Monday, January 16, 2023
Tomorrow you have a job interview. A friend mentions casually that she has heard that your potential new supervisor is ambitious. You begin to wonder to yourself, “What does that mean? Does he have a big ego? Is he after money? Power? Recognition? Will he step on me like a rung on a ladder to higher places?”
But then, you pump the breaks on your negativity. You look on the bright side, “Maybe he is a team builder with a high value on serving with excellence. Perhaps, he is driven to make everyone around him better and lead the organization to achieve great things.” Finally, you bottom-line it for yourself, “Well even if he is driven by ego, I would rather work for someone who is pushing toward something, whatever the motivation, than a passive director with no ambition.”
In this article, we will consider ambition and leadership. Would you want to be known as an ambitious leader? Is ambition in a leader a good quality? In general, is it negative, positive, or neutral? Should we renounce ambition, celebrate it, or do something else with it? Perhaps an ancient bishop can give us some insight into ambition in leadership.
Many think of Saint Augustine as a philosopher or theologian, but he was more than that. He spent the majority of his life shepherding the flock of God as a bishop. Accordingly, his most famous work, Confessions, is not simply his memoirs, but a spiritual autobiography with a pastoral intention to guide others in their journey toward God (as recounted in Revisions 1.6.1).
In Confessions, Augustine wrestles with his own ambition. In so doing, he opens a spiritual window to give us a clearer view of our own ambition and a path toward a rightly directed and realistic ambition that will benefit ourselves and others. Considering Augustine’s self-reflections on ambition in his Confessions may in the end help us to understand our own ambitions without the need for such a public confession.
In general, Augustine shows respect for his parents, especially for his mother, about whom he has almost nothing negative to say. To Augustine, she was truly a saint. But when it comes to the way his mother, father, and teachers formed his ambitions, he gives strong words of condemnation. He complained, “The people who forced me on were not acting well … they thought only of sating man’s insatiable appetite for a poverty tricked out as wealth and a fame that is but infamy” (Confessions, 1.12.19).
Authority figures forcefully shaped Augustine’s ambitions toward money and notoriety. They were not concerned mainly for his personal character, but “their primary concern was that I should learn rhetoric and persuasive speech” (2.24), for these were the chief means to achieve success in the Greco-Roman world of Augustine’s day. While people praised Augustine’s father for the sacrifices he made for his son to put him in the best schools, Augustine later in life judged this as his father’s shameless ambition forced upon himself (2.3.5).
In time, peer pressure and personal hubris joined in with the authority figures in his life to shape and direct Augustine’s ambitions. He admitted that, along with the company of other ambitious students, he began to study “treatises on eloquence” longing “to excel, though my motive was the damnably proud desire to gratify my human vanity” (3.4.7). In his twenties, he joined with a cult of ambition, a kind of society of deceived and deceiving idolaters, who devoted themselves, in increasingly competitive ways, to their twisted ambitions: “We pursued trumpery popular acclaim, theatrical plaudits, song-competitions and the contest for ephemeral wreaths. … I pursued, these things I did, in the company of friends who through me and with me were alike deceived” (4.1.1)
Augustine’s ambitions eventually drove him to the highest levels of his career, from the margins of the Roman Empire to its very center. He was appointed to the important position of professor of rhetoric in the city of Milan. Augustine’s most recognized biographer, Peter Brown, explains the significance of this role: “As the Imperial court resided in Milan, this was an important appointment. A professor of rhetoric would deliver the official panegyrics on the Emperor and the consuls of the year” (58). Augustine had made it. What now could possibly break him out of his ambitious quest for money and adulation? His inner ambitions had been thoroughly formed by his parents, teachers, and colleagues and had acquired the accoutrements of success.
Reflection: Have our ambitions been malformed? How might our parents, teachers, or other authority figures contribute to our malformation? What part do our contemporary culture and colleagues play in shaping what we want and what we strive for? What is our personal responsibility in forming our ambitions? Where is God while our ambitions are being misdirected?
