HKS Professor Presents Book on Political Ambition


Michael G. Ignatieff—a Harvard Kennedy School professor and the former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party—discussed his highly personal reasons for pursuing high office in his home country during a speech at the Harvard Book Store Wednesday.

“I don’t apologize for the raw, naked, unbridled ambition that drove me to do it,” said Ignatieff, who argued that such ambition was necessary to make it through the brutal political landscape.

Ignatieff held the event to talk about his recent book, “Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics.”

Ignatieff left the Kennedy School in 2005 to run for a seat in the House of Commons of Canada as a member of the Liberal Party and rose to leader of the party and leader of the Official Opposition before losing his seat in the 2011 federal elections after his party’s worst showing in history.


Ignatieff’s book details his ascension to power in the Liberal Party, where he sat poised to become prime minister, as well as his failures and “naivete” in office.

After leaving Harvard, Ignatieff found a world where “you have to fight for your standing, you have to fight to be heard at all,” he said.

He went on to describe the political sphere as a tough place for even the most confident and hardened politician.

“You have to have a crazy idealism to get you through the tough parts,” he said. “You have to put it all on the line—lives, their careers, everything.”

When asked if he wanted to be prime minister, Ignatieff answered without pausing, “Yes.”

“[The party] told me I could be prime minister.... I went into it entirely for myself, no doubt about it,” said Ignatieff, who also served as the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights before turning his attention to politics.

Instead, he argued that such ambition was needed just to draw people into politics. “If you knew what you were in for before you went into politics, no one would do it,” Ignatieff said.

Yet Ignatieff said that people should aspire to the highest political offices. He decided to write the book, he said, for those who looked at his political career and said, “ 'he didn’t quite get there, but I will.' ”

According to Ignatieff, his book details his political mistakes and misunderstandings—“here are a few things you really have to know” about political life, he said.

After leaving Canada to pursue his Ph.D. in history at Harvard in the 1970s, Ignatieff worked as a freelance writer in London before coming in 2000 to join the faculty at the Kennedy School, which proved to be a point of contention in Canada.

“It’s painful to be told you don’t belong,” he said, recounting crowds who greeted his return to Canada and the declaration of his candidacy for parliament with signs that read, “go home."

“He has been extremely honest,” said Gaurav Keerthi, a Kennedy School student enrolled in Ignatieff’s class. “It takes a certain type of courage to be that frank in your failure.”

—Staff writer Tyler S. Olkowski can be reached at


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