Achievement Motivation

One of the more important type of motivation we should seek to understand is achievement motivation due to the following three factors:

It can be learned.

It installs a strong drive toward being the best. 

If parent know what they are doing, they can build it in their children.

It has also been associated with the drive to be an entrepreneur, to leave the womb of the large organization and strike to create success out of nothing.

Quotes on Achievement Motivation


“Desire is the starting point of all achievement, not a hope, not a wish, but a keen pulsating desire which transcends everything.” — Napoleon Hill

“If I knew what brand of whisky he [General Ulysses Grant] drinks, I would send a barrel or so to some other generals.” —  Abraham Lincoln, Sixteenth President of the United States Remark at a Cabinet meeting, 1984

“Winners compare their achievements with their goals, while losers compare their achievements with those of other people” Nido Qubein

“The roots of true achievement lie in the will to become the best that you can become.” — Harold Taylor

“Don’t mistake activity with achievement.”John Wooden

“I worry that our lives are like soap operas. We can go for months and not tune in on them, then six months later we look in and the same stuff is still going on.” Jane Wagner, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe 

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Endurance trapped in the ice

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.” Explorer Ernest Shackleton, Ad placed for men for his transpolar expedition on the ship named Endurance


The term achievement motivation refers to an individual’s desire for significant accomplishment, mastering of skills, control, or high standards (Wikipedia, N.D.) It also has been proposed by Goleman (1998) to be one of the five characteristics associated the make up emotional intelligence

McClelland’s Learned Needs

DavidMcClellandThe achievement theory (or need for achievement) was primarily promoted by David McClelland. He proposed and spent most of his life working out the details that three three key needs are acquired through learning or experience.

Also, these needs aren’t learned at a seminar but can be taught and practiced over a period of months or years. He focused on three important work needs:

Need for Achievement (nAch). Choosing situations where success depends on performance. 

Need for Affiliation (nAff). Essentially, being with someone else. These people enjoy mutual friendships with others.

Need for Power (nPow). Those with this need have a great need to controlling things or influence others (McClelland & Burnham, 2003). 

Five Characteristics of High Need For Achievement 

Characteristic 1: They Do The Personal Best

Edmund Hillary. Who along with his sherap guide, Tenzig Norgay become the first humans to climb Mt Everest, the highest mountain on the earth.
Edmund Hillary. Who along with his sherap guide, Tenzig Norgay become the first humans to climb Mt Everest, the highest mountain on the earth.

Few in society really do this, but those that do tend to succeed. Personal best is not about making money. In fact, its typically not about the money.

It is about reaching the goal, and then reaching an even more challenging goal. It’s about being perfect without becoming the obsessive perfectionist.

There is no English word for this, but the Japanese have one, it is called Kaizen.

Characteristic 2: They Set Moderate Goals and Takes Calculated Risks.

This is not a probability calculation involving cold hard math. It is related to a trade-off between to easy and too difficult. Let’s imagine that you are going to toss a ring onto a stake. You can choose how far or how close or how far you can stand away from that ring.

Some people will stand really close so they can make the succeed every time. Other stand too far away such that they succeed only rarely and mostly since that are lucky. But those will a high nach will choose a distance where they must use the skill they have to succeed. But its got to be a challenge, it can’t be too easy.

Principle 3: They Assume Personal Responsibility to Finding Solutions to Problems

What makes them nice to have around is their willingness to take on problems. In some cases, they might even volunteer to do so.

Characteristic 4: They Desire Unique Accomplishments and are Restless and Innovative

Steve Jobs introducing the iPad. Image by: Fourthords
Steve Jobs introducing the iPad. Image by: Fourthords

You might say, that there is an element of nonconformity in their nature. These are not good candidates for working in a bank where a transactions must be done exactly the same way day in, day out—no variation permitted. Think about it, do you even remember the name of the person who handles your transactions behind the window?

For example, Steve Jobs was a bit of a nonconformist in his early days. The story goes that was able to get his first job inside corporate America by the nontraditional route. He didn’t hair cut, put on a pair of jeans and didn’t bother to wear any shoes. He just found the person who could hire him and asked for the job (Isaacson, 2011). How different from today where to get through the HR gate you must dress for success, have a resume Superman would envy,  and act your  way through the interview.

Of course, this nonconformity is both a boon and a bane of the bureaucratic organization.  A bureaucracy has to have standardized processes. So it is desirable that every person with the same job title should have about the same behaviors.  This the person with a high need to achieve lose their desire to innovate, conform or leave.

Characteristic 5: They Seek Out Negative Feedback

“A true friend is the one who tells you that you about your weaknesses, not praise you for your strengths.” — Murray Johannsen

The average person fears negative feedback. They really don’t want to hear about their mistakes, screw-ups and the “what could have done betters.”

What makes these people really special is that they view negative feedback as more valuable that than that of positive feedback. The reason has to due with personal best. To get to that point, one has to know what can be improved.

You don’t need to do a complex psych profile to figure out whether someone has a high need for achievement because they will ask for it. Can you imagine this, scene. One of your people walks into your office and says, “Hey, boss, I was wondering if you might provide me a little feedback on how I’m doing. ” Believe it or not, it does happen.

Clicking on this image will take you to the learning site that is called LegaceePrime.
Clicking on this image will take you to the learning site that is called LegaceePrime.


Goleman, D. (1998). Working with Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books

Isaacson, Walter (2011). Steve Jobs. Simon and Schuster.

McClelland, David & Burnham, David (2003). Power Is a Great Motivator, Harvard Business Review, January.

McClelland, D. C.  (1961). The Achieving Society. Free Press, New York

 McClelland, David (1965). “Achievement Motivation Can Be Developed,” Harvard Business Review 43 (November–December), pp. 68.

Leadership Skill Development