Strengths Campus

fostering a community of people interested in exploring strengths


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Although it may seem like a recent phenomenon, the Strengths movement can actually trace its roots back at least as far as 1966. That year, legendary management guru Peter Drucker published a book titled The Effective Executive. Without, perhaps, even intending to, he couldn’t have launched the strengths movement with a clearer statement of principle: “the effective executive builds on strengths—their own strengths, the strengths of superiors, colleagues, subordinates; and on the strengths of the situation.”

The effective executive builds on strengths.
— Peter Drucker, 1966

A few years later, educational psychology professor Donald O. Clifton founded a company he named Selection Research, Inc. (SRI) to explore a simple idea that helped to revolutionize psychology: focusing on what is right with people, instead of on what is wrong. SRI’s method was to investigate the best performers in any given role and find out what, exactly, made them the best. In studying both managers and teachers, SRI’s researchers found a common pattern emerging: those who performed best were those who, instead of trying to somehow put in what was left out, tried to maximize the unique strengths of each employee or student. This tendency emerged as a dominant factor in separating the best teachers and managers from those who didn’t get the same results.

Armed with this knowledge, SRI built a training program named Varsity Management in 1980. One of the program’s key concepts was to focus on strengths. In 1983, SRI’s training program and techniques caught the eye of Graeme Buckingham, head of Human Resources for Allied Breweries, owner of 7,000 pubs in Britain. Buckingham knew from his own experience that the success of each pub was largely dependent on the quality of its manager, so he brought Don Clifton and SRI to England to build a pub manager selection interview.

Clifton ended up recruiting Buckingham’s son, Marcus, to work for SRI in Lincoln, Nebraska, during his summers off at Cambridge. Marcus went through the Varsity Management program and eventually signed on full-time with SRI in the Selection Testing Division, helping to build selection interviews. Marcus had based his master’s thesis, “The Social and Psychological Issues of Entrepreneurship,” on SRI research.

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990

Meanwhile, at Case Western Reserve University, doctoral candidate David Cooperrider and his advisor Suresh Srivastva were taking their first steps toward creating a new field. Inspired by a case study of an organization that showed decidedly positive levels of cooperation and innovation, Cooperrider completed his dissertation on “Appreciative Inquiry” and the two scholars marked the first appearance of the term in a professional publication with their 1987 article “Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life.” The stated mission of the new field, in Cooperrider’s words, was “to build organizations around what works rather than fix what doesn’t.” Later that same year, the first public workshop on Appreciative Inquiry was held in San Francisco.

Another key contribution to the development of the strengths movement came with the publication of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi had dedicated himself for over two decades to studying a central insight: that happiness did not happen by chance, but instead had to be cultivated, defended and prepared for. His research led him to develop the concept of what he called “optimal experience”: “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” From extensive interviews with people about such optimal experiences, Csikszentmihalyi developed the theory of flow: “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” The recognition of that highly desirable state of mind has become a key concept in identifying personal strengths.

In 1988, SRI acquired the Gallup Organization and took on the older company’s name. Although its name was and is synonymous in the public mind with polling services, the joint company maintained SRI’s dedication to exploring what makes people excel. In 1997, Clifton identified the now-legendary “Q12” — the 12 key questions that best measure employee engagement. Charged with developing and designing the Q12 practice for Gallup were Curt Coffman, Dr. James K. Harter, and Marcus Buckingham.

Put in charge of developing content and training programs centered on the Q12, Buckingham wrote a proposal for a book originally titled The Gallup Book of Management. Everyone agreed that the title wasn’t quite right, but Buckingham managed to secure high-profile William Morris agent Joni Evans to represent the book. She requested a redraft of the book proposal. And another. And another. Finally, on the 20th draft, she deemed the proposal ready to send out, and Simon & Schuster acquired the rights. After a brief flirtation with the title Breaking All the Rules, Buckingham hit on a piece of inspiration from Shakespeare’s Henry VI — “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” — and the book finally gained its familiar title: First, Break All the Rules.

Written in New York City throughout 1998, First, Break All the Rules was published in April 1999, becoming an immediate bestseller and instant business classic. Not content to rest on their laurels, Clifton and Buckingham soon began work on the follow-up book, Now, Discover Your Strengths, and its associated assessment test, StrengthsFinder. Clifton developed and tested the 180 items that made up the StrengthsFinder profile, while Buckingham wrote the 34 “Talent Theme” definitions and all of the action items. Each copy of Now featured a code enabling readers to take the StrengthsFinder test, giving it a claim, in a sense, as the first interactive book. At the last minute, Gallup decided to remove the individual action items, concerned that including them would hurt their consulting business. Later Gallup realized that those action items needed to be shared, and they became the basis for StrengthsFinder 2.0.

