The crumbling of US financial institutions illustrates the dangers of a society motivated by personal power rather than achievement. Unless it is able to reinstill the desire to achieve that once drove its financial success, the US may continue to decline economically.
The relationship between economic prosperity and the desire to achieve was first noted by David McClelland, a Harvard psychologist, whose life work examined motivation in individuals and societies. Based on his research he identified three key motives that drive behavior: the need for affiliation, the need for achievement, and the need for power.
Through his historical analyses of societies, he found that during periods when the need for achievement was high, societies experienced greater economic prosperity.
This link between economic prosperity and the need for achievement is due to the fact that individuals who are high in the need for achievement are society's builders. They want to act on their world and produce tangible products. As part of this achievement concern, they are attracted to moderately challenging tasks, take carefully calculated risks, and seek feedback that will help them improve their performance.
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, is an example of a person driven by a high need for achievement. For over 30 years he has steadily worked to develop innovative high-performing software that makes computers easier to use.
While individuals high in achievement focus on efficiency and doing things better, individuals high in the need for power are more interested in influencing others and having an impact on the world around them. McClelland called them the "big splash" people because they like to call attention to themselves and tend to take big risks.
Despite the negative associations that the word "power" generates, individuals high in power who express it in socially constructive ways often make important contributions as leaders and managers. In this capacity they organize and coordinate the efforts of more achievement oriented individuals.
A strong need for power, however, can have a darker side. Individuals with a high need for power who lack social inhibition tend to channel this drive towards acquiring personal power. They aggressively seek money and prestige, want to win at all costs, and will exploit others in order to come out on top.
One explanation of the US financial meltdown is that the US has become a society in which this quest for personal power predominates and is highly prized. Evidence of this is found in the media time devoted to big splash individuals like Paris Hilton and Donald Trump who are primarily interested in personal self-promotion.
In contrast, achievement-oriented people like Donna Shirley, who headed the team that built the first solar powered rover to explore the surface of Mars, rarely get media attention.
This glorification of the pursuit of personal power is also found in the multitude of television shows which feature heroes who engage in powerful and violent actions. Personal power has even permeated children's literature. The highly popular Harry Potter books are filled with power imagery. Harry doesn't spend time trying to perfect new magic products. As a matter of fact, he has a strong aversion to classes where he has to create magic potions. Instead, Harry is the master of using magic to make big power moves that impress and awe the reader.
The results of this celebration of personal power can be seen in the key economic events of the past 10 years. Many of the individuals participating in the dot.com boom were more interested in acquiring money and fame than developing revenue-producing products. For them it was an influence game where the goal was to extract as much money as possible from venture capitalists and then quickly go public on the promise of future profits.
This game became vividly apparent to me a few years ago at a management conference. I listened in amazement as a fellow panelist described to enthralled students how she boldly approached venture capitalists and convinced them to give her money for products that were only pipe-dreams in her mind.
The current meltdown in the financial industry is another example of what happens when a strong need for personal power supplants the achievement motive in a society. In this instance, consumers, banks, and investors all became caught up in taking big risks based on the tenuous proposition that housing prices would continue to rise.
At the top business leaders driven by a desire for personal power further stoked the fire by creating and trading exotic mortgage-backed securities that generated large profits and allowed them to fill their pockets with millions of dollars in bonuses.
If US business wants to once more lead the world, it must resurrect in its people the achievement motive that previously lay at the core of its economic success. It needs to promote strong achievement leaders like Jack Welch and create programs to develop the achievement motive in its managers and employees.