ambition, contentment & agility

Business leadership is relentlessly demanding. You can never do enough. There are always more people to contact, more administration to do, more business development to find time for. You always need more projects. The hours are never enough.

For many years I have been fascinated by the relationship between ambition and contentment, and have tried to live in the middle of the tension. On the one hand I want to help change the world by initiating and contributing to generative projects. If there is a word that captures what this has looked and felt like for me it is ‘striving’.

On the other hand, I find little more attractive than the deep peace that is associated with people who are completely at home in their skin and their corner of the world – as it is. People who ooze satisfaction with ‘being’ rather than doing, who ‘smell the roses’ as a lifestyle rather than as weekend recreation.

Superficially, ambition and contentment might appear incompatible. I think not. What I am learning is that it is the constant ‘striving’ that robs life of peace and contentment, not the ambition. Let me try to explain …

A long time ago when computer use grew exponentially in the workplace, before we understood how good OH&S applied, Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) became a common phenomena. I was a sceptic until someone asked me to imagine tying small weights to the five fingers of my hand, then holding my hand out and attempting to hold it there for long periods of time. Strain.

Leadership ‘striving’ has a similar psychological effect. It is not necessarily the big challenges that wear us down, on the contrary, they typically fire us up. It is the constant, relentless striving, the chasing the carrot on the end of the stick that jades us. Over the last couple of months I have been attempting to turn off the striving, while not letting go of the big picture ambitions. There are a few things that help:

1. Taking time to reflect on what I have accomplished, rather than always focussing on the undone.

2. Making friends with the idea of ‘enough’

3. Finding or creating the spaces where I can simply be, not do.

As I write I know how much people assume the stages of life affect some of this. Most notably, parents of young children can feel like there is little room for peace. But it is a mindset thing. When our four kids were young, Maria was always so good at helping me appreciate the stage we were in, avoiding the trap of living for the illusionary freedom of the ‘the next stage’. As the lyrics of a Waifs tune that I’m sure I’ve quoted in this blog before say, “Take it in, now is the day that will not come again … and it’s here for the living, take it in.”

Or what about the words of advice I got many years ago on the subject of marriage? … “never marry someone who you wouldn’t be happy sharing the rest of your life even if they don’t change from the way they are now.”

I think healthy leadership is similar; working vigorously for a different future, but fully engaged, peaceful and alive in the reality of today.

There is another thing I will add into the mix of managing the tension. Relentless ambition becomes a treadmill when we lose the capacity to make constant changes in response to our environment. Hard work that loses sight of a defined outcome is just a program of constant meaningless activity. Clarity of outcome is the key to agility.

So, a potted view of how to stay well while navigating the demands of leadership has three prongs:

1. Work towards a better reality: ambition

2. Contentment with my lot: peace

3. Focus on outcomes not activity: agility

May you be ambitious, peaceful and agile.

One thought on “ambition, contentment & agility

  1. Too many times I’ve seen managers looking around the office and watching people take a break. They freak out and try to break it up.

    They should be focusing on what people are accomlishing. There is an excellent book called “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It.” A great book that shows that results are more important than looks.

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