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Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership

Drive: Striving for Success, Requiring Caution

  • Gerard Seijts, Kimberley Young Milani
  • |
  • Nov 18, 2019
Drive: Striving for Success, Requiring Caution

Character is an indispensable component of sustainable leadership performance.  Ivey research has identified 11 dimensions of leader character: accountability, collaboration, courage, drive, humanity, humility, integrity, judgment, justice, temperance, and transcendence. In this blog, I explore the leader character dimension of drive.  If you have drive, you strive for excellence. You have a strong desire to succeed, you tackle problems with a sense of urgency, and you approach challenges with energy and passion. Drive arises from an internal, positive wellspring of energy that can be harnessed and put to good use. 

One individual who has demonstrated drive in a business leadership position is Jack Ma Yun, the recently retired executive chairman of Alibaba. The e-commerce giant is celebrated today as one of China’s biggest companies. But it was no easy climb to the top. At the end of the 20th century, Ma, originally an English teacher from Hangzou who had tried and failed to start a Chinese version of the Yellow Pages, became convinced that the internet would “level the playing field,” and enable small companies to compete successfully in a business-to-business marketplace.  

In 1999, along with 17 like-minded colleagues, he founded the web-based Alibaba to test that vision. In subsequent years, Ma’s overtures to potential backers in Silicon Valley were rejected more than 30 times, until he finally secured a billion-dollar investment from Yahoo in 2005. “Once you meet an entrepreneur like Jack Ma,” Yahoo’s Jerry Yang said, “you just want to make sure you bet on him.  It’s not a hard decision.” Drive, no doubt, played a major role in Yang’s assessment of Ma.

When Alibaba held its initial U.S. public offering in September 2014, it raised an astonishing $25 billion—the biggest IPO ever, anywhere. And for good reason: In 2013, two of the company’s websites registered a combined $240 billion in sales: twice Amazon’s volume, and three times that of eBay. More than 60 percent of the packages delivered in China today originate from one of Alibaba’s websites. 

As Ma once confessed to an audience in Hong Kong, he never thought he would be the head of one of the world’s most dynamic companies—nor did he anticipate how difficult the journey would be to earn that distinction.  It was drive that helped Ma overcome his obstacles and reach the top. It was also drive—that internal wellspring of positive energy—that helped Ma continue to expand his vision, year by year, even as his original dreams were being realized. 

What many people may not know is that Ma is a true rags-to-riches story. He grew up poor in communist China, failed his college entrance exam twice, and was rejected from dozens of jobs, including one at KFC, before finding success with his third internet company, Alibaba.

Successful business leaders such as Mary Barra, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos also emerged as individuals who have astounding drive. At the Ivey Business School we have seen and heard from leaders who demonstrated exceptional drive. Yvonne Camus is a former H. J. Heinz executive vice president who participated in the 2000 Eco-Challenge Adventure Race in Borneo: a grueling 500-kilometer race through the jungle that had to be completed within twelve days. Jeremiah Brown shared his story from becoming a young parent while studying business at McMaster University, to moving across the country to British Columbia to pursue his Olympic dream. And we heard the inspiring story of Beverley McLachlin who despite myriad challenges became the first and only woman to be Chief Justice of Canada as well as the country’s longest-serving Chief Justice.

In business, as well as at the Ivey Business School, we encounter many individuals with high drive. However, drive without the support of the other dimensions of leader character, is a cautionary tale. Drive alone can lead to aimless, reckless and/or manic activity. At its worst, it can be undirected, unfocused energy that feeds on itself—constantly requiring additional physical and emotional investment to sustain it. Here is how drive manifests when unsupported:

  • Drive without integrity: we can often find ourselves moving down a path that does not align with our core values and alienates people as a result of poor interpersonal relationships.
  • Drive without humanity: High drive combined with a lack of humanity can prevent us from behaving personably or with a lack of compassion. In an organizational sense, we may then be willing to pursue our goals at any cost, without considering the implications on our ability to act with empathy.  Remember famed conductor Terence Fletcher from the movie Whiplash?  He is excessively harsh on his students to achieve both personal success and develop his students so that they might become famous jazz musicians.
  • Drive without collaboration: Individuals who have high levels of drive may give short shrift to collaboration. They may simply take over projects or deliverables because they want to “get things done … now.”  But this is perilous.  Without collaboration we are unable to build humanity, and often take on more than we can handle.
  • Drive without justice: If individuals demonstrate high drive but lack a sense of justice, they may behave inequitably towards others in order to achieve individual or organizational goals. Followership may be sacrificed.  Resentment—or worse—may result.
  • Drive without temperance: Like collaboration, temperance may be imperiled in individuals with high drive. They may take on more than a healthy amount of work, and, as a result, may quickly lose patience with others and be unwilling to see other perspectives.
  • Drive without humility: In high-drive individuals, humility is critically important to understanding our leadership character and weaknesses or strengths in the other dimensions. Self-reflection and awareness help keep our drive in check. Without humility, high drive individuals may not see the error in their processes, to the point where it becomes mentally damaging, and could lead to excessive or very low courage.

So I hope you reflect on your behaviour and leadership and consider the following question: Is my drive controlled and exercised with good judgment, so that it does not overwhelm other important dimensions of character, such as collaboration, humanity, humility, justice and temperance?  

You can read more about drive in the book Developing Leadership Character written by Ivey Business School professors Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts and Jeffrey Gandz (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016).