Initiative and Achievement Orientation

Goldsmith - what got you here

Dr. Relly Nadler:
Our guest today is Marshall Goldsmith. Marshall has said, “the higher you go up in an organization, the more your problems are behavioral.” That’s from his book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” The questions for today that we are going to focus on are:

  • What are the best ways for leaders to initiate action?
  • How do leaders anticipate obstacles and take calculated risks?
  • When do leaders take too much initiative and are too achievement oriented focused that they undermine their success?
  • What should leaders stop doing?
  • What are the key actions that leaders can do to change for the better?

The focus of this show today is around achievement orientation and initiative. First there is achievement orientation. Going back to David McClelland’s landmark work, The Achieving Society, which he wrote in 1961 as he was studying these competencies, he found that “achievement orientation” was the competence that drives success of entrepreneurs. Studies that compare average to stars in the executive ranks, find that stars display the classic achievement orientation. They take more calculated risks, they support enterprising innovations, and they set challenging and goals for themselves and their teams. Some of the research that supports this goes back to Spencer and Spencer in 1993, found that the need to achieve is the competence most strongly that sets apart superior and average executives.

Dr. Relly Nadler:  We are glad we have this opportunity. You are certainly a leader in the field and I have followed your work for quite a long time. Maybe we could start off with your sharing with us a little bit about your background, how you got into working with organizations.

Dr. Goldsmith:  Well, like a lot of things in life, it was somewhat accidental. I got a Ph.D. at UCLA in organizational behavior. I was a college professor at Loyola Marymount; I was a Dean when I was 29. I met a very famous man named Paul Hersey, of Hersey and Blanchard fame, developers of situational leadership. Paul got double booked one day and asked me, “Do you think you could do what I do?” I said, “I don’t know.” I was making $15,000 a year; he said I will pay $1000 for one day. This was almost 30 years ago. That was a lot of money for a kid. I said, “Paul, sign me up, buddy!” I did a program for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. They were very upset when I showed up, yet I was very successful, they were very happy with the results. They said, “Send him back.” Paul called me and said, “Do you want to do this again?” I said, “Definitely!” That’s eventually how I got into business.

Dr. Relly Nadler:  So you were doing that while you were at Loyola Marymount until all the sudden, I imagine, you got successful enough that you left.

Dr. Goldsmith:  Yes, I left the next year.

Dr. Relly Nadler:  Well let me ask you this, Marshall, because I know you have an interesting background; who or what have been your best teachers, and then we will get into more of the feedback around initiative and achievement orientation.

Dr. Goldsmith:  Well, I have been very fortunate in that I had many really good teachers. I would say some of them are Paul Hersey and obviously Ken Blanchard, who I worked with when we were all a lot younger. Some of my other good teachers were Frances Hesselbein, the former National Executive Director of the Girl Scouts, she’s been one of the greatest leaders that I have ever met, she’s been a wonderful teacher; Peter Drucker, I was on the board of the Peter Drucker Foundation for 10 years—a fantastic teacher; Richard Beckhard was a great teacher of mine; Bob Tannenbaum was at UCLA. I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of people who, I guess I have the good fortune of saying, I worked with many people who taught me, who are wonderful, and of course, I’m a Buddhist. So I would have to say, one of my best teachers is Buddha.

Dr. Relly Nadler:  You’ve been a Buddhist for quite a while?

Dr. Goldsmith:  Thirty (30) years!

Dr. Relly Nadler:  Well it’s good to see who had been your influence, because I know that you have been a key influence for me and a lot of other people.

Dr. Goldsmith:  Well, thank you very much!

Dr. Relly Nadler:  You’re welcome!  We are talking about initiative and achievement orientation; I thought this would just tie in really well with your book. Have you seen opportunities when someone has used too much initiative, that a team in orientation just got out of the way? We are talking about it as strength, but did they use it too much?

Dr. Goldsmith:  There is something I talked about in the book called “Goal obsession.” “Goal obsession” occurs when we get so driven to achieve a goal that we forget about our mission. I’ll give you three examples of “goal obsession.”

One example is: I’m working down on Wall Street, and a guy just complaining because he works all the time. I say, “How much do you work?” He says, “80 or 90 hours a week.” So I asked him why he worked so much. He said, “Why do you think I work so much, I want to make money.”  “Why do you need so much money?”  He says, “I’ve been married three times, do you have any idea how much alimony I have to pay?” “Why have you been married three times?” He said, “None of my wives understood how hard I have to work.” So it’s sort of a cycle.

Another example of “goal obsession,” a fantastic example was moving the bridge on the River Kwai. It’s a fantastic movie where you have a leader who becomes so obsessed with the goal of building a bridge, he forgets his mission of winning the war.

The third example is from great research called the Good Samaritan Research. Where you took ministers at Princeton Theology Seminary, you tell them they have to rush across campus to give a sermon on the topic of the Good Samaritan. They told half the ministers they were 10 minutes late. Ninety percent of the ministers in Princeton Theology Seminary, when told they were 10 minutes late, and racing across campus, confronted an actor who was playing the role of a person who was sick and was calling, “help me…help me, I may be dying, help me… help me!” Ninety percent of the ministers in Princeton Theology Seminary ignored the pleas of a dying person in their haste to deliver a sermon on the topic of the Good Samaritan. The reality is so would we!

Listen to the entire recording above!


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