12 Ways Selfish Ambition Kills Good Leadership

wrestling ambition

Most leaders are ambitious, or at least somewhat ambitious.

And some of that’s good and God-given.

But let’s ask an awkward, difficult, and at times piercing question:

What motivates your ambition?

Mostly I don’t like that question because I don’t like the answer to that question.

Sometimes my motivation is selfish.

Most of us secretly want to be better known, valued and appreciated than we are.

I know I’ve struggled with this over the years. When I was starting out in ministry, I wanted to be that guy who spoke at conferences and was well respected as a leader in ministry. You don’t talk about that kind of thing much, but if you were to gain access to my sinful mind, the thought spun around in my head from time to time.

It doesn’t matter what court you play on, the game’s the same: many of us long to be better known and recognized in whatever our field is: to get the promotion, to see our product sell, to finally have that album cut, book published, our blog get traction or to find thousands of new Twitter followers, Facebook fans or Instagram likes.

Almost a decade ago now, God wrestled my ambition down. Well, that’s putting it nicely.

He snapped my ambition. 

He crushed it. 

He took me to a place where I realized that as much as I didn’t want to admit it even to myself, much of my motivation was selfish and not God-honouring.

Through a long season of prayer, God finally brought me to a point where I could see myself serving as an effective pastor without ever anyone knowing who I was. Without seeing meteoric growth. Without being in any way “successful”.

I hated that definition of success.

And I fought God on that.

But like Jacob wrestling the angel, a single touch to my hip socket left me powerless.

So I embraced it, reluctantly. As best I could, I surrendered my ambition to God.

Years later, I’m so glad I did.

I can see much more clearly now what I couldn’t see then.

Ambition kills servants of God and turns them into servants of themselves.

I’ve come to enjoy the slow death of selfish ambition in my life.

It’s not complete, (the surrender is regular and in some seasons, daily) but it’s in progress. Here’s what I’m learning and (now) loving about the difference.

When you’re motivated by selfish ambition:

Your personal sense of worth goes up and down with the opportunities ahead of you. When your ambition is godly, your value is solidly found in Christ every day.

Failure is terrifying. When your ambition is godly, failure becomes an opportunity for grace and growth.

You think you’re the deal. When your ambition is godly, you know that He’s the deal (love Casey Graham’s post on this).

You use people to get you where you want to go. When your ambition is godly, you value people as you go.

You take the credit. When your ambition is godly, you realize how much God and the people around you deserve the credit.

You strive for breadth of exposure.When your ambition is godly, you focus on depth in your walk and let God determine the breadth of exposure he gives you.

You are always thinking about the next thing. When your ambition is godly, you’re always thinking about what God wants to accomplish in your life today.

You’re always comparing yourself to the other guy. When your ambition is godly, you begin to celebrate what God is doing through the other guy.

It’s hard to say no to any opportunity. When your ambition is godly, it’s easier to say yes to balance and priorities.

You feel entitled to any success that comes your way. When your ambition is godly, you simply feel grateful.

The need to win is greater than the need to love. When your ambition is godly, the need to love is greater than the need to win.

You are always insecure.When your ambition is godly, your security comes from His steadfast, unconditional love.

My journey isn’t over yet, but I’m glad it’s in process.

The ironic part of this story is that a year or so after God broke me on this issue, I got a call from a major church to speak at a conference in front of thousands of people.

And since then, I’ve had more opportunities to do what I used to dream of doing than I ever did before God broke me. I can’t and don’t accept all of them – and those I do, I hold more loosely than ever before.

And, on my good days, when they’re over, I’m not ‘fulfilled’ as much as I am grateful that God would use me in that way.

What are you learning about this struggle? What would you add to this list? In what ways is God speaking to you about ambition?

In light of the fact that I’m on vacation this week, this is a rewriting of a post I did in 2011. A brand new post will appear this Friday. 


  1. Ashley on December 23, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    In so many ways God is speaking Ronnie about selfish ambition and the effects that it has had on my family. Me and my family ran a franchise together before selfish ambition ran it to the ground. Individually we all became self seeking, building and destroying things that were incredibly monumental in our lives. Selflessness is the magic my family needs. Please pray for me and my family.

  2. Bobbie McAlary on June 16, 2016 at 11:22 am

    Davey Blackburn

  3. mike on July 14, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    “When your ambition is godly……” The premise of ‘godly ambition’ is an oxymoron to everyone except the narcissist.

  4. Leadership in 140 Characters | Eric Echols on July 13, 2013 at 7:37 am

    […] 12 Ways Selfish Ambition Kills Good Leadership by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  5. jcohrsmn on July 11, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Wonderful Insight Carey….Marveling at how God continues to expand your voice! I am grateful that God has determined that the breadth of your exposure is deep, deep, deep and wide, wide, oh so wide! Continue to be encouraged as you live in your unique design and share your journey authentic candor… for the multitude are blessed with grace and hope in extraordinary ways!

    • cnieuwhof on July 12, 2013 at 5:45 pm

      Thank you. 🙂

  6. cnieuwhof on July 10, 2013 at 6:42 am

    Thanks for the encouragement. I love that so many of our issues are the same and we can grow together.

  7. prophetsandpopstars on July 9, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    Carey, I just found your site today via Brian Dodd. What a dynamic place to find experience and inspiration. Thanks for all that you do. Another feedly must read! Peace, brother.

  8. Lawrence W. Wilson on July 9, 2013 at 8:07 am

    So right on, Carey. I think we all struggle with this. Thanks for the encouragement.

  9. Brent Dumler on July 8, 2013 at 11:33 pm

    Great, timely, and contemplative post. I’m going on a 3-day Sabbatical rest this week and this topic will be a large focal point. Thank you for reposting this.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.