of these forms of ambition carries its own benefits and risks. But there’s a fourth type of ambition we haven’t discussed yet: redeemed ambition.

Defining Redeemed Ambition

Redeemed ambition can be defined as utilizing one’s drive to bring prosperity to an organization, its employees, and ultimately, society. On the surface, this may seem similar to the previous three forms of ambition, and indeed, there are many parallels. However, for a leader driven by redeemed ambition, humility, confidence, and self-sacrifice are the underlying motivators.

A leader with redeemed ambition empowers and brings out the best in others. They know how to challenge and motivate their team to perform just above their capacity, pushing them to grow without causing harm. This is the difference between inspiring and bullying. Leadership can either be driven by force and misguided ambition or by partnership and encouragement, which is redeemed ambition.

On the other hand, bad or immature ambition seeks personal glory and gratification, while redeemed ambition uses humility, influence, and stature to serve a greater vision and others.

Ultimately, ambition itself is not intrinsically evil or wrong. In fact, a lack of ambition can be an issue. However, when ambition is misplaced or misguided, it hinders growth and well-being in individuals, teams, and organizations. Redeemed ambition, however, has the potential to develop the leaders and teams that the world truly needs.

1 I originally read this story in the book The Psychology of Money. Morgan Housel, The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness, (London, UK: Harriman House 2020), 35 – 39. See also: D. McDonald, “Rajta Gupta: Touched by scandal,” Fortune (October 1, 2020).