Awakening to Unhappiness
Augustine’s ambitions drove him to where he wanted to go, but he discovered that the place he ended up was not where he wanted to be. He was successful, but he wasn’t happy. His unhappiness came to a head on a certain day. While he was preparing to deliver a panegyric in honor of the emperor, which should have been the delightful pinnacle of his achievements, his “heart was panting with anxiety and seething with feverish, corruptive thoughts” (Confessions, 6.6.9). Traveling through Milan with his friends he noticed a poor, drunk beggar “making merry” (6.6.9). He recounts his response:
I groaned and pointed out to the friends who were with me how many hardships our idiotic enterprises entailed. Goaded by greed, I was dragging my load of unhappiness along, and feeling it all the heavier for being dragged. Yet while all our efforts were directed to the attainment of unclouded joy, it appeared that this beggar had already beaten us to the goal, a goal which we would perhaps never reach ourselves. With the help of a few paltry coins he had collected by begging, this man was enjoying the temporal happiness for which I strove by so bitter, devious, and roundabout a contrivance. His joy was not true joy, to be sure, but what I was seeking in my ambition was a joy far more unreal; and he was deniably happy while I was full of foreboding; he was carefree, I apprehensive (6.6.9).
Augustine’s eyes were opened to the sad end of his ambition. This awakening began a process of Augustine redirecting his ambitions toward different aims.
Reflection: What are we striving for? If we attain it will it make us happy or secure? Have we had an awakening experience? Is happiness a legitimate goal for our ambitions? If so, what kind of happiness?
In reality, reorienting the ambitions toward a better goal does not occur in an instant. Misdirected ambitions bring about a kind of pleasure. The public notoriety and material benefits that come with ambition for power and wealth are not cast off easily or quickly. It’s just not practical, and perhaps too risky, to undo the ingrained patterns of ambition. Further, how embarrassing it would be to have to admit you were wrong and return to the old ambitions! Augustine mused within himself:
“Wait a little, for those things are very pleasant too; they hold no slight sweetness. We should not be too ready to shrug them off, for to return to them later would be ignoble. Consider what a fine thing it is for a person to win a reputation. What prize could be more desirable?” (6.19)
Eventually, however, Augustine decided that the potential temporal rewards of misaimed ambitions were too insecure; whereas, ambitions directed toward God had immediate and sure benefits.
He voiced his inner questions to his friends, demanding an answer, “Tell me: where do we hope all our efforts are going to get us? What are we looking for? In whose cause are we striving?” (8.6.15) In Augustine’s day, hardly any attainment could be higher than to become a member of the circle of “Friends of the Emperor.” Would they ever attain to that high office? If they did, that position itself, Augustine complains, would be fraught with negotiating dangerous perils. Augustine concludes, “And how long would it take us to get there? Whereas I can become a friend of God here and now if I want to?” (8.6.15)
As we read Confessions and so many of his writings, we observe that Augustine spent the rest of his life redirecting his ambition toward loving God and loving his neighbor in God. His ambition did not cease; no one could ever accuse him of being a spiritually passive, or a laissez-faire type of leader. Though he often considered his pastoral leadership a burden he had to bear and the accoutrements of his leadership were far fewer, the trajectory of his influence trended upward and expanded beyond what he could have ever imagined, not for himself but for God’s purposes.
Reflection: Augustine ultimately left Milan and returned to North Africa with the intention of starting a monastery, but was seized upon and almost forced to become a bishop. Does redirecting our ambitions require us to leave our secular job and enter vocational ministry? Is it realistic to stay in the same job while redirecting our ambitions? What might that look like?
God’s Good Use of Selfish Ambition
Ambition is complicated. Perhaps we would like to create easy categories to understand ambition; it’s either all good or all bad. Or there is good ambition and there is bad ambition. While this latter claim is true theoretically, that’s not how it works out in the real life of a fallen world.
Augustine lived in the real world. Surprisingly, Augustine claimed that God worked with and through the malformation of his ambitions. First, God used his education for good purposes even though those who forced his learning upon him did it for misdirected ends. Augustine acknowledges the goodness of God’s intentions for him even when other’s motives were not good:
“The people who forced me on were not acting well either, but good accrued to me all the same from you, my God. They did not foresee to what use I would put the lessons they made me learn. … But you, who have even kept count of our hairs, turned to my profit the misguided views of those who stood over me and me made learn. … In this way, you turned to my good the actions of those who were doing no good” (1.12.19).
