Is ambition essential for leadership?


Before I ventured to declare to my countrymen my determination to retire from public employment, I examined well my heart to know whether it were thoroughly cured of every principle of political ambition, whether no lurking particle remained which might leave me uneasy when reduced within the limits of mere private life. I became satisfied that every fibre of that passion was thoroughly eradicated.

Source: To James Monroe, May 20, 1782

Patrick Lee’s Explanation

“Disinterested” leaders might make the best leaders.
In the previous post, also excerpted from this letter, Jefferson gave some reasons for not heeding his county’s call to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates. Those reasons were preceded by the one above.

Before he determined to retire from public life, he asked himself, “Is my political ambition gone? Completely gone? Can I be happy and fulfilled in the much smaller arena of private life?” His answer to those questions was “Yes.” A year later, he was still at rest with his decision.

Jefferson appears to say that ambition, in some amount at least, is essential for leaders. Examining himself and finding none, he concluded that he was justified in declining any leadership role.

Yet, Jefferson would come out of retirement twice and log 21 more years as a public leader. Did the ambition come back? I think not, and that’s what made him such an effective leader. He could lead or govern motivated by principle rather than ambition. He had become “disinterested,” a word he used to describe someone who had no personal agenda, only the best interests of the people he served.


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Self-Educated American Thomas Jefferson Editor, Patrick Lee, is a professional speaker, actor and writer. Since 1990, he has inspired, entertained and educated audiences from Maine to Hawaii with his authentic, first person leadership presentations as President Thomas Jefferson, Frontiersman Daniel Boone, and Lewis & Clark Co-Leader William Clark. He also appears as himself, The Hopeful Humorist™, with a program of motivational humor, patriotism and inspiration.

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