You need to be ambitious to be successful. But ambition can get you in trouble, too.

CCL research shows that leaders who don’t handle their ambition properly can damage their careers and undercut organizational success. Excessive ambition can cause you to:

  • Show poor follow-through and make poor strategic decisions
  • Have difficult interpersonal relationships
  • Lack the trust of others

Three basic needs drive ambition — and all three can be over-done.

The need for competence. Of course you want to be competent. You want others to see you as competent. Being right, making the right decisions, doing the right things make you confident and capable. But beware of being intensely driven by the need to get it right the first time, every time. If your need for competence is on overdrive, your sense of superiority, competitiveness and pride are taken to an extreme. Your desire to be right, win a fight and achieve your own goals will affect your ability to get things done with others – and ultimately affect your career prospects.

The need for achievement. You value hard work and top performance. The need for achievement pushes you to drive yourself and others with intense pressure to perform. If overdone, you push too far, exhausting yourself and those around you. You behave unilaterally and are seen as abrasive. Being in charge — having power and control — fuels you. Carried to the extreme, the need for achievement will have negative effects on your co-workers, teams and the organization — as well as for your friends, family and your long-term health.

The need for rewards. You want to be successful, feel successful and be seen as successful. This includes the perks, privileges and honors that accompany success. In your desire for recognition, you may over-sell yourself. If you are over-concerned about your personal profile or brand, you risk losing sight of the work and the larger context. When you take the desire for status to its extreme, you’ll spend too much effort on protecting your level and its privileges. When you over-promote yourself, others are likely to resent you — again, undermining your ability to motivate and collaborate with others.

Managing the intensity of these three drivers of ambition requires self-awareness as well as understanding of your context. Some organizational cultures and some situations (such as pushing to finish an important project or working towards a promotion) may require you to dial up the intensity of your ambition.

But moderate ambition — a balanced approach — is usually the best solution for the long haul.

A new CCL guidebook, Managing Ambition, will help you figure out if you have a problem with ambition — and what to do about it.

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