Why Achievement Motivation Predicts Success in Business but Failure in Politics: The Importance of Personal Control


  • I am indebted to Abigail Stewart, Nicholas Winter, Oliver Schultheiss, Edward Deci, Juliet Kaarbo, a colleague who prefers to remain anonymous, and two reviewers for suggestions and comments on earlier versions of this article.

concerning this article should be addressed to David G. Winter, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 530 Church St., Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1043. Email: dgwinter@umich.edu.


ABSTRACT Several decades of research have established that implicit achievement motivation (n Achievement) is associated with success in business, particularly in entrepreneurial or sales roles. However, several political psychology studies have shown that achievement motivation is not associated with success in politics; rather, implicit power motivation often predicts political success. Having versus lacking control may be a key difference between business and politics. Case studies suggest that achievement-motivated U.S. presidents and other world leaders often become frustrated and thereby fail because of lack of control, whereas power-motivated presidents develop ways to work with this inherent feature of politics. A reevaluation of previous research suggests that, in fact, relationships between achievement motivation and business success only occur when control is high. The theme of control is also prominent in the development of achievement motivation. Cross-national data are also consistent with this analysis: In democratic industrialized countries, national levels of achievement motivation are associated with strong executive control. In countries with low opportunity for education (thus fewer opportunities to develop a sense of personal control), achievement motivation is associated with internal violence. Many of these manifestations of frustrated achievement motivation in politics resemble authoritarianism. This conclusion is tested by data from a longitudinal study of 113 male college students, showing that high initial achievement motivation combined with frustrated desires for control is related to increases in authoritarianism (F-scale scores) during the college years. Implications for the psychology of leadership and practical politics are discussed.