Ambition. Drive. Motivation. Self confidence. They're all things we say we value, and even strive to cultivate in our students. But how do you feel about them during a job interview, or when you meet a new hire? Do those same traits in a candidate make you think they might be too "full of themselves," or likely won't stick around?
Indeed, these traits can be a subconscious double-edged sword for many people. They shouldn't be, however. A recent post from the Chronicle of Higher Education's academic blog Vitae explains why we should value ambition in academia.
About 10 years ago Gary A. Olson, now president at Daemen College, examined the concept of ambition in an essay in The Chronicle entitled, Why Settle for Second Best? In it, he noted that many of our colleagues tend to distrust ambitious people out of fear that they value their careers more than they value our institutions. That’s why, he writes, we say things like, “He’ll last three-five years, tops, and be on his way.” We assume it’s somehow better to have someone mediocre forever than someone dynamic for only a few years. We reject ambitious people because we fear they will quickly or eventually abandon us.
I think Olson is right, but the desire for loyalty and long-term commitment is just part of the answer. Perhaps the scorn we feel for those who express ambition is also a reflection of our own sense of inadequacy — the fear that we are not good enough. How often do we fail to express interest in a promotion or a new role, believing we are not ready or fully qualified, only to see it given to someone with less talent than us? It is easier to throw around terms like “overly ambitious” or “power hungry” than to acknowledge we don’t know how to play in a bigger pond or are too afraid to go for what we really want.
Leadership roles are not for everyone, of course, and there are plenty of people who pursue them for the wrong reasons — to control others, to satisfy narcissistic needs for recognition, to divert resources to pet projects — but not all leadership aspirants have impure motives. Many simply see a job that needs to be done and believe they are as qualified as anyone else to do it. No pretense, just practicality. It is essential to separate those with ulterior motives from those who just want to get things done.
— Allison M. Vaillancourt, via Chronicle Vitae
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