The antidote to ambition: Haman’s altruism

So what steps must be taken to get free of this control and what records do you have of those set free please?

As sydnlm reminds me, all the philosophy in the world doesn’t help when ambition has taken control. Let’s get practical about combating selfish ambition. I don’t have all the answers, but I want to open a discussion, and I hope you’ll add your thoughts.

Erica posted the following comment in response to a previous post on the subject:

“[God has] also taught me that combating envy, bitterness and selfish ambition with delighting in others’ well-being (or good fortune), unconditional forgiveness (through prayer and release to God) and altruism, is quite an antidote!”

Let’s look at those suggestions, and a couple of my own, using the story of Haman. The book of Esther sets the stage over a handful of chapters, describing the increasing tension between Xerxes’ right-hand man and the Jew who antagonizes him by refusing to bow. Haman just will not let this slight go, to the point that he builds a 75′ high gallows just for Mordecai. For good measure, he sets in motion a plan for the genocide of millions of Mordecai’s people.

One morning, the gallows ready, Haman heads to the king’s court to seek permission to avenge his enemy. It’s been a good week. He’s second-in-charge, he was the sole guest at a dinner with the king and queen, and he’s been invited back for dinner again tonight. The king invites him in right away, seeking his advice on the best way to honour someone. Haman’s a smart man and quickly catches the third-person reference; of course, Xerxes is referring to Haman himself. So in his response, he pulls back the curtain on his personal ambitions: wear the king’s robes and crown, ride the king’s horse in a one-man parade, and have one of the most noble officials cry his praises. Xerxes loves the idea and tells Haman to do all of that… for Mordecai.

That scene drips with irony for us, but it was brutal for Haman. He runs home to his wife, mourning and covering his head. She gently points out that Haman has pitted himself against one of God’s people and “will surely fall before him.” Sure enough, everything collapses for him in a day. Haman’s ambition leads to great success for a time, but it shows us some warning signs and ideas that align perfectly with Erica’s comment.

1. Forgive unconditionally. Holding onto perceived slights will literally destroy you. Envy and bitterness ends up holding you captive. It feeds the addiction that may linger at the root of ambition. It blinds Haman and leads him to irrational hatred and genocide. If you peel back the layers, what motivation do you find for your ambition?

This one is very personal for me; it’s taken me years to let go of a comment from a supervisor that fueled my drive for success. I used it as motivation, taking steps for years in a misguided attempt to prove myself to someone who had long forgotten the slight. I recently had an interaction that cast light on that situation and discovered that I have fully forgiven.

2. Altruism. I had to look this one up. Dictionary.com says altruism is “unselfish concern for the welfare of others.” Reference.com adds that altruism goes beyond charity in that it “suggests that the gift may actually cause some harm to the giver.” So to put sacrificial giving in the context of ambition, it means to intentionally sacrifice your own ability to advance in order to push someone else forward. Haman’s altruism was forced on him, but what if he had chosen it? Could he have been saved?

Could an ambitious person deliberately choose altruism? What would happen if he did? I think Henri Neuwen did that. The Henri Nouwen Society tells us of his early years:

He developed quickly into an energetic and enterprising young man who always wanted to assume leadership. Later, his father would say of him that he was very intense and would often ‘flare up’ if his leadership was not recognised.

At age 42, he became a tenured professor at Yale but couldn’t shake his restlessness. He sought another line of ministry in Bolivia but wrote there, “Slowly and painfully, I discovered that my spiritual ambitions were different from God’s will for me.” Comparing thoughts from a number of resources, it seems he became increasingly uncomfortable with the way his desires were being fed. Not only was he struggling with ambition, but some posit that he had a lifelong struggle with homosexual desire. So he walked away. He moved to Toronto and joined the L’Arche community, where he poured his life into the disabled.

3. Pursue opportunities for anonymous generosity. Wikipedia says of altruism that,

Pure altruism consists of sacrificing something for someone other than the self… with no expectation of any compensation or benefits, either direct, or indirect (e.g., receiving recognition for the act of giving).

I agree with Wikipedia that pure altruism is probably not attainable. The closest you can get is to assure complete anonymity in your sacrifice, to intentionally remove the ability to receive recognition. The regular practice of anonymously serving, giving and praising others erodes your desire to build a kingdom for yourself. It won’t take that sin away; there’s a heart issue that needs to be dealt with. But at the least, that drive for success can be redirected towards others. The joy in advancing others can be just as addictive, and far more healthy.

4. Delight in others’ well-being. I have always had a strong sense of ambition. What do you do when your name means “king,” you’re identified as a leader in grade 2, and you’ve always been the youngest at any job you’ve ever put your hand to? For me, my sense of ambition was tempered by a huge gift: At age 37, I was asked to give direction to Wycliffe USA’s leadership development efforts. In other words, I was given a job that required me to expend effort to help others be successful. That meant I rejoiced when I participated in a process that led to the selection of a 40-year-old Latino to the Board, and I rejoiced when a 30-year-old friend of mine became the youngest vice president in Wycliffe USA’s history. On a number of occasions, I had to deal with feelings of jealousy and competition. It was wonderful therapy for me.

