By Michael Giles, Ph.D.
Instructor at Holy Cross College

Michael Giles

Holy Cross College aims to form each student as a “Scholar, Citizen, Leader, and Disciple.” Several of these core objectives of Holy Cross College relate to my research, but let’s think about leadership for a moment. When my students and I talk about leadership, we want to discover what a good leader is, so that we can become that kind of person.

Now, one underrated but critically important key to transformational leadership is ambition. Ambition, or the love of glory, is like jet fuel for great leadership. All the great leaders have it – it is part of their “secret sauce.” This holds for leaders in every field of human endeavor. Greatness in politics, business, even academic and athletic competitions, all require some level of striving for glory. We encourage ambition in our spouses, children, and students, because we want to see them make the most of their opportunities. Yet we’re all vaguely aware that ambition is (or can be) dangerous too. We often find ourselves to be afraid of, or intimidated by, ambitious people. We regard them with suspicion, and for good reason. Why? Well, we suspect that they would take advantage of us, if they could. So, we should ask: is ambition, or the love of glory, a righteous desire? Can one be ambitious and a good leader?

My work seeks to understand ambition in the light of political philosophy and theology, in this case through the life and work of St. Augustine of Hippo. I demonstrate that Augustine shows a quite unexpected appreciation for the love of glory, despite his awareness of the many dangers that frequently attend it. Augustine draws a distinction between the love of glory and the desire to dominate, the latter of which he spurns.

Furthermore, Augustine’s view of ambition depends on another aspect of the “core four,” citizenship. One thing you quickly learn from Augustine is that a radical but unseen division exists in this world, a division which he describes in terms of citizenship. Every human person can be a citizen in one of two, and only two, cities. These are the “earthly” and “heavenly” cities. The heavenly city hangs on God’s promise; the earthly city hangs on a human standard of excellence.

The idea of the “two cities” clarifies what is at stake for a citizen, because it concerns our ultimate loyalty: what principle or ideal must not, at all costs, be betrayed? For the earthly city, that principle is love of self: independent, arrogant, assertive of its own primacy. For the heavenly city, it is the love of God – and of mankind as loved by God and as dependent on him. The surprising thing is that both the earthly and the heavenly realm seek glory and to live in a way that provokes praise. Glory is, in a way, an expression of the rivalry between these two cities. Each one claims to have or merit true glory. Therefore, a right kind of glory-seeking is possible because the saints attain it, even though they did not seek glory for its own sake.

Augustine suffers from zero doubt as to which city wins more glory. In the very first lines of the City of God, he writes, “Most glorious is the City of God: whether in this passing age, where she dwells by faith as a pilgrim among the ungodly, or in the security of that eternal home which she now patiently awaits until ‘righteousness shall return to judgment.’” Augustine says that the heavenly city can be glorious in this world and not merely in the next. For those who live as pilgrims now, that is a tremendously encouraging thought.

In the end, the effort to attain glory reveals the depth of our longing for immortality. If this longing really is part of man’s present nature, then nature bears the marks of a better nature or better life. Augustine’s respect for glory-seeking behavior provides a crucial indication of the role that the longing for immortality plays in his account of what a good leader is. The most ambitious people are, in a sense, the ones who most desire immortality and are accordingly most frightened by the certainty of death. That is why ambition can be dangerous for all of us. Instead of admitting to ourselves that we cannot have the real thing, the only thing worth striving for, by our own efforts alone, then we will settle for a passé imitation.

As human beings, therefore, we are “substitutionary” creatures, powerfully endowed with a longing for immortality but forever placing our hope for it in things that cannot deliver. We want real cane sugar but, somehow, put up with Splenda. The point is not to stop desiring immortality – indeed, we are constitutionally incapable of doing so – but to realize that even the pinnacle of ambition cannot satisfy this deepest thirst. Nor can any accomplishment do away with human dependence on God. The virtue of humility in a leader allows him or her to see, and live by, these truths.

Augustine’s presentation of ambition also forces us to look toward a third element of the core, which is discipleship. Ambition drives people to great lengths, doesn’t it? They sacrifice a lot of things to get to the top of their company, school, or country. This love of glory makes people delay instant gratification for the sake of some uncertain future return. This aspect of ambition is, I argue, very relevant for Christians. Why? A citizen of the heavenly city should want to add to its glory. But to do great things for Christ, a person must be disciplined. Just as in the case of someone climbing the corporate ladder, the spiritually ambitious cannot dispense with the need for constant chastening, correction, and transformation. This is discipleship, and unsurprisingly, we find it quite painful at times. Yet, Augustine might say, the return is glorious, totally worth it, and truly guaranteed.