Is it better to be a 'determined' leader or an 'ambitious' one?

When asked this question some time ago, I said that I’d prefer to be determined.

When I thought of the word ambitious, it was associated with negative terms like greedy; ruthless; uncaring; arrogant and self-interested. The word determined however, had a completely different meaning for me. It glowed with positivity and brought to mind concepts like resilient; heroic; unwavering; purposeful and so on.

Now you don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to know that the way in which we apply meaning to words, influences how we think and act. I had no doubt that my attitude to ambition and being ambitious had influenced my choices over the years. Thus, having been asked the question above, I decided to challenge my ‘mental files’ and see whether they needed updating.

I started by looking at the definitions.

The Oxford Dictionary defined being determined as “possessing or displaying resolve” and being ambitious as “having or showing a strong desire and determination to succeed”.

I looked at the synonyms. The word ambitious was associated with being aggressive, power-hungry and pushy. At first I felt relieved having found evidence that my mental-files were indeed 'correct'. However, then I looked at the synonyms for determined. To my disappointment, it too had a significant number of related words that had negative connotations, such as stubborn, dogged and obstinate. Ego deflated.

Next I decided to divide the synonyms into three groups. Those that were clearly positive, those that were negative and those that could be either positive or negative, depending on the context. While my analysis lacked scientific-rigour, it was sufficient to show that the two words were comparable. In fact, being determined had a higher proportion of negative words associated with it, than being ambitious. It also appeared as though context was more likely to influence whether being ambitious was seen as negative or positive.

So, after much deliberation (possibly too much?) I reached the following three conclusions.

  1. I would be comfortable with being called determined and/or ambitious. Both are good –  it's how they're applied that really matters.

  2. It’s worth challenging mental-files once in a while because sometimes they turn out to be wrong.

  3. When you go looking for evidence that you are right, you usually succeed. Finding the truth is harder and comes with a far lower guarantee of success.

If you were asked the question, what would you say?

Reference: Definition from Oxford Dictionary, as annotated on – 02 November 2015.

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