5. Studiously avoid taking credit. This is the principle of the window and the mirror: when things go right, think of a window and all the people who contributed to make the initiative successful; when things go wrong, think of a mirror, pointing back at you alone. It’s a discipline I work hard at. Years ago, I set a goal to never make excuses, but to own my mistakes. Then my father-in-law taught me to avoid using singular pronouns in talking about plans and successes. Use “we” as much as possible, and “I” as little as possible. My view has recently been transformed by doing a study through the Old Testament on the phrase, “the Lord was with him.” As I look back on my life, it’s clear that the Lord has been with me and made me successful in some areas where I had no right to be. I often say that it’s God’s sense of humour that He put a graphic designer in charge of a Bible translation organization. There’s very little success that I can claim any credit for. Of course, saying it is one thing. Believing it is another.

Over the last two months, I’ve enjoyed a sermon series on Esther by Mark Driscoll. I borrowed heavily on his thoughts in unpacking Haman’s story. So let me wrap up with some points he made about ambition.

Ultimately, ambition is about seeking glory. The question is, whose glory are you seeking? Most of my points in this post refer to redirecting glory to others. But the only one truly deserving of glory is the King of kings, the Lord of Lords and the President of Presidents. As we seek God’s glory, as we seek to expand His kingdom, as we delight in Him, He redeems our broken, twisted desires and satisfies our hungry souls.

So my conclusion is not to suppress your ambition. Why not seek to do everything you can to bring someone else glory?

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Young leaders aren’t into credit

In March and April, I did a series on young leaders. Another characteristic came to surface recently that I wanted to add to the list: young leaders don’t care who gets the credit.

You’ve heard the saying, “There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.” (Interestingly, I just looked it up and no one really knows who said that!) Well, it’s certainly true in an open source, viral  world like ours.

If you’re not interested in hierarchy and moving up the ladder, but rather in being part of a team, then ideas tend to flow more freely. If you’re not into self-promotion and defending your territory, but rather in seeing your ends successful through any means available, then you’re free to celebrate when movements ignite and move faster and farther than your reach.

Let me point out a concrete example. Wycliffe is celebrating the fact that 109 Bible translation projects were started this past year. That’s the highest number in history! Who started them? A lot of different people. In fact, the only thing I can tell you with confidence is that only a very few were started by Wycliffe. And only a handful working on the projects even know that they’re working on a Wycliffe project. They’re working for organizations like SIL, Translation Association of the Philippines and Ghana Institute for Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation. The fact is that Wycliffe doesn’t really translate Bibles. Someone came to me yesterday and pointed out that a recent CBN video claimed that Wycliffe translators were working on Luke 2 — the Christmas story — for nine languages in Tanzania, pointing out that it just wasn’t true.

I say, “Who cares?” As Paul said to the Philippians when he heard some preachers were preaching Christ from selfish motives,

So how am I to respond? I’ve decided that I really don’t care about their motives, whether mixed, bad, or indifferent. Every time one of them opens his mouth, Christ is proclaimed, so I just cheer them on!

The important thing is that 109 translation projects were started! Let’s continue to work in a way that gives the statisticians headaches trying to figure out how to assign the credit. For instance, African nationals doing translation, trained by SIL, funded by the Orthodox Church, their finished product paid for by the Bible League and cheered on and supported by Wycliffe?

The fact is that issues of control and credit have crippled many initiatives before they ever got off the ground. God will hold many people and many organizations accountable one day for that incredible waste of resources.

Here’s my question: How can we make this happen faster? What about open source translation? What are your ideas?

Part V: Young leaders give authority away

Young leaders give authority away. I’m not necessarily talking about delegation, but about how young leaders are less concerned with who gets the credit and more concerned with the accomplishments of a team.

They look for people who have a passion and a vision for a particular area and turn that area of responsibility over to them – to succeed or fail in glorious fashion. The result, with this wary but entrepreneurial generation, might be an incredibly creative idea that’s not ruined by top-down management. Or it might be a half-baked idea that falls flat. But a generation of students who have been told they can be anything they want to be and who have helped develop the technology to flatten the world wants an equal voice. They want a chance to speak into the process and try new things. The end product takes on the qualities of the team, and may look entirely different from anything the leader envisioned at the beginning.

My own observation is that young leaders get incredibly frustrated at the turf battles over who will get credit for the work. Let’s just get it done! The greed and selfishness that shows up in setting all the parameters up front has kept many a good idea from getting off the ground. For instance, April’s Wired magazine comments that the turf war over multitouch technology and gesture-based computing is “going to be ugly — and potentially fatal to the movement.” Group ownership of an idea and shared credit allows quicker response times and more creativity. Open sourcing almost always works better than closed.

Of course, this teamwork characteristic has big implications when it comes to interviews and resumes. A great accomplishment listed on a resume might require a follow-up question from the observant interviewer on what that person’s role was in the success of the team.

So, why can young leaders freely give away authority? (Am I not casting an idyllic view of the new generation of leaders? Probably, but not intentionally. I just think the new generations have different sins than their predecessors.) Young leaders are often simply not attracted to the trappings of power. No amount of money is incentive enough to offset the cost in time spent with friends and family. No perks can offset the long hours and increased stress. Money is not the idol it used to be. So when the goal is not consolidation of power, authority does not need to be hoarded.