About Being Bold

How ambition can be translated into leadership.

If the name James Champy rings a bell with you, it’s probably not because he is the chairman of Perot Systems’ consulting practice but because he is to Michael Hammer what Robert Waterman is to Tom Peters: Champy is the other guy who is on the dust jacket of 1993’s Reengineering the Corporation, the book that kicked off the reengineering phenomenon. You are likely not to be familiar with Nitin Nohria, who is a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School.

Regardless of whether you think that reengineering is one of the signal business practices of the last decade or a bunch of hooey, The Arc of Ambition: Defining the Leadership Journey (Perseus Books; $26), a book that Champy and Nohria have collaborated on, could be of interest to you as the subject is how ambition can be translated into leadership.

Ambition is a loaded word. One may think of the character Sammy Glick in Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, who was certainly an ambitious young man, who was always on the make, looking for the next angle. Although Champy and Nohria don’t use that example, they do acknowledge, “Ambition, we think, needs a better reputation.” And they work to build that reputation by providing examples of real people who fall into three categories:

• Creators: those who develop something new 
• Capitalizers: those who take an innovation and make good with it 
• Consolidators: those who sustain what the Capitalizers have put into motion.

There’s not a whole lot in the book in the way of breakthrough ideas. Rather, there are observations like, “What is important is being out in the world, ear to the ground, nose to the wind, eyes and mind open to signs and portents of what millions will care and talk about before it quite occurs to them to do so. We believe that you can train yourself to listen and watch—and then act on what you see and hear.” This is certainly not the heated rhetoric of Reengineering the Corporation (e.g., “Reengineering should be brought in only when a need exists for heavy blasting. Marginal improvement requires fine-tuning; dramatic improvement demands blowing up the old and replacing it with something new.”).

Still, when you are working to achieve something that goes beyond the ordinary, beyond the status quo, the going can be difficult at best. Inertia is a powerful force. To say nothing of the debilitating sense that there are people who know more or who are more capable in a given field (the Wright Brothers wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if they’d listened to the “experts”). Ordinary people (e.g., Ted Turner, Michael Dell) can, if they are ambitious enough, do extraordinary things.—GSV