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Ambition Or Aspiration

In our family, words are a constant source of debate. “When you said that you hated the Caesar salad, what did you mean by that?” Really? Do we need to discuss this? But the conversation will continue: “Did you really mean hate, or did you dislike one of the elements of the salad?” “Would it be a better to say you prefer a salad without anchovies? Hate seems like a strong word for a salad.”

I must admit that these word debates are problematic for me. I use words with less precision than other family members. I have been told that I use words incorrectly and am referred to Merriam-Webster to learn more. I have been told that I use strong words when perhaps I meant something less strong. Maybe I should wear a t-shirt, “BEWARE: USES WORDS CARELESSLY.”

But after decades of these conversations, I must acknowledge that I now even contribute to these word debates at times. Call me a “convert” to the cause.

Did you know that word ambition comes from the Latin word ambitio, which meant the act of soliciting votes for political office? Perhaps this explains how we reached today’s definition of ambition in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary: “an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power.”

Is that what ambition means to you? Is your ambition a desire for rank, fame, or power? Or did you mean something else?

 “Level V Leaders are a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will. They are ambitious to be sure, but ambitious first and foremost for the company, not themselves.”

Jim Collins, author of From Good to Great

This conversation is not about parsing words – this is about the motive behind your leadership.

If your ambition is about you, everyone will see it for what it is: all about you. If your ambition is for the performance of the people and the enterprise, everyone will see it for what it is: all about them.

In the process of learning about the meaning of the word ambition, I have become a fan of another word: aspiration. The meaning of this word in Merriam-Webster is: “a strong desire to achieve something high or great.” I like this word better than ambition immediately. What if we set aside our personal ambition and focused on helping our teams achieve something high or great? Wouldn’t that be both more noble and more effective?

To my critics: yes, I know that aspiration can also be used to mean “withdrawing fluids from the body.” But, seriously?

What if we aspire for the people we lead to achieve something high or great?

The difference matters to the people and to their performance.

Serve well.

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