Second, even as Augustine’s ambitions were being malformed, God was working in Augustine’s struggles, pains, and disappointments to reveal to him a higher way to turn Augustine’s longings and desires to God: “You were even present to me, mercifully angry, sprinkling very bitter disappointments all over my unlawful pleasures so that [might seek a pleasure free from all disappointment. If only I could have done that, I would have found nothing but Yourself, Lord, nothing but You yourself who use pain to make Your will known to us, and strike only to heal” (2.2.4).
While Augustine frustratingly pursued misdirected desires, God was kindly amused, knowing that only ambition for God will satisfy the soul: “Very bitter were the frustrations I endured in chasing my desires, but all the greater was Your kindness in being less and less prepared to let anything other than Yourself grow sweet to me” (6.6.9).
Amazingly, God was shaping Augustine for Himself, even as others were working ardently to form his ambitions in the wrong direction toward wealth and prominence.
Reflection: How might God redeem our misdirected ambitions? What good has God brought out of our quest for worldly success? Does the fact that God brings good out of evil intentions justify our wrong motives? How has God used the pain and stresses caused by our ambitions to drive us to Himself? How might have the Joseph narrative in Genesis 37-50 influenced the way Augustine viewed his own story of ambition? How are their stories alike and how are they different?
And Augustine lived happily ever after seeking only the love of God and never again directing his ambitions toward the praise of the crowd.
No, that’s not how the story goes. Life’s not like that. And Augustine is much too honest to hide the complexities of his ambitions. His unceasing desire to win the respect and adoration of people particularly haunted him. Not knowing for sure whether his ambitions were directed toward the love of God and people or toward a quest for the love and appreciation of others troubled him deeply.
For him, whether one is serving others well for God or for human praise is uniquely difficult to quantify. He reasoned that if we want to know if we are driven by wealth, we can simply give away our money. If we desire to know just how much we are motivated by lust, we can deny ourselves sexual pleasures. But if we want to know the depth of our longing for the admiration of people, we would be insane to renounce acting kindly toward them or stop leading them with excellence. Respect and admiration often come naturally with doing good things toward others, so the ambition for others to think fondly of us or to admire us is a most insidious temptation.
In Confessions, Augustine did not know for sure what was driving his ambitions, so he cried out to God, “You know how my heart groans to You over this, and how my eyes stream with tears; for there is a dangerous infection here, and how far I am clear of it is not easy for me to discern. I am sorely afraid about my hidden sins, which are plain to Your eyes but not to mine.” (10.37.60) Obviously, Augustine was very honest and realistic when it came to the motivations of his heart. Much of the time, he wasn’t sure what drove his ambition, and he was convinced that his reasons for doing public good deeds were often impure. He regularly had multiple reasons for his actions, some good and some bad.
James K. A. Smith puts it well: “If you ask him, ‘Are you doing this for God or for your own vanity?’ Augustine’s answer is an honest, ‘Yes'” (91). If we are honest with ourselves, our answer is often “Yes” as well.
Reflection: Is our fear of leading for the wrong reasons keeping us from using the gifts God has given to us? How might we keep a check on what is driving our ambitions? What part might prayer and confession play in purifying our ambitions?
Back to the job interview. Thirty minutes into the interview, you are very pleased with the way things have gone so far. At this point, your interviewer leans forward, asking you plainly, “Do you consider yourself ambitious?”
Recalling Augustine’s honest journey through both the negative and positive aspects of ambition, you respond with a convincingly authentic “I must confess…”
The ideas for this article were generated out of James K. A. Smith’s chapter, “Ambition: How to Aspire” in his highly recommended book, On the Road with Saint Augustine. Any shortcomings in this article are my own.
Dr. Allen is Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Liberty and the former executive director of Faith and the Academy, as well as the former director of the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement. He is co-author of a number of books, including Apologetics at the Cross and The Augustine Way, which is slated for publication in May 2023.
This article was taken from the fifth volume of Faith and the Academy, a journal published by the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement. Read more at this link.