Thriving: Motivational Drives in Success & Failure

In the 18th and 19th centuries, as strives from the Industrial Revolution transformed the world around us, we sought to transform our environments in the endeavor to change our economies, relationships, and geography (Burns, 2003, p. 58). Most notable accomplishments from this era are the Suez and Panama Canals; both have their basis in success and failure (Burns, 2003, p. 58). Throughout the years, the land of the Suez Canal was surveyed and found to be near impossible to build on (Burns, 2003, p. 58). Enter De Lesseps – someone who saw potential in the development of the canal and had the motivation to establish funding and interest in his endeavor (Burns, 2003, p. 59). He embodied collective leadership, partnering alongside those who worked to dredge and build the Suez Canal (Burns, 2003, p. 60). The Canal was triumphantly unveiled (Burns, 2003, p. 60). Seeking a new pursuit in light of his newfound fame, he began work on the Panama Canal, using the same techniques as before (Burns, 2003, p. 61). Tried and true methods could not fail. And yet they did. Countless workers became afflicted with Yellow Fever, and the Canal was over budget and out of funds (Burns, 2003, p. 61). De Lesseps and his son went on trial for swindling supporters out of their money, and the Suez Canal became controlled by the British (Burns, 2003, p. 62).

Psychology is considerably interested in understanding what motivations drive our behavior, values, beliefs, and actions individually and relationally. In some cases, our motivation may be to attain power, recognition or prestige (Anderson, Hildreth, & Howland, 2015). As we seek to gain more recognition, our self-esteem flourishes (Anderson et al., 2015). However, we begin guard our prestige so much so that we become defensive and less willing or open to making and acknowledging mistakes (Anderson et al., 2015). Some might say this was De Lesseps’ downfall: once widely recognized for his work in developing the Suez Canal, he desired to maintain his prestige by employing the same tactics in a different environment, unwilling to alter these tactics until it was too late. No one wanted to admit where they had gone wrong. In our own self-esteem and sense of self-worth, it is important to challenge the notion that mistakes are inherently bad or cause us to appear less than intelligent. In deepening our understanding of ourselves, we find the call to become authentic, congruent, and genuine in our own vulnerabilities and shortcomings, creating a firmer foundation for acceptance by those around us and our own self-confidence. In this, we invite others to do the same and become more understanding and open to acknowledging their own flaws and mistakes, looking on each other more lovingly in the process.

Reflecting on all this in comparison with my leadership practice, I am reminded to be humble in my endeavors, projects, and goals with those around me. Too often, especially in today’s society and culture, we blame and point fingers without taking ownership for our actions. In like manner, we fail to research or understand how our actions and decisions affect all involved, especially in new and unfamiliar territory. What is most important to me is creating a shared space to be open and forthcoming about ideas, concerns, hopes, and fears to build trust and relationships, allowing us to learn the hard way when necessary. Looking at De Lesseps’ example, when we attain success or respect and admiration for something we have done – individually or collectively, we must not let it allow us to become complacent in the idea that our plans and ideas are foolproof and never need change. We cannot become so wrapped up and enthralled in ourselves and our own desires that we neglect to understand what happens in the world and affects us. I want to embrace success and failure because it will allow us to grow, but more importantly, I want to embrace learning from all experiences and finding meaning and value in these for my own development, that of those around me, and any missions and goals we aspire to reach.

From the Christian perspective, De Lesseps gives us a glimpse into the futility of our own desires to fulfill God’s Will or gain recognition through ourselves as opposed to the radical and redemptive work of Christ (Wigg-Stevenson, 2012, loc. 1803-1822). We can pursue our own desires or what we falsely believe is right as much as we want (Wigg-Stevenson, 2012, loc. 1811).

“There is nothing virtuous in pretending we have what we do not have or that we do not have what we actually do (Wigg-Stevenson, 2012, loc. 1904).”

However, it will never lead to the lasting and transformative change necessary when we do not align ourselves in Christ’s image and hope. To become the kind of light and reflection of salvation the world desperately needs, we need to come to terms with our own limitations, shortcomings, and failures, in humility and submission to Christ’s ultimate fulfillment and healing of the world’s brokenness (Wigg-Stevenson, 2012, loc. 1893-1905). In our humility, we come to see the world and its needs in a different, more nurturing light than previously – and we may begin to work towards the hope, dignity, love, belonging, and truth for all people that God will establish in His time (Wigg-Stevenson, 2012, loc. 1914-1938).


Anderson, C., Hildreth, J. A. D., & Howland, L. (2015). Is the desire for status a fundamental human motive? A review of the empirical literature. Psychological Bulletin, 141(3), 574-601. doi:10.1037/a0038781.

Burns, J. M. (2003). Transforming leadership: A new pursuit of happiness (Vol. 213). Grove Press.

Wigg-Stevenson, T. (2012). The world is not ours to save: Finding the freedom to do good. InterVarsity Press.

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