The Shakespearian play Macbeth opens with three witches predicting that Macbeth will one day be king. In doing so, they plant the seeds of ambition in both him and Lady Macbeth. This eventually turns into an all-consuming ambition for power, which leads to psychological distress, and finally their destruction.
Lady Macbeth was especially ambitious for her husband to become the all-powerful king of Scotland, and spent time and effort in persuading him to murder and overthrow King Duncan. She used many persuasive tactics, including challenging Macbeth’s masculinity by calling him a coward, adding that had she not been a woman she would have committed the murder herself.
Ironically, after actually achieving the goal of overthrowing King Duncan, Lady Macbeth is plagued with overpowering guilt, which manifests in strange behaviour like sleep walking and constantly trying to wash away apparent bloodstains on her hands. She slips into madness and eventually (apparently) takes her own life.
When does ambition become harmful?
Ambition – or the will to succeed - is often seen to be a trait that is commendable, especially for those aspiring to leadership positions. However, ambition can be harmful if one over-reaches. To be over-ambitious means that you are expecting to achieve more than what is realistic (perhaps you don’t have the skills, experience or resources required to attain your goal).
To be over-ambitious can also mean one may want to succeed, even though the means does not justify the end. This is known as ambition addiction, and was graphically depicted in the film The Wolf of Wall Street, about a broker Jordan Belfort, who makes a fortune using corrupt means. Years later he goes to jail for his financial crimes and realizes that he has lost everything, including family and friends. Only when it is too late does he realize that the means he used did not justify his driving ambition of being rich and supremely successful.
How to avoid being over-ambitious
A study by Judge & Kammeyer-Meuller (2012) reveals that highly ambitious people, while more materialistically successful when compared to those who were less ambitious, in fact had shorter lifespans.
Watch out for the following signs which point to over-zealous ambition:-
- Having grandiose, larger-than-life dreams: These tend to lead to you painting an excessively rosy picture of the future, and at the same time you feel a disdain for the present.
- A frenzied single-minded focus on goals: Do reflect on the means you are using, and balance these with your end goal.
- Displaying difficulty in relaxing and enjoying the simple pleasures of life.
- Exhibiting negative reactions to failure in general.
Here are some steps you can take to check yourself:-
- Practice gratitude and mindfulness, both of which have been shown to lead to enhanced psychological well-being.
- Observe those who have mastered the art of balancing their ambition with other priorities. Talk to them and ask them for some tips.
- Reflect on whether the means justifies the end. For example, when Macbeth hesitated in killing King Duncan, Lady Macbeth said she would rather kill her own child than back out of the conspiracy. To her, the end was so important that she was prepared to use any means whatsoever.
To sum up, excessive ambition has been dramatized by Shakespeare in Macbeth. What managers can learn from this is that while ambition is often praised as a commendable trait for aspiring leaders, being consumed by too much ambition can be damaging for both you and those around you too.