NHS managers need to be aware of the benefits and dangers of personal ambition

Ambition. We all have it to a lesser or greater degree and no doubt there will be many NHS managers looking to make their careers during the coming year by not only delivering bottom lines but also successfully managing the impact of the economic downturn on their organisation.

But these will be testing times for personal ambition, which needs to be carefully managed and, at times, hidden. We forget that unless managed carefully, ambition can have a negative effect as well as being a drive for good. History is littered with well known leaders who have fallen foul of their personal ambition. Julius Caesar's displays of ambition were increasingly interpreted as arrogance and seen to outweigh the wisdom and charisma he originally brought to his leadership.

When leaders reach the height of their ambition they often become distant. Most commonly, they cut off relationships with people from their earlier career and surround themselves with advisers who act as gatekeepers for people and ideas. The same ambition that drove them to the top can thus be the reason for their demise.

Rise to the top

Consider one of US President Barack Obama's predecessors, Richard Nixon. Nixon is a classic example of a leader who reaches the top but is driven by ambition to extend themselves further, until eventually they over-reach and fall. The Greek word for the notion of over-reaching is hubris and it is one of the most common causes of failure.

More positively, ambition is also linked with drive, but there is a difference between the two. Drive is seen to be more acceptable because it is often hidden, while being outwardly ambitious carries a connotation of competitiveness, of trying to be better than others. Staying on the right side of the line between the two is largely about ensuring that the way in which objectives are pursued does not hurt others.

Soft skills

In today's organisations, hard-nosed ambition has to be combined with softer personal skills, such as the ability to deal with difficult people issues and manage relationships. As to whether displays of ambition are read differently depending on whether they come from a man or a woman, well, it is complicated. As Anna Fels says in her Harvard Business Review paper "Do women lack ambition?", it is no secret that women receive less recognition for their accomplishments than men do. Women do not have to temper their ambition, but they may have to handle it slightly differently in different situations. This means playing to what is expected in their working environment.

Many organisations, including those in the NHS, are still overly driven by male values that may present challenges for ambitious men being managed by women. In the worst case scenario, some organisations see overtly ambitious women as threatening. But regardless of whether this is because of organisational fit or gender politics, it remains unacceptable. If there is a general rule for both men and women in managing their personal ambition, then it's the need to be self-aware and to do their homework on the organisation in which they will be working.