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The perils of ambition

The perils of ambition

By Al Gini
Professor of Business Ethics
Chair of the Department of Management

Although 2016 is a presidential election year, candidates for arguably the most important elected leadership position in the world started actively campaigning as early as 2013. At one point—if I can keep all the names and numbers straight—there were 14 Republicans and six Democrats seeking their party’s nomination. But the question for me is both a practical and philosophical one: Why would anyone want the job?

America has a staggering array of economic, political, and social problems. The state of international politics and finances is confusing and ever-changing. And the world faces emerging problems like global warming, overpopulation, and terrorism. Why would anyone want to spend four, or possibly eight, years trying to address these problems?

Candidates on both sides of the aisle share one common attribute: ambition. Our job as voters is to try to figure out how each candidate views and defines ambition.

Ambition in leadership can be a virtue or a vice, a driving force or a destructive preoccupation. It can result in enthusiasm and efficiency or in self-indulgence and selfishness. And, to add insult to injury, misfocused ambition can easily degenerate into obsessive arrogance. Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero distrusted and disliked the young Julius Caesar because he thought Caesar’s ambition for power was too crude and personal. Cicero believed Caesar did not just wish to rule Rome but that Caesar wanted to be Rome.

True political ambition should manifest itself in wanting to develop one's talents not in the service of self but in the service of others. Great leaders always put the organization’s success ahead of their own. Leadership is never about the leader—the first and final job of a leader is to serve the needs and the well-being of the people they lead.

Authentic power is about service, duty, and responsibility. True leaders don’t ask, “What do I want to do?” They ask, “What needs to be done?”

This article appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Loyola Magazine. Read more →