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The two faces of ambition
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I'm reading
The two faces of ambition
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The two faces of ambition
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
6 August 2019

The two faces of ambition

Ambition can often get hijacked by greed and self-interest.

Written by Hugh Mackay

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Ambition is a tricky concept. We laud it, as if it’s a kind of turbocharger that gets us motivated and drives us to achieve more than we otherwise might. ‘She lacked ambition’ is generally meant as criticism rather than praise. Yet the line between ambition and greed is a very blurry one when ambition is about the quest for personal power, status or wealth.

We hear of politicians, for example, who ‘always wanted to be prime minister’ ever since they were in school: indeed, former Liberal senator Amanda Vanstone once said that she’d never known any prime minister who didn’t aspire to that office from a very early age, suggesting that, if you want to fight your way through the ranks to become PM, you would need to be driven by a lifelong ambition.

That may be so, but the question remains: what is that ambition for? If the ambition is merely to be prime minister, then that smacks of a greed for power and status – a motive as ugly as any other form of greed. Such a person might well achieve the goal they aspire to, since that kind ofambition would likely be linked to a certain ruthlessness and a capacity for making self-serving deals on the way to the top. And yet, if becoming prime minister is your ambition, the danger is that your ambition will have been satisfied by the mere achievement of that office. What then?

Single-minded ambition for ‘the top job’ in any field is dangerous, simply because it exists in a moral vacuum. It’s not about what I might be able to achieve for those I lead if I were to get that job; it’s about me getting that job. Period. As a prominent company director once said to me, in all seriousness: ‘It’s no fun being anything but chairman.’

Contrast the ambition to be ‘top’, or ‘to win’, with the ambition to create a more harmonious or equitable society; the ambition to eradicate poverty; the ambition to transition your country to a clean-energy future; the ambition to improve disadvantaged children’s access to a word-class public education system; the ambition to ensure true gender equality. Those ambitions might well drive a person to seek high office as a means of achieving those ends, rather than to say, “Hey look at me! I made it!’

If the ambition is simply to be the boss, where will the policy agenda come from? Where the vision? Where the convictions? Where the drive to use high office to bring about a better society? Where the noble impulses towards public service we yearn to see in our leaders in politics, business, academia, the professions or any other aspect of human endeavour?

Ambition is a moral minefield. Where it is self-indulgent, it is bound to explode, in the end, for lack of a higher purpose. Where it is directed towards the betterment of society, the risk of self-destruction is less serious, though the risk of being corrupted by power always lurks, even among those who initially seek it only as an instrument for doing good.

This is an edited extract from the Prologue to the 3rdedition of Right & Wrong, published by Hachette Australia in 2019.

Hugh Mackay

Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and the author of 19 books–12 in the field of social psychology and ethics, and 7 novels.

hughmackay.net.au

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