Ambition taboo

Apparently Frank Sartor (former NSW Labor minister) thinks former NSW premier Kristina Keneally, who he ran against in the leadership contest for the party in 2009, is “almost obscenely ambitious”.

The description is in his new memoir “The fog on the hill”.

It struck me as an odd choice of words. I just can’t imagine any man being characterised as obscenely ambitious – perhaps very, extraordinarily, overweeningly ambitious. But obscenely?

The thing is, ambition is just not seemly for women. And the rare woman who makes no bones about her level of ambition is  brave indeed. Yet clearly, a reasonable does of ambition is a prerequisite for leadership roles of all kinds.

Women leaders are of course judged by different standards. And ambition is still closely associated with an alpha male leadership style. Many women understand this implicitly and in fact find themselves quite uncomfortable with being described as ambitious.

As I recently pointed out a the CEDA Women and Leadership forum in Adelaide, even the word ‘leadership’ leaves me cold. I prefer to talk about my ability to influence rather than lead, although I suspect this is my female conditioning.

And I applaud women who are forthright about their ambitions. I was delighted to hear Joanna White, SA and NT state general manager of NAB business banking,  talk about this topic at the same event.

She’s often asked if she would like to be CEO of NAB, she said. And her answer is : yes, she would.  It was refreshing to hear such honesty.  

Women need to find a way to come to terms with the ambition stuff. It’s not obscene for a high performing woman to have strong ambition – it’s simply de rigeur.

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