Do you call yourself ambitious?

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By Lyndsay Freeman and edited by Shamsa Lea. This article is part of the Propel Her Australia – Defence Women’s Leadership Series.

If I asked you to describe yourself, would the word ambitious make the list?

If not, why not? Do you associate the term with positive words like ‘committed’ and ‘inspirational’ – or negative words like ‘self-serving’ and ‘pushy’?

Ambition is a complex and multi-dimensional concept that is used to describe people, projects, and goals. The Oxford Dictionary describes ambition as ‘the desire and determination to achieve success’, and by unpacking this meaning, it becomes clear why this valuable attribute is still not comfortably used by ADF members.

Within the dictionary meaning, the word ‘desire’ doesn’t equate to success; with both the fear of failure and the perceived risk to one’s pride affecting even the most confident go-getters. The freedom to express desire is very gendered. It is socially accepted for women to desire weight-loss, a new wardrobe, or better work/life balance – but are they permitted in society’s eyes to express a professionally ambitious desire to progress?

The word ‘determination’ prompts discussion on where the line lies on how much determination is deemed acceptable to openly display without leading to criticism. In the past, ambition has been confused with narcissism and self-promotion across all genders. But ambition is not a personality trait; it’s a driver that motivates you to reach a goal and get appropriate recognition for your skills and hard work. Organisationally, we need a military full of ambitious people that have the determination to continuously improve and adapt within the profession of arms. Striving to be successful and ambitious in achieving the mission should be the norm and encouraged by all leaders.

Lastly, in unpacking the word ‘success’, it is easy to assume that every ambitious woman has the ultimate goal of getting to the top. Success is personal and subjective, and means different things to different people. Studies show that men have more of a tendency to define success by their incomes and career achievements, whereas women generally place emphasis on job satisfaction and the quality of their family and community relationships. This means that women in male-dominated industries may find that their definitions of success never align with the norm and therefore aren’t valued as highly. 

Be ambitious in your own style

The Australian Defence Force, the organisation I am proudly a part of, has some of the most intelligent and driven women on the planet, so I don’t subscribe to the belief that there is a confidence and competence gap which prevents their recruitment ratios reaching the top positions. Are they succumbing to the ‘ambition gap’?

Studies show that ambition itself is highly gendered. Leading research institutions like Harvard and Columbia University have found that the cultural perception of ambitious women is defined by criticism and distrust, whereas it is viewed as a positive trait in men. At Columbia Business School, Professor Frank Flynn presented half his class with a case study about a fictional woman named “Heidi”, then gave the other half of the class the exact same case study with the name “Howard.” While the students rated Heidi and Howard equally competent, the more ‘assertive’ a student found Heidi to be, the more they disliked her. 

This study highlights the gendered way women and men are viewed when it comes to demonstrating leadership, drive and assertiveness, and that ‘shying away’ from using the word is certainly not a key impactor holding women back (look to unconscious bias in reporting and hiring, systemic and structural discrimination, nepotism, and an alarming lack of diverse representation for answers in that space!)

A Journey of Ambition

I’m an ambitious person. I remember my first exposure to the success that ambition brings when I was appointed Vice Captain of my High School in Newcastle. I realised that being in a position of influence meant my ideas for charity events and school improvements would be taken seriously. I know that my career after school had to be in an influential role where I was empowered to make positive change that benefited others. That was my ambition, and I told anyone who would listen – shamelessly and factually.

I joined the Australian Army in 2005 and the way I expressed my ambitions changed.  I remained very intrinsically driven by the idea that I deserved to succeed because I worked hard, had natural innovation and creativity, and genuinely cared for others. But in this new male-dominated environment that thrived off competition and status, my self-esteem and self-efficacy were eroding. It took me years to regain a belief in my abilities and a sense of value to the organisation. My ambitions had become secret dot-points scribbled in the back of my diary, and in that vulnerability, I never asked my supervisors or career managers for any special courses or deployments (and of course didn’t get given anything, and got blamed for not asking!)

Fast forward 16 years, and I am again seen as ambitious by others – and I feel ambitious within myself. In reality, I have missed significant career milestones and competitive postings due to having a family and co-locating with my defence spouse, but this has been the catalyst for me to deviate off the standard career progression path into a specialisation that I am passionate about – being the field of gender, conflict and security. My reconciliation with being viewed as ambitious has led to so many excellent opportunities, as well as generated empowering initiatives that open a space for others to create and safeguard positive change. 

