Sheryl Sandberg famously inclined in her Lean In book that girls aren’t bossy, they have leadership potential. I’ve so identified with that comment – in my early days of directing people, teams – and most frequently my little sister, she used to retort with defiance in her eyes “You’re not the boss of me.”
Over the years, I’ve reclaimed those derogatory terms by continuing to learn empathy, develop a better emotional barometer and people management skills. You’ve heard of being a ladyboss, right? I’ve also learned that soft skills help inspire and motivate a team to do their best work – and ultimately that’s more powerful than telling people what to do.
But there’s one part of my identity where a word I claim still feels like something you shouldn’t speak in polite company. Ambitious.
Ambition as defined by Webster’s dictionary means having or showing a strong desire and determination to succeed. But somehow it’s become a dirty word, even in our progressive society where we talk openly about the wage gap and how the pipeline of female leadership gets smaller and smaller with more experience.
Somehow, having ambitions – goals and a hunger to do my very best and achieve those outcomes – feels unfeminine or unlikeable. In fact, our friend Webster goes on to provide some possible synonyms, including power-hungry, pushy, forceful and determined.
I have news for the world. I’m ambitious, and I have somewhat of a competitive streak. Those characteristics make me good at my job. The other aspects of being ambitious – having intrinsic motivation, being adept at building plans for how to move myself forward, and being purposeful and intentional about what I do – makes me special. Living out those values at work is what allows me to lead with authenticity and passion.
So here’s what I’m doing, in my own life, to make my intentions both clear and present – and still creating a safe space while the world gets comfortable with the idea.
I’m putting ambition where it belongs in the scope of my life: it is not ultimate, but penultimate. The good of the team, the good of the work, and many other things are more important.
I’m channeling my ambition into WHO I want to be, and letting that drive the WHAT. I’m making it clear to those I work with and for that my ambition is not drive for the sake of a title or self-interested gain. Instead, my chief aim is to build a life of purpose, and thus I put my best energy into those things that build quality and perspective. Then, I’m prepared to put on my negotiation hat if necessary to make sure the WHAT follows.
I’m leveraging that ambition for good. I volunteer at least 8 hours a month for an organization I care passionately about. I take what I’ve learned at work and infuse it into my volunteerism.
I’m using my ambition for others. I’m my own worst critic, and have a really easy time shaping my own goals for how to improve. I’m learning to channel my ambition into bold goal-setting for my team, and just like in parenting, I can feel pride and enthusiasm wearing ambition on behalf of my direct reports – and even the intern candidate I interviewed today.
I’m building meaningful relationships. I don’t expect that my ambition will make me a coffer of friends, but because my ambition is only part of the fabric of my life, I hope people will see the other parts of my character – kindness, gratefulness – and will build trust in those.
I know that my actions are only part of a broader story and a world that needs to change. But until then, I’m taking back ambition, and step by step will be owning it every day.
That sounds exactly like the thing it would take an ambitious woman to accomplish.