Advice for the Ambitious

Jim Champy

Editor's Note

Today there’s lots of discussion advocating for greater “equality of income,” but little talk of “equality of effort.” 

Jim Champy, as usual, offers rich insights about the importance of ambition in determining success.

Further, he provides us with a much-needed reminder of the ideal values to which managers and executives should bind their ambitions. 

This article shows Champy at his best—knowledgeable, erudite, and extremely observant about the life cycle of successful ambition. 


Very little is accomplished without ambition. And there is plenty of it in the air right now. 

A recent Wall Street Journal article titled Salesforce’s Ambitions Face Test describes CEO Marc Benioff’s goal of doubling his company’s revenues from $10 to $20 billion—not an easy feat with competition from companies like Microsoft, SAP, and Oracle.

But Benioff has never been shy about what he wants to accomplish. He’s joined by many of the “tech titans” who set ambitious goals. 

And then there are those who take up the work of governing in this country’s new administration. Most of these ambitious men and women have already made fortunes in the private sector. Now they will exercise their skills—and luck—in government, as they assume cabinet positions and run government agencies. 

Ambition’s Arc

In 2000, I co-authored The Arc of Ambition with Nitin Nohria, now dean of the Harvard Business School. Nitin and I had set out to write about the characteristics and traits of great managers. As we researched, we realized that ambition was so key to any significant accomplishment, we decided to focus our book on that trait alone.

Here’s how we assessed ambition in the first paragraph of the book:

“People have always felt somewhat ambivalent about ambition. We see it as dangerous yet essential. We disapprove of those who abuse it, but we dismiss those who lack it. We see too little of it as a failing, too much as a sin. We sense that ambition is combustible, a form of energy that can bring us immortal glory but also destroy us forever, depending on how we use it. Simply put, ambition is what makes us go. Ambition is the spirit of success, of striving for something worth achieving.”

The Dark Side

We were generally positive about the value of ambition. But we knew it had a dark side. Peter Drucker seemed to agree implicitly when I asked him to endorse the book.

Drucker had enthusiastically endorsed my earlier two books. His hearing was now failing, so he asked anyone who had a request to first send a fax and he would respond in kind. 

When I asked him to endorse The Arc of Ambition, I received a two-sentence fax back, saying first that he knew nothing about ambition. In the second sentence, he simply said that most managers didn’t do their jobs very well anyway—a very un-Drucker-like response.

The Overreach of Enron

Without knowing it, I had also asked someone who would become a symbol of ambition’s dark side to endorse the book. That was Enron’s chairman and CEO, Ken Lay. 

The energy company went broke after its executives and auditors hid billions of dollars in bad debt from failed deals. The company and Arthur Andersen, Enron’s auditing firm, collapsed. The company became a symbol of overreach and greed. 

I knew Ken Lay, and he endorsed the book. “Ambition, if harnessed and shaped correctly, is a free good that can power economies,” he wrote. The people at Enron had plenty of ambition.

I never advised Enron, but Lay was on the board of a pharmaceutical company I did advise. We had met and talked about business issues and technology. He seemed honest, and I liked what I saw of his business sensibilities. 

But it was clear his executive team let their ambition to grow Enron into a multi-billion dollar energy company overtake honest business practices. 

Lay died broke, shortly after those executives went to jail. I remain confounded about how a seemingly honest executive let this happen. But ambition can do strange things.

The Arc

Our metaphor of the “arc” describes ambition’s rise and then a tempering. We postulated the arc had three segments:

1) The period when an idea or a dream emerges together with the energy to pursue it;
2) The apex, when something significant is achieved;
3) And the decline, a time of transition.

I see a lot of “dreamers” right now, both in the profit and non-profit world—and that’s a good thing. And then there are people like Benioff who have achieved something significant—they’re at an apex—and want to achieve more.

Such people have certain qualities: they see opportunities that others don’t, they follow a steadfast path to get to their objective, they know when to seize the moment, and they do all this while staying true to their values.

I see Nelson Mandela as having been the classic example showing these qualities in governing.

What I Like the Best

The dreamers and accomplished that I like best are those who have a high sense of purpose, like Mandela. And I applaud those who use their wealth to go on a do something even better. Benioff is such a person, as is Bill Gates. They have given a lot of their wealth away for good purposes. 

In our book, we wrote about Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie is remembered as an “industrial baron”—some would even say a “robber baron”—because he was tough in his business dealings. But in the end, he gave all his wealth away to establish this country’s system of public libraries.

Some Final Advice

Those who reach a pinnacle have to be careful not to overreach. They can lose their sense of balance and what’s right. Bill Clinton—who I admire in many ways for his political skills—may have felt that he was free to do whatever he wanted in his sexual exploits during his administration, thinking that he was beyond reach. 

I worry that there are people in Washington today who believe they are beyond reach. There is something to learn in this across party lines. 

A Graceful Exit

And finally, an ambitious person who achieves greatness will have learned how to leave what they have built gracefully. 

I often wonder whether a person like Steve Jobs, for all his accomplishments, would ever have done that—but at some point, the future belongs to someone else. Coming to the end of your arc in a generous and graceful way will be the true mark of greatness.