This post is not about Uber…Really

Written by John R. Thompson, Ph.D. on June 28, 2017

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The Internet does not need another post describing Travis Kalanick, a toxic Uber culture, an investor revolt, or even a thoughtful version of all of those issues.

So, if that’s what you want…move along, these are not the droids you’re looking for.

we need to separate harassment and ethical abuses in all forms from the concept of ambition as a core element of leadership

This post is about the paradox of ambition. Specifically, my thesis here is that whatever happened to Travis Kalanick and a hard-charging Uber culture, we need to separate harassment and ethical abuses in all forms from the concept of ambition as a core element of leadership. The paradox is that we can be rightly wary of ambition as a potentially corrupting influence – but we also require it of our leaders.

A quick Google of “Uber” and “ambition” demonstrates the perceived intersection of an aggressive culture, expansive desires and an eventual downfall.

The two words animate headlines across the mainstream press for the past few years. Flying cars? That’s an Uber ambition. Are they mega ambitions? Yup. Are they driverless car ambitions? NPR thinks so. Will those ambitions keep on trucking? Apparently so. Are they insane ambitions? Well, I guess it’s a question at least.

The word “Ambition” in these headlines – and there are many more – acts as a note of suspicion when it comes to Uber. But, this is not a post about Uber. It is, rather, a post about ambition and the leadership quality of…Integrity.

Did I mention there’s a paradox here?

In a series of works, leadership researchers Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas argue that leadership involves four competencies: Adaptive capacity, creating shared meaning, establishing a personal voice, and Integrity. I’m going to save the other three characteristics for other posts and focus here on Integrity.

Integrity, according to Bennis and Thomas, is built on a tripod of concepts: competence, moral compass, and…ambition. The best leaders have the strength of character to keep the three in balance. Lesser leaders – to the point they don’t deserve the label “leader” – let one of the three motive forces overshadow the other two.

To understand the effects of that imbalance, consider the experience from the followers’ perspective. Ambition without competence or moral compass results in demagoguery. Competence without ambition or moral compass, in our technology driven world, can create technical managers with no beneficial vision beyond their mastery of ones and zeros. Moral compass without competence or ambition might articulate a vision – but with no ability to inspire followers that it is achievable.

Powerfully, Bennis and Thomas use Mother Theresa as an example of someone with a balance among the three components of Integrity. It’s easy to see her moral compass as she ministered to the lepers and underclasses. Her competence in organizing followers and advocating for others is clear. According to the researchers, we should also credit her ambition to make a change in the lives of many people as an engine that powered her leadership and her ability to gather followers and influence others.

Ambition can grow out of proportion and put the three-legged stool out of kilter. But, that stool is just as wobbly if ambition is less solid than the other two factors.

While sainthood may not await other ambitious leaders, we do not need to look far for the upside of ambition as a marker of beneficial leadership. Bill Gates not only built Microsoft with his ambitions, he and his wife are now curing disease, building infrastructure and changing the way global institutions deal with problems through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And it appears the CEO of Ford was fired for not being as ambitious as Elon Musk at Tesla.

So, consider this post a defense of ambition in a world racing toward the future. Book yourself a flying car and go change the world.