BlogSocial Entrepreneurship

Oct 15 2014

We need to redefine ambition

This post was originally produced for the Skoll World Forum blog on October 13, 2014.

When I announced a few weeks ago that, after 10 years as president and CEO of Landesa, I would be stepping down and transitioning into a new role at the organization because I wanted to follow my true passion, many supporters and partners approached me privately and asked what the “real” reason was for my changing course.

Was Landesa, a global development non-profit that focuses on improving land rights for the world’s poor, having financial problems? Did I lose the confidence of our Board of Directors? Was I disenchanted with land rights and their ability to spark broad-based rural development?

When I answered no to all of the above, many shook their heads or gave me a puzzled shrug.

Our society is so busy climbing and “leaning in” that often we forget to stop and ask why. The road to fulfillment does not always lead us to more power, more money, or more influence.

There are other measures that are more important – purpose, impact, well-being – that are easy to lose sight of this in the race for the highest perch.

This is not just because we seem to have an evolutionary instinct that drives us to power. But also because we know that this kind of narrowly-defined ambition is expected of us.

It is no wonder that a few friends and supporters called me “brave” for stepping down at Landesa. But it doesn’t feel brave to me.

My move from the CEO office to a regular office in the organization is no walk of shame. It simply reflects my desire to follow my passion.

In this regard I have a great mentor, Roy Prosterman, who started this work in 1967 and then stepped aside 10 years ago to let me lead.

As I write this, Roy is traveling in Myanmar, conducting fieldwork to understand the land tenure challenges of that country and how they can be addressed to spark sustainable and broad-based growth in the countryside. I’m delighted that I’ll soon be able to join him on these trips. And it has been my great joy to work alongside him and call on him occasionally for advice over the last decade as CEO. Likewise, I look forward to working alongside the new CEO and supporting them as Roy has supported me.

I feel very fortunate to have found my true passion. I love doing land rights work. I love the hard days in the field interviewing poor farmers. I love the long and complicated discussions with government officials trying to get a handle on exactly what’s gone wrong to trap their rural population in poverty. And I love puzzling over laws, policies, and programs to figure out creative solutions that can catalyze the entrepreneur in each farmer.

I love going back to interview those same farmers after our policy or program recommendation has been adopted and implemented to learn how they’ve fared. To see how they’ve moved from thinking about surviving day to day to, instead, planning on how to move forward year after year, how they’re investing in their land and reaping the harvests.

And I love mentoring our dedicated staff.

Harvard Business School Professor and author Deepak Malhotra spoke about optimizing personal happiness in a great speech he gave to Harvard Business School students in 2012. He advised students to “create a life and make choices that allow you to exhibit [your] genius every day. So that who you are and what you are doing are not two separate things.”

Words to live by. Words that require humility. And words that require ambition to be defined in a different way.

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