Handling the hunger of ambition is tricky for any leader. Knowing how to handle ambition as Jesus-followers is even trickier, like a high-end Sudoku puzzle.
So let’s start with a simple definition. I define ambition as that strong desire we have to make something or to achieve something, even when it takes great effort, focus, and determination. It’s worth paying attention to that hunger you have because it’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s a key part of the drive that moves you to cultivate influence.
In its purest form, there’s nothing wrong with ambition. You have it. I have it. It’s one of the hallmarks of leadership. It’s that desire to move something forward, to make something better. Do you feel it? Drink it in, because it’s good.
Believing that you need a position of authority to exercise your ambition is a lie. And as soon as that lie takes root, you will find yourself losing the influence you desire to cultivate and develop. Worse, failing to direct your ambition in good and healthy ways can twist it so there is no benefit to anyone. The distortions of our ambition can be simplified into two extremes. Like a swinging pendulum, these two manifestations are equally dangerous.
The first response of many leaders, especially Christian leaders, is to look for ways to kill their ambition. If you’ve been taught to view ambition as a danger to spiritual growth, an impediment to being a follower of Jesus, the spiritual thing to do is to kill it. Because our hearts are naturally deceitful (see Jeremiah 17:9), we cannot trust our desires. Unconstrained ambition may just be a selfish desire. And if they aren’t in a leadership role, they assume that the desire is wrong or sinful, a sign of rebellion perhaps.
This is where I was just a few years ago. When I became a Campus Pastor, I had a lot of ambition for our campus, for our teams, and for myself. I had grand ideas around how we would interact with new guests, what our music culture would feel like, how to bring synergy to student and children’s ministry, and how to create more energy in our adult services. Right or wrong, I felt hamstrung by the structures of authority above me. Without realizing it, my ambition and vision for change had grown distorted. So I put it all on mute. I shut it down, thinking that the time wasn’t right. It wasn’t until a crucial conversation with Andy Stanley that it dawned on me that I wasn’t acting wisely or responsibly. I was killing my ambition. And killing it is not the answer.
Looking back, I can see where these distorted ideas came from. I was raised in a church where ambition was outlawed in the name of piety and humility. The people were well-meaning, but the message was clear: kill the ambition before it kills you. When it came to ambition, I thought the rapper Ice Cube said it best, “You better check yo’ self before you wreck yo’ self.”
Many young leaders, especially those raised in a Christian environment, are too quick to kill their ambition. But it’s a step too far, a nuclear option that ends up muting any leadership gifts God has given you. Eradicating, abdicating, renouncing, ignoring, or killing the ambition within you is not the answer.
Ambition Run Wild
On the flip side, instead of killing their ambitions, some leaders just let them run wild. They uncritically embrace them. And we’ve all seen ambition run wild—it’s what those who kill their ambition were trying to avoid. It’s the leader who only thinks about himself. The leader who thumbs her nose at the processes and structures and tramples over others without a care for the damage left behind. Some leaders won’t go that far, of course. But instead of channeling their ambition in healthy ways, they allow frustration to take control, thinking, “I’ve got to be in charge and I’ll get there by any means necessary.” Or “I’ve got to be able to call the shots…or I can’t work here.” The extreme of killing our ambition focuses on an internal solution to the problem, while the extreme of letting our ambition run wild tends to focus on an external solution. We look to blame others for our lack of authority, we contract a critical spirit toward those in who are in charge, and we end up sabotaging the very thing we’re seeking. To quote Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for ya?”
I need to be clear on this point: leading when you’re not in charge does not mean that you learn skills to get ahead by circumventing the authority above you. A leader wants to accomplish something, because that’s what inside of him or her. But this lie can take root: “I need to be in charge if I want to get anything done.” Soon we’re looking for ways to move our boss out of the way, or trying to work around him or her in an effort to promote our own agenda. Just know that if you are sensing a voice inside you telling you that your boss is the only obstacle between you and the life you’ve dreamed of having, it’s a distortion of your ambition. You don’t need to kill your ambition, but you can’t just let it run wild either.
Thankfully, we don’t need to follow either extreme. There is a more Jesus-centered way that allows you to harness your ambition exactly where God has you today. His way allows us to find contentment in our circumstances and also a drive to make a better world. His way brings the fullness of truth with the fullness of grace. It’s more powerful than a title and more influential than a position. It’s the way God originally made you to lead.