Passion versus ambition has been saved
While ambition and drive are sufficient in a world that is predictable, they are not enough in a world of constant change and disruption.
One of our Fellows recently asked whether we thought the “titans of modern industry”—the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and JP Morgans—were passionate or not. What about Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg? It is almost impossible to answer that question without having direct knowledge of an individual—such figures have moved into the realm of mythology and even their own accounts of their actions and motivations were written under the veil of looking backward over a successful career. But the Fellow’s underlying question is more relevant: Why does passion matter? If we were to say that such leaders and influencers may or may not have had passion, as we define it, then who cares about passion?
This brings up a distinction that we tried to make clear in our recent paper, Passion at work: Cultivating passion as the cornerstone of talent development. Ambition, even ruthless ambition, or a “passion for making money” or for “succeeding” is different than the passion of the Explorer. Each has a place. Each might bring the individual great wealth, fame, or accolades within a field or industry. Each might equally allow the individual to be happy or unhappy. But passion and ambition are two separate things. Passion, or more specifically what we call the passion of the Explorer, refers to three attributes: a Questing disposition, a Connecting disposition, and a Commitment to Domain. Explorers are defined by how they respond to challenges. They get excited by, and actively seek out, challenges. They connect with other to learn, develop skills, and solve problems. They build their careers with a desire to make an impact in a specific domain over the long term. Through their behaviors, Explorers help themselves and the companies they work for develop the capabilities to constantly learn and significantly improve performance over time.
What is the difference between a passionate worker and an ambitious one? Is one better than the other? Both often work extra hours and are performance-oriented. Both have the potential to drive significant performance improvement in the organization. However, while ambition and drive are sufficient in a world that is predictable, they are not enough in a world of constant change and disruption.
Organizations, including our own, are full of ambitious people. Ambitious workers tend to be motivated by external rewards and recognition. They figure out the performance metrics needed to achieve the next level or reward and work toward those metrics. Often, they focus more on the metric itself or on enhancing a resume in order to get to the next opportunity than on deriving pleasure or satisfaction from the actual work. Because of this orientation toward maintaining the status quo, ambitious workers are less likely to challenge an organization’s goals, practices, and policies; as a result, they are less likely to identify new possibilities for how things might be done or to see new opportunities for the organization in response to emerging trends or disruptions. Note, this tendency to not challenge the status quo is most relevant to individuals in a mid- to large-sized company or institution. Entrepreneurs are likely to pursue disruptive activity and challenge the status quo regardless of whether they are passionate or simply ambitious. An ambitious entrepreneur, though, is driven by extrinsic rewards—the desire to make money or build a reputation or accumulate status—rather than out of a desire to challenge themselves to achieve more of their potential and thereby grow in new directions.
Passionate workers, on the other hand, are internally motivated through their desire to quest, connect, and make an impact. They focus on their own learning and achieving more of their potential rather than on preset metrics or external rewards. As a result, passionate workers often challenge conventions and offer new perspectives, and they are more likely to be able to step back and reframe the organization’s approach to a specific task or to the entire market. They take on new challenges that may not advance (or may even be detrimental to) their careers, and as a result, pull their teams along with them to new levels of performance and to attempt promising, though possibly risky, ventures.
Passionate workers are also more likely to build trust-based relationships because they are willing to express vulnerability in terms of sharing what they don’t know but really excites them. Ambitious workers who are focused on carefully crafting a personal brand based on major accomplishments and strengths don’t want to reveal any weaknesses or lack of knowledge and will tend to build transactional, reciprocal relationships as a result.
For those with the passion of the Explorer, money and personal wealth are just by-products of an individual pursuing her passion. It means little if it is not attached to making a difference in terms of reaching higher levels of performance or creating more value for others in the domain. For this reason, we’d suspect that our more recent titans—Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg—had a degree of what we’ve defined as worker passion: They stayed deeply involved in taking on big challenges, learning, and risking money and reputation to make an impact, long after they had attained status and wealth and other external markers of success.
This brings us back to the question: Why does worker passion matter and why should organizations care whether workers are passionate or ambitious? In a global environment increasingly characterized by mounting performance pressure, rapid change, and more frequent disruptions, large traditional institutions will have to take on new roles, develop new capabilities, and fundamentally shift their relationships with customers and partners in order to survive. Those that have employees focused on learning and performance, who embrace new challenges and experiment with new ideas, will have a better chance of navigating a complex and shifting global environment than those with a workforce focused on racking up positive performance reviews and climbing ladders.
Passionate workers are the ones who can help companies build the ability to grow stronger in the face of unexpected challenges and navigate the world of constant disruption. Ambitious workers are the ones who can drive execution to the plan. Attracting and retaining people with the passion of the Explorer requires effort. More than any extrinsic rewards, these people need an environment that will help them to grow more rapidly and achieve more of their potential. Companies would do well to ask themselves whether the work environments they provide can help to catalyze, nurture, and amplify their passion. Ambition is no longer enough; our more challenging world demands nothing less than passion.