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A drive to achieve is a good thing. Businesses thrive on it. Individuals can thrive on it too. It feels good to achieve an important goal. It’s a powerful motivator.

David McClelland, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, spent much of his career understanding human motivation. Motivation is important because it explains behavior. If we understand our motivation, we can see how it translates into our behaviors. He characterized organizational managers into three groups. One of the three groups was managers motivated by the need to achieve – which he defined as a focus on setting goals and reaching them.

Achievement is a powerful and important motivator in leadership. If we are motivated to achieve our goals, when they are aligned with the goals of an organization, it can lead to personal and organizational success.

It can also become problematic when it tips over into an excessive desire and drive to achieve. It’s what many of us might call an overachiever. This overachievement often comes at a cost, eventually. That cost weighs on us as an individual leader, an organization, or as is often the case, both.

Over time, individual leaders, in their drive to achieve, can run the risk of creating a climate on their team that impedes a team’s ability to perform well. They run the risk of burning themselves out and those on their team. The very people upon whom they will need rely on if they are to be successful in the longer term.

In our work with senior organizational leaders, we work with many smart, talented, high achievers. Oftentimes, this is what has made them successful. It can also be the very thing that threatens to derail their career over time.

An exception to this is a high achiever who also has strong emotional maturity or what we might think of as emotional intelligence. They are emotionally intelligent leaders who self-aware and sensitive to the needs of those around them. They are aware of their behaviors and how those impact themselves and others. They are highly motivated to change their achievement driven behaviors that exact too high of a toll; on the people around them and on themselves.

In this way, high achievement and high emotional intelligence can be a powerful pairing.

In practice, at least for some leaders it’s a balancing act. Balancing ones drive to achieve with the need to put on the brake or downshift to slow down. More than a few leaders we’ve worked with described their experience this way.

One helpful way of thinking about this is to look at it through the lens of how we define success. If our success as a leader is defined by what we achieve alongside how we achieve it as a leader. This takes us back to the people around us and how we relate to them in our definition of success.

If we are on a learning curve to become an emotionally intelligent leader thinking about our success in this way can serve as a powerful source of motivation.

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