Rhode on Ambition – AKA (Sometimes) as Lust

Ambition – For What? is the title of Deborah Rhode’s just-published, last, posthumous, book.*

 She was among the most eminent legal scholars of her generation, who happened also to have a strong interest in leadership. Deborah taught about leadership, wrote about leadership, thought about leadership long and hard. In fact, she and I co-edited a book on leadership, Women and Leadership: The State of Play and Strategies for Change.**

It seems a coincidence but perhaps it is not that her book on ambition overlaps to a degree with a recent one of mine (with Todd Pittinsky), titled Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy.*** While on the surface the two books appear quite different, it turns out that both are, among other things, ruminations on excesses. Moreover, the objects of these excesses are in several cases the same, such as power, money, and sex.      

Rhode’s term for what in Leaders Who Lust is called, obviously, lust, is addiction, or “addictive quest.” In Leaders Who Lust, lust is described as “a psychological drive that produces intense wanting, even desperately needing to obtain and object or to secure a circumstance. When the object has been obtained, or the circumstance secured, there is relief, but only briefly, temporarily.” In Ambition Rhode wrote the desire for recognition is “toxic” when it can “never be fully satisfied.”  Applause, she goes on to add, “is addictive.” She continues: “Once individuals have adjusted their expectations and desires to receiving recognition, they become its prisoner, driven by the need to preserve their status.”  Just like lust – in this case the lust for status, which in Leaders Who Lust is called Success.

Rhode’s book on ambition is not per se about leaders. It is about ambition more generally. But given her interest in leadership, and given how leaders, many anyway, may be said to be driven by ambition, no surprise that leaders find their way into this final one of Rhode’s many books.   

Who in Ambition is the most obvious subject of discussion? Donald J. Trump, of course.  Trump was so, is so, obviously a leader who lusts that in our book we decided, deliberately, to leave him on the cutting room floor. But Rhode includes him, understandably, for on this matter – on obsessive excess – he is almost irresistible.

Arguably Trump was ambitious for, lusted after, power, money, success and, yes, sex. Rhode categorizes him as being ambitious above all for what she calls “recognition.” Of Trump she writes he “may be in a category of his own in his hunger for affirmation, applause, and self-aggrandizement.” As Trump said of himself years ago, in a remark that could apply to any one of his lusts, “I’m never satisfied.”

Rhode trots Trump out again when she claims sex “as a means to status.” Trump bragged about having sex with “seemingly very happily married and important women.” Trump also appears in Ambition when the discussion turns to power. Trump’s appetite for power, his overweening need to display his power, was evidenced in his “countless incidents of verbal abuse.” Rhode wrote being a “bully-in-chief in the White house reinforced a message of entitlement that perpetuated abuse.”      

Deborah Rhode was not only a colleague of mine she was a friend of mine. How I wish she were in the here and now so we could talk at length about ambition. About how leaders who are ambitious, even lustful, can be good. And about how leaders who are ambitious, even lustful, can be bad.

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*Oxford University Press, 2021.

**Jossey-Bass, 2008.

***Cambridge University Press, 2020.

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