The Character Strengths of a Leader

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One of the wonderful things about character strengths is that although we all have all 24, and they are a common language that lets us express our understanding and appreciation of each other’s qualities in a straightforward way, we do nevertheless express each strength uniquely.

This combination of similarity and difference is what makes character strengths so powerful. They both connect us and differentiate us at the same time.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when you speak to people who are leaders and to the people whom they lead. It is not uncommon to encounter expectations about what a leader will look like, what strengths they will have at their fingertips. We may even expect them to have superhuman capacities that translate into many signature strengths – more than your average person. One person even asked me once whether to be a good leader you needed to get all 24 strengths to the top level.

And of course, the most common preconception of all is that in order to be a leader, we must have the strength of Leadership as a top strength.

Will the Real Leader Please Stand Up?

In reality, it is not the case that every leader or even every good leader has leadership as a top strength. On average across populations, Leadership is a strength that shows up squarely in the middle of the average profile[1]. As with any of the strengths, there are people with Leadership higher than average, but that does not automatically make them a leader.

What we do know is that effective leaders recognize, acknowledge and cultivate the strengths of the people they lead[2]. They play to strengths and recognize that as leaders their job is not to know all the answers, or even provide all the structure and guidance. Their job is to create an environment where their teams flourish and can be their best selves.

Over the years, I have been able to look at the character strengths profiles of many people in leadership positions, and what I find time after time is not that they are high in leadership, but that they know their top strengths and they use the strengths that are at their fingertips – their signature strengths – to be the best they can be. One person actually took their signature strengths and explained how they blended together to make them someone that others took for a leader[3].
Reproduced with permission from Be a Project Motivator[4]
As she reviewed her top strengths of Appreciation, Bravery, Curiosity, Fairness, Gratitude and Humor, she was able to explain how each of those strengths contributed to building trust and empathy, helped her to perform the functions of a leader such as paying attention, showing respect and being willing to learn – including the hard ones like having difficult conversations – and created a safe environment for her team.

Finding your pathway to Leadership

Interesting preliminary research[5] has shown that there are some promising correlations between seven core team roles and specific character strengths. For example, the role of Decision Maker correlates with Zest, Hope, Bravery, Perseverance, and Leadership. Most people will not be surprised at the last strength, but all these strengths individually and together represent pathways to be a Decision maker – the person who is “energized by analyzing information from various perspectives, weighing evidence, applying logic, and choosing a fruitful course of action.” For most people that would be a leadership role!

The secret to character strengths is to discover your personal profile and your unique way of using those strengths. Does your kindness get used at work to help colleagues, or at home with family to support them as they make their way through life or in your community as you help people facing personal challenges? Do you show your kindness with a hug and understanding when someone is in pain or by doing something practical to help? Does your bravery show up when you get comfortable with being uncomfortable in accepting a personal challenge, or when you speak up for others against a crowd, or you stand by a loved one in the face of criticism from family? And how do those two strengths show up together?

As basic building blocks of personality, your character strengths are the same as mine, the same as a loved one’s, the same as those of your boss. What makes you you is how you use them and blend them and show them to the world. And that is as unique as your thumbprint.

How will you use YOUR top strengths to set you apart today?


[1] Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2006). Character strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty US states. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), 118-129. doi:10.1080/17439760600619567

[2] See for example Lavy, S., Littman-Ovadia, H., & Boiman-Meshita, M. (2016b). The wind beneath my wings: The role of social support in enhancing the use of strengths at work. Journal of Career Assessment.

[3] Pearce, R. (2018). Be a project motivator: Unlock the secrets of strengths-based project management. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

[4] Be a Project Motivator, p124

[5] Ruch, W., Gander, F., Platt, T., & Hofmann, J. (2016). Team roles: Their relationships to character strengths and job satisfaction. Journal of Positive Psychology. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2016.1257051

Posted by Ruth Pearce on: September 23, 2019 06:00 AM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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Very interesting, thanks for sharing

Well rounded leaders are often hard to find. Sharpening all of these skills is important. Thank you for sharing.

I wrote down your question and have decided to read it daily spending a moment reflecting on my response for each day....."How will you use YOUR top strengths to set you apart today?" I hope to use my strengths of zest, bravery, appreciation of beauty and excellence, etc. for positive outcomes and really liked the example you shared. Made me think!

Quite Interesting Post.. Thanks for sharing it..

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