Are you suffering from Achievement Disease?

In Germany, the CEO of Volkswagen, Martin Winterkorn, resigned ‘taking responsibility’ for the morally bereft decision to install deceitful software in its US diesel cars designed to evade emissions tests. Though he continues to assert there was no personal wrongdoing in the incident. Volkswagen announced it will recall 8.5 million cars in Europe, including 2.4 million in Germany and 1.2 million in the UK, and 500,000 in the US as a result of the emissions scandal.

Whether the CEO knew explicitly of the software deception or not, leadership has failed at Volkswagen. A culture that allows its people to deceive authorities, its customers and the public has some serious faults in the moral compass. Somewhere a group of people decided that deception for results was more important than integrity. This is a leadership failure that can be traced back to its leader, back to his leadership. The failure was in failing to create a culture that lives its values of ‘responsibility’ and ‘sustainability’ while avoiding the pressure to achieve that can drive corruption and cheating.

The pressure to perform is so deeply seductive, it can drive individuals and teams to cheat. The desire to achieve becomes results at all costs. It becomes about the ends justifying the means.

This is not just about Volkswagen. Achievement Disease is everywhere.

The compulsion to achieve is stamped firmly in our cultural consciousness. From the moment we wriggle in to the world we are measured against milestones. Are crawling, talking, eating within the top percentile? In school we are graded for our performance. We are ranked against our peers. We are benchmarked against national standards. Even our clothes have different categories to rate us and drive our sense of self worth.

At work we slot in to a hierarchy and each year we need to meet performance targets in order to progress and receive rewards. No progress, no rewards. No performance, no recognition.

Achievement is bound up in our biochemistry. We are hardwired to seek it out. As cave dwellers we needed to hunt to survive and that took effort. Our biochemistry helped promote our survival by flooding our system with endorphins after we chased down a prey. And endorphins feel great! It helped motivate us to get up and hunt again, to expend the energy to get the reward – the food and the endorphins. Survival of the human species was assisted by feeling good about achieving. The rush of deadlines is the modern version of chasing down our prey.

Dopamine is one of our other achievement byproducts. Dopamine gets released every time we find what we’re looking for, finish something, or get what we set out to get. It’s part of search, risk, and reward system. Every time we find something or get something we wanted, we get a little surge of feel-good. This is why emails, texting, task lists, and video games can develop compulsive behaviour.1 We get hooked on that little hit of achievement. It’s a great sense of satisfaction. And it is incredibly addictive. This is the real juice behind our achievement disease.

Achievement is linked to social acceptance: reach these standards and be part of our club. This fires up our oxytocin – the feel-good chemical that is all about belonging and the safety of group identity. Oxytocin is that feeling of love we get from our partner, or between mother and child, or in well-bonded teams. It’s the warm blanket of social safety, the protection of the tribe.

Achievement is linked to personal acceptance: if you get those grades, Mum and Dad will be proud. Win that tender, and the Board will give you an award. This is one of the other feel-good biochemicals, serotonin at work. Serotonin is also known as the happiness chemical. We get it from approval, pride, and recognition.

From a biochemical point of view, achievement is the full package: it delivers on the addictive endorphins and dopamine, and it sweetens the pot with oxytocin and serotonin.

Why then is it causing so much trouble?

Achievement Disease can cost us our life. Athletes, executives, and video gamers make the news for dropping dead, stumbling towards the ‘finish’ line. Even the marathon, benchmark of human effort, commemorates the run of the Greek soldier Pheidippides, a messenger from the Battle of Marathon to Athens. After running without water or pause, he delivers the good news of victory, and promptly dies.

Achievement Disease can blinker us to what matters most, including our own life.

So do we throw out the strategic plan? Do we burn the goal sheets? Do we give up standards in favour of ‘everyone wins prize?’


This is not a case of either/or. It’s a case of AND.

We need to have compelling and aspirational pictures of the future that pull us forward. To be human is to grow, learn, discover, create – ACHIEVE.

AND we need to remember to be present, to savour the now, to live in appreciation, to bring our focus to the moment.

Leadership happens in moments – it does not happen in strategy, or plans, or performance review processes. When we bring our focus to BOTH the now and what we are creating for the future, then we create a fabulous nurturing energy that uplifts and expands.

We enjoy where we are, AND where we’re going. Now that’s a plan I can live with.

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