Is ambition something you’re born with? Or is it something you acquire?
The question has long troubled psychologists and leaders alike. If ambition is something that is hardwired into your nature, then creating an ambitious, driven organization is easy: All you have to do is get HR and your recruiters to attract the right kind of talent, and you’re done.
But if ambition can be manufactured, then the pressure shifts to those responsible for running the business. Culture, attitude and training play a pivotal role—the company leadership is responsible if the business turns out to be lackluster, mediocre in its performance, and lacking the necessary drive to achieve.
So what can we learn by gazing across the Pacific?
East vs. West
Ambition within a company has to start from the individuals that work in it—here the reception that this trait gets is a little patchy.
Most company cultures in the West encourage it and laud those who are ambitious. While others—such as those that can be found in Japan—frown upon it, perceiving overreaching ambition as an undesirable trait that disrupts the harmony of group dynamics.
There’s clearly a dichotomy here: While every company in the world wants to perform well—to be the best in its field, to drive innovation, and to be a leader—there’s no clear understanding on the building blocks to make this happen.
A recent study by Timothy Judge from the University of Notre Dame and John Kammeyer-Mueller from the University of Florida suggests that ambition is a learned trait. It’s true that nature may play a small part but it’s nurture that’s really responsible for helping ambition bloom, say the researchers.
And in this regard, the Chinese appear to be masters of the technique.
There Are Two Types of Ambition
From an organizational perspective, there are two types of ambition in play: individual and collective. The first type can be imported into a company by hiring star players to kick-start its drive. But it’s the second type that’s really important: Collective ambition can be manufactured by corporate culture and then channeled to specific goals.
Chinese companies have long been seen as the underdogs on the world stage, starting from a national culture that has long stifled individualism and hasn’t been strong at supporting entrepreneurship. As a result, forward-thinkers such as Alibaba, Lenovo and Huawei have been quick to adopt practices that help them overcome this, and have launched them on the global stage.