Locke Ambition and Leadership

Peter B Godfrey
3 min readJun 4, 2021


Photo by Hunter Haley on Unsplash

‘Ambition enough to be clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish which lies in the way to knowledge.’ (Locke).

The quote above is the first line you’ll read in the About section of my LinkedIn Profile.

I accept that it’s not the usual opening ‘About’ line one may read on another’s LinkedIn profile. Thus, a few readers have queried it out of curiosity.

There’s a short explanation: I like the quote, it resonates for me, it speaks to me, there’s a humility to it, there’s a ‘keep yourself in perspective’ tone to it.

There is of course a longer explanation to it too. Here it is.

John Locke (1632–1704) was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers. Famous, or is that infamous?, for his liberal views as expressed in Two Treatises of Government. In my 2020 sabbatical I read a number of books and articles, many of which had a philosophical origin and leaning, including some pieces on Locke. For me it was a means of getting back to basics, reflecting on how we got to where we are now, at work, in life. As well as the reflective elements the reading and allied research has also informed my current coaching and leadership development work. A case in point I use a line of thought derived from Aristotle’s virtues in a Leadership Immersion session. There’s some profound lessons to be learned from many of ‘the greats’ from centuries gone. Ideas, concepts and practices that have relevance for today, in my view, at work and in life beyond question. Deep right?

As well as the Two Treatises, Locke’s ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’, according to Tom Butler-Brown, became the ground upon which the likes of Hume, Russell and Wittgentstein could walk. The Essay, in short, made out the case for individual freedoms and the natural rights of people.

Garth Kemerling describes Locke’s work this way; ‘a classic statement written in a straightforward, uncomplicated style, the Essay attempts nothing less than a fundamental account of human knowledge — its origin in our ideas and application to our lives, its methodical progress and inescapable limitations. Centuries later, Locke’s patient, insightful, and honest reflections on these issues continue to merit careful study.’

Locke encouraged ordinary readers to rely on their own capacity for judgment and to engage in independent thinking, rather than blindly accept the dictates of intellectual fashion and borrowed principles. To my point earlier about the application of centuries old thought to the present day.

Early in The Essay Locke notes:

“In an age that produces such masters as the great Huygenius (Dutch mathematician and astronomer) and the incomparable Mr (Isaac) Newton it is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge.”

The parallel, for this under-labourer, in all of this is here:

In an age that has produced leadership and management thinkers and influencers the likes of: Porter, Kotter, Lencioni, Sinek, Brown, Peters, Drucker, Goldsmith, Kawasaki, Godin, Kanter, Trompenaars, Ulrich, and Gratton, just to list a few, it is ambition enough for yours truly to be clearing the ground just a little and helping remove some of the rubbish that lies in the path on the way to knowledge? In my case leadership knowledge and the practice of leadership, while also encouraging independent thought and the questioning of fads and fashions that pervade work and workplaces per se and the leadership development area specifically.

Keeping ‘it’ and self in perspective, always. Here’s to patience, insight, and straightforward reflections too.




Peter B Godfrey

I have thoughts, I am a thinker. I write words, I am a writer.