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How do I temper my ambitions; the thin line between courage and overconfidence

  • Auteur: Tal Gonen

Organizations strive for a better position. A better position compared to its competitors for example, an improved financial position or a better position in society. This improved position often starts with an ambition. Formulating an ambition not only directs your efforts, it can also tell you much about an organization. Ambition is an essential part of positioning and formulating an ambition requires – in our experience – quite some courage!

In the past few years there have been plenty of examples of ambitious organizations. One of these ambitious companies is Netherlands-based bank ABN-AMRO, who set themselves the goal of being one of the leading international banks. How are they doing with that? It’s still a national player and has – by necessity – been acquired by the Dutch government.

Another example of overconfidence is American energy company Enron that shifted from its core-competence of gas distribution to a wide variety of other activities. This was supported by the company’s slogan “Endless Possibilities”. As we all know, Enron doesn’t exist anymore. And both ABN-AMRO and Enron were at the time seen – by society and market – as courageous companies chasing stellar ambitions.

A nice example of the core question – where is the line between courage and overconfidence – is present in the story of Happy Feet. You probably heard about this penguin who quite recently walked up the shore in New Zealand. According to biologists it just lost its way. It caused him to stray off the path by thousands of miles and to land in a place that hasn’t seen a penguin before. Is Happy Feet an important penguin explorer or an overconfident and stubborn animal?

To decide if Happy Feet was courageous or if it was pure overconfidence took some time. Because when Happy Feet was back in good health they put him back in the ocean, well-positioned to swim back to the south pole, he immediately turned around and set course back to New Zealand! Happy Feet had an ambition, and a realistic one, because however you put it he reached New Zealand. He wanted to be there and when he was, he certainly didn’t want to leave.

Deciding in advance if something is courageous or overconfident turns out to be quite a challenge. Without dreams and ambition there are no results – “If you do what you always did, you get what you always got.” – but dreaming too big without anything to back it up quickly turns to overconfidence. There is no “guts-o-meter” on the market today, and we don’t expect one any time soon, so we’ll settle for some behavioural traits. Companies that sport an exploratory attitude and an open attitude towards opposing views to prevent courage from escalating into overconfidence.

We also wrote about ambition’s role in brand identity and the positioning matrix.