This morning I went on a walk with a long-time friend who also happens to be a very successful businessman. As we walked, we got into a discussion about some of the other successful businessmen in his community of about a quarter million people. My friend talked about ones he knew well and others he considered good friends. One started a bank with $25,000 and turned it into a regional bank with $13 billion in assets. Another, on a contract for deed, bought an agricultural implement dealership in a small rural community. He eventually made the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans. Yet another friend took over a small number of hardware stores and then shifted the stores to feature sporting goods. The stores multiplied to become one of the largest and most successful chains of sporting goods stores in the United States.
When talking about these friends, he simultaneously emphasized what good, generous people they were while bemoaning the negative stereotype held by so many people, especially young people, that in business one had to be egotistical, ruthless, and self-serving in order to have such enormous financial success. As he described the qualities and skill sets of these men, three major characteristics became clear to me. First, they all were highly ambitious, driven, visionary men. Second, they all worked extraordinarily hard themselves. Third, they treated everyone respectfully and fairly.
Ambition is a controversial word with many negative connotations, but I propose there are two types of ambition–ambition to control and ambition to create. Ambition to control is the drive to subdue, conquer, rule, and oppress. It stems from a fear-based state of insecurity and usually involves compensating for some real or imagined inferiority coupled with a strong belief in scarcity. Examples are Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Ambition to create is the drive to bring something new and constructive into existence, to improve existing structures or systems, or to provide previously unavailable opportunities or services. It stems from a non-fear-based state of desire coupled with a strong belief in abundance. Examples are Gandhi, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Oprah Winfrey. Both kinds of ambition involve a driven, dedicated, determined person, but the focus is entirely different. Unfortunately, the ambition to control gets most of the media coverage which has tainted the public’s view of ambitious men and women.
Strong Work Ethic
The businessmen my friend described all had strong work ethics. This entails being willing to work long hours to do what needs to be done and having the physical energy and stamina to overcome and persist in the face of obstacles and setbacks. No one would ever have accused my friend’s friends of being lazy. Like many successful businessmen and women, they all started from scratch. No one handed them a silver platter. They had to take risks, find the resources, organize the component parts, face whatever challenges arose, and seize opportunities that presented themselves.
This is probably the most distinguishing characteristic of many successful businessmen and women. My friend emphasized how he had never seen any of his successful friends treat anyone disrespectfully. Sometimes they went to unusual lengths to show respect and appreciation for others. I witnessed this firsthand with the banker I mentioned at the beginning of this article. I had checking and savings accounts at his bank, and one day I approached the teller to make a deposit. There were a few people ahead of me in line, and the one directly in front of me was the bank president. As I approached, he saw me and stood aside so I could go ahead. He said something like “customers first.” I was surprised on two counts. First, that the bank president was standing in line like everyone else who needed to make a transaction, and second, he put me ahead of himself!
Another expression of respect is generosity which stems from a state of mind of abundance. My friend frequently mentioned how all of these businessmen were generous, often giving huge amounts of money to carefully chosen charities. None of them made big public displays of their charitable giving, preferring to remain behind the scenes.
As I reflected further on our exchange, I recognized that it was probably triggered by a negative comment I had made about corporations the night before–something to the effect that corporations were continually seeking to curtail employee benefits. Our walk and conversation ended with me feeling tutored a bit by my friend, and rightfully so. Next time I find myself about to make a critical comment about a corporation or individual businessman or woman, I will pause and call up my conversation with my friend.