Adam Leigh on the nature of ambition – virtue or vice?

Leigh's novel ‘The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus’ examines the impact that unbridled ambition can have on those that covet success and glory.

Adam Leigh on the nature of ambition – virtue or vice?

In September 1987, I proudly began my life as a graduate trainee at Ogilvy & Mather, nervous for what lay ahead, but immaculately dressed nonetheless in a pristine polyester C&A suit. For those of you who don’t remember C&A, it was the place you went clothes shopping with your mum when M&S was shut.

At that time the industry burned with ambition and hunger for global domination. As I entered the marble halls of O&M, the Saatchi brothers had just unsuccessfully attempted to buy Midland Bank. At the same time, their ex-finance director Martin Sorrell’s shell-company, Wire & Plastic Products, won a hostile take-over for the advertising edifice of J Walter Thompson. Two years later, the company, now better known as WPP, bought my own employer O&M, plunging the nascent empire into a mountain of debt.

The advertising industry has always been propelled by the restless drive of brilliant individuals unwilling to remain shackled to a corporate master. AMV in the 1970’s, BBH in the 1980s, HHCL in the 1990s and CHI and Adam & Eve in the 2000s all attest to the need for the independence of a start-up to fulfil personal aspirations, even if it
ultimately requires selling the agency to a behemoth to realise the true value of entrepreneurial endeavour and personal sacrifice.

I tell you this because some 34 years on from the debacle of my dubious wardrobe selection, I have fulfilled the ambition that I abandoned on starting my career and have just published my first novel. The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus is the story of
a start-up that becomes incredibly successful and the impact that unbridled ambition can have on those that covet success and glory. The process of its writing made me consider the nature of ambition to understand its benefits and dangers of its bumpy pursuit.

The evolution of ambition has always been underpinned by a massive philosophical health warning, considering it to be much more of a vice than a virtue. The root of our problems began with the story of Adam and Eve succumbing to the temptation of the Tree of Knowledge, basically a giant prohibition against over-reaching yourself and eating the wrong sort of fruit. Indeed, the church was built on this notion of Original Sin and warned that elevating your aspiration above your natural station in life was fraught with danger. The 16th century Geneva Bible mentions the word "ambition" 76 times, all in a negative context.

Other religions like Islam and Judaism are more supportive of ambition and often celebrate a commitment to scholarship as part of a continual quest for self-improvement. One of the words for ambition in Hebrew is sh’aiyf which also means to breathe. The co-joining of "aspire’ and "respire" implies that for Jews the essence of being is to want more and become the best version of yourself.

Other civilisations saw ambition in more secular terms. The Ancient Greeks struggled to find a single word to describe the concept and, despite the aspirations of Alexander the Great for world domination, the quest for personal growth was hard for them to define. Instead, the three Greek words that have been translated into the English word ambition are philotimia, literally the "love of honour", eritheia, "rivalry" and philodoxia, "love of acclaim". Glory, strife and praise – it would make a good agency mission statement.

The Romans saw ambition in more calculating terms. The Latin word ambitio derives from the compound ambire, to "go round". It is partly rooted in the concept of canvassing – currying favour on behalf of a candidate for advancement. Perhaps more apt in describing
political career-building, but nonetheless suggestive of a need for the odd raised dagger to get rid of those troublesome rivals.

In modern times, ambition has often been closely aligned to the drive of individuals who have had to rise above the constraints of their backgrounds. The American Dream, for instance, is rooted in the equalisation of opportunity and yet it is often fuelled by the energy
of its immigrant population coping with the vulnerability of persecution and the need to assimilate in a foreign society by working harder than everyone else around them.

A few years ago, we interviewed 15 of the most senior leaders in the industry about their rise to the top and the ambition that drove them. They often shared a need to correct a sleight of childhood – maybe they didn’t do well at school, or their parent preferred a sibling. They were all very competitive and hated to lose, acknowledging that this drive minimised their fear of risk-taking. And they all claimed that the money and wealth was a by-product of their drive (a nice one, mind you) rather than its catalyst.

These days, it is easier than ever to embark on an individual journey to create a business. You don’t need a bank loan. You don’t have to take on premises other than a nice table at your local coffee shop. Above all, you don’t need to remortgage your house as the media landscape is awash with generous investors prepared to back your online vegan dating app.

ITPro magazine reported in March that a new tech business is launched every 30 minutes in the UK, with almost 20,000 start-ups registered in 2020 receiving more than £1.5bn of funding.

Conversely, there is an innate conservatism to the ambition of the Gen Z work force. As the liberation of technology grows like a virus, there is no corresponding rise in personal drive.

The 2020 OECD study Dream Job. Teenager’s Career Aspirations
and The Future of Work highlights the mismatch between young people’s career aspirations and jobs, based on a survey of 500,000 15-year-olds from 41 countries. While the world of work has undergone huge changes since the survey was first carried out in 2000, the results show that career expectations of young people have shifted little over this period and, disappointingly, have narrowed.

More young people now appear to be picking their dream job from among the most popular, traditional occupations, like teachers, lawyers, or doctors. And their choices are heavily influenced by gender and social background. Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s director of education and skills, concluded: “Too many teenagers are ignoring or are unaware of new types of jobs that are emerging. The analysis suggests that, in many countries, young people’s career aspirations increasingly bear little relation to actual labour market demand.”

Clearly ambition is now more fluid and not just about power or money but rooted in wanting more of something. As we have become an increasingly affluent and comfortable society, the need to prove yourself or build an enduring legacy has been superseded by a much more personal quest for a better world. A study by Deloitte in
2019 talks of millennial malaise, concluding: “Millennials and Gen Zs want all of the talk business gives to purpose to become meaningful action, and for business leaders to serve as agents for positive change.”

This is corroborated by our own research into post-pandemic ambition, which reveals the search for "new experiences" and "always learning something new" score much higher than "building a career" or "wanting to get promoted". When respondents were asked to define how their ambitions had changed, we could see a real shift towards building a life-work balance, rather than the other way round: “Be happy. Have fulfilling work. Give more back.”

Which brings me back to my 22-year-old self in 1987 embarking on a career, which, at that time, seemed liked a linear pathway to a big office with a drinks cabinet and a TV. Simply work hard, get promoted quickly and a seat on the agency UK board (complete with wine allowance) beckoned. Everything that ensued for me thereafter was a result of opportunism or accidental good fortune. Whatever success I enjoyed, my real ambition remained unfilled, until this May when I published my novel. I have poured the experience of the intervening years into an examination of whether drive, the pursuit of glory and the need for constant approbation is a virtue or a vice.

I suppose, in the end, it just depends on whether it is accompanied by a decent lunch.

Adam Leigh is a partner at HBAL Executive Search. His novel The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus is available on Amazon.