The most important thing I learned was that psychology was half-baked, literally half-baked. We had baked the part about mental illness; we had baked the part about repair of damage. But… that's only half of it. The other side's unbaked, the side of strength, the side of what we're good at.
—Dr. Martin Seligman, 1999

While Now and StrengthsFinder were still being written and developed, the field of positive psychology was taking off. In September 1999, American Psychological Association president Dr. Martin Seligman gave a speech at the Lincoln Summit, organized under the auspices of Don Clifton and Gallup. Seligman pointed out that “psychology has, for 50 years, been almost entirely about remediation, almost entirely about what's repairing the worst in life; it has not pursued the goals of what makes life worth living.” He went on to speak of an epiphany he’d had watching his young daughter’s natural playfulness: “The most important thing, the most general thing I learned, was that psychology was half-baked, literally half-baked. We had baked the part about mental illness; we had baked the part about repair of damage. But… that's only half of it. The other side's unbaked, the side of strength, the side of what we're good at.” He concluded his speech by stating that he had made it his mission to build the science of positive psychology.

In January 2001, Now, Discover Your Strengths

was published and became an immediate bestseller. Thousands of people took the StrengthsFinder test to identify their top talent themes, recurring patterns of thought, feeling and behavior that can be constructively applied. Bucking the numerical precedents of David Letterman and music charts everywhere, StrengthsFinder added the phrase “Top 5” to the lexicon. (Fun fact: Marcus Buckingham’s Top 5 are Futuristic, Context, Focus, Ideation, Intellection.)

Clifton kept busy in 2001. That year also saw the publication of a book co-authored with Edward “Chip” Anderson titled StrengthsQuest: Discover and Develop Your Strengths in Academics, Career, and Beyond. Clifton and Anderson partnered with Lee Noel to bring the strengths movement to higher learning. Anderson joined Azusa Pacific University in 1999, and Azusa Pacific’s Noel Academy for Strengths-Based Leadership and Education now offers strengths-oriented programs for undergraduates and graduate students. In recognition of all of his efforts to drive the growth of the strengths movement, Don Clifton was officially honored as the “Father of Strengths-Based Psychology” by the American Psychological Association in 2002, just one year before his death.

In 2004, Dr. Seligman and Dr. Christopher Peterson published Character Strengths and Virtues, outlining 24 specific strengths grouped under six broad categories of virtue that they have recognized across diverse cultures and time periods. The book’s stated aim is to “reclaim the study of character and virtue as legitimate topics of psychological inquiry… to make possible a science of human strengths.” Dubbing their book a “manual of the sanities,” they envisioned it as their field’s equivalent and counter to the famous Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases, providing the same classification schemes and assessment strategies for positive psychology that traditional psychology had employed for disease. Their work became the basis for the Virtues in Action Institute on Character.

Having left the Gallup Organization, Marcus Buckingham wrote a series of books further exploring strengths, including The One Thing You Need to Know (2005) and Go Put Your Strengths to Work (2007). In 2006, he founded The Marcus Buckingham Company (TMBC) to help spread the strengths message to corporations and individuals throughout the world. One of the first products of the new company was a workshop titled Simply Strengths, designed to train individual people to identify and capitalize on their specific personal strengths. Created to accompany the workshop was a short film series titled Trombone Player Wanted.

The story of the young boy in Trombone Player Wanted was actually inspired by Marcus Buckingham’s own childhood experience.

Trombone Player Wanted was born of a desire to bring the strengths movement to life in an easily accessible, almost parable-like way. The films have Buckingham explaining core strengths concepts against the background story of a young schoolboy desperate to shift away from playing the trombone — an activity that interests him not in the least — to playing the drums, for which he clearly has a passion. What many people may not know is that the story of the young boy was actually inspired by Marcus Buckingham’s own childhood experience: he was forced to play the trombone as a child, wasn’t good at it, and hated it. Filmmaker Tom Rinks took the initial concept and ran with it, filming the entire six-episode series in winter of 2006 at the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall and Hollywood High School.

Together with Simply Strengths, Trombone Player Wanted kicked off a series of TMBC personal strengths offerings that grew to include Strong Manager and the recently released Strengths Essentials workshop-in-a-box.

TMBC also introduced the Strengths Engagement Track (SET) assessment, which measures people’s level of strengths engagement. Widely used by organizations, it has also been deployed to measure the strengths engagement levels of several countries around the world year over year. The results so far have been enlightening. While some countries, such as China, have shown drastic improvements in strengths engagement over time, many others, including the United States, have remained level or even declined, demonstrating that the strengths movement still has a lot of work to do in order to bring its message to the world.

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