Once you reframe how you view and use the word ‘ambition’ – what’s next? 

Start acting ambitious!

Ambition is the first step to success; the second is action. Here are some ways you can act ambitious:

1. Do ambition in your own way

I reached a point (just before COVID-19 hit) where I felt comfortable enough to openly reveal my ambitions. As my professional reputation and social media presence expanded, more people knew what I was passionate about, and exciting opportunities started to come my way. 

You DON’T need to look at ambition like this. Keep your ambitions private or within your circle of trust until you’re comfortable in sharing them – but be warned that once you hit a threshold where your successes and ambitious goals become inspirational to others, it will be harder to fly under the ‘humbleness radar’. 

Create your own rules for acting ambitious, and reconcile with the fact that being ambitious shouldn’t detract from a peaceful and balanced life. An ambitious woman schedules rest and relaxation to nourish a healthy body and creative mind. Re-energising is key to being productive, so be selective about what you spend your energy on. 

Your ambitions should be as dauntingly large, varied or achievable as you need to keep propelling forward. In the words of WW2 veteran and academic Mildred McAfee, “If you have a great ambition, take as big a step as possible in the direction of fulfilling it. The step may only be a tiny one, but trust that it may be the largest one possible for now.”

2. Empower yourself, authentically and unapologetically.

Without ambition and drive, your amazing potential is worthless. An ambitious woman empowers herself through actively seeking learning and skill development opportunities that motivate you. This includes cultivating your sense of ambition as well, and treating success as a process, not a destination. 

Empower yourself with the right advocates to guide you and support you to overcome challenges. Mentoring and networking will lead you to other ambitious people that may share your interests and open doors to exciting opportunities. These mentors and networks can give you the necessary push to propel forward if your ambition starts to dwindle. The key part of empowering yourself is celebrating your wins and taking time to recall your triumphs, particularly in times when you’re running low on ambitious energy. Breaks in actively pursuing your ambition are completely normal. Allowing yourself to break when needed, reassess and look at the bigger picture to see if you need to realign your goals is important.

3. Find your passion. 

In articles on goal-setting and choosing a career coachPropel Her offers frameworks about finding your passion and being able to articulate a path that drives you. In the ADF, we sometimes feel that our career path is out of our hands. Once you find that ‘thing’ that motives and anchors you, clearly communicate it with your supervisor and careers advisor so they can support you in strategising your career goals and mapping out a goal-oriented path (hint for leaders: this is a key factor in retention). 

Continually evaluate what is important to you and whether your passion still motivates you. Your goals and priorities shift and change, and few things kill motivation as effectively as rigidity. So treat finding your passion like an on-going journey to Mordor (I’ve never seen LOTR, is Mordor good?)

4. Empower those around you. 

As they say, behind every ambitious woman are ten others masking their own ambition. An ambitious woman coaches, mentors, and supports those around her because she knows how important it is to overcome obstacles and keep up the momentum.

A source of strength and unity for women is telling the truth about our journeys – the obstacles, the wins and the revelations. Seek out platforms and groups that are accessible for you to empower others and derive strength and support when you need it. 

Today is the day you reclaim the word

Use it to describe yourself, put it in your resume, encourage it in others, and be proud of your drive to progress in your career and make positive change. There is great power, great vulnerability and exceptional courage in saying the word aloud.

Now is the time when you stop asking if you’re appearing too ambitious…start asking whether you’re ambitious enough to be where you want to be in your career and your passions. Reframing how we all view the word ambition, particularly as women, will stop the ‘ambitious woman’ being an anomaly and empower us all.

“Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.” ~ Salvador Dali

Suggested resources

About the author

Lyndsay Freeman is a mother of two and a Transport Officer in the Australian Army. A former Chief of Army Scholar, she is currently the Senior Instructor for the ADF’s Gender, Peace & Security Courses at the Peace Operations Training Centre. Lyndsay is passionate about the ADF’s pivotal role in advocating for women’s empowerment across the globe. Twitter: @LyndsayFreeman8.

About the editor

Shamsa Lea is an Air Force Logistics Officer, leadership coach and Board Director of a veteran support organisation. She has been engaged in female recruitment, retention and progression activities in Defence for a number of years, with a specific interest in helping ADF women achieve their leadership potential.  Twitter: @ShamsaLea.