” To lead people, walk beside them…” Lao Tzu
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
One of the questions I am frequently asked is, “what is the best character strengths profile for a…?” (fill in the blank)
And most often groups fill in the blank with “leader”.
“What is the best character strengths profile for a leader?”
This question is often prompted by the discovery that the character strength of Leadership (encouraging a group to get things done and organizing group activities) is not one of their top strengths, and they start to think leadership is not for them!
My answer is always the same… “It is your strengths profile used well”.
What does that mean though?
Understanding your Character Strengths Profile
- Signature strengths – these are the strengths that you generally find toward the top of you character strengths profile. We have around 5-7 signature strengths. They are our go-to strengths = the ones that show up for us wherever we are, whatever we are doing and pretty much whoever we are with. We characterize them with the three Es – they are essential, effortless, and energizing. The upside of that is that they are dependable. We can call on them at any time. At the same time, if you have ever heard someone dismiss another’s ideas without really listening, or asking so many questions the other person becomes uncomfortable, or cracking a nervous joke when solemnity is called for, then you have already experienced what can happen with our signature strengths – we can lean on them too much, we can overdo them. Getting the balance right is the true mark of a leader because it is contextual. That is, whether they feel overused to another person DOES depend on the context, who we are with, what we are doing, what the purpose of our interaction is.
Strengths optimization and adjustment is the key – and great leaders are able to leverage their top strengths with sensitivity knowing when to ramp them up, when to dial them back and when to sprinkle in a teaspoon of a lower strength with mindfulness and deliberation.
- Middle strengths – these are the supporting actors in your cast of characters. Not as prominent or as dominant as your signature strengths, they are nevertheless available to you as a complement to your main players – the signature strengths. Sometimes they are boosting those top strengths, other times they are tempering them. Although these strengths may not feel as invigorating, being able to call on them when we need them is a characteristic of good leaders. And if we are struggling to call on our own middle strength, think about a collaboration – look around and spot the character strengths around you. Maybe a colleague seems to be able to read other people really well and anticipate their reactions to different messages (social intelligence) – sit down with them and explore options for delivering a message or constructing a group/team meeting. Or maybe you are noticing that the team seems a little down and burned out. Look for the people are future oriented and believe and see the steps to ensure that the vision of the future will be accomplished (Hope), or maybe there is that person who just seems to be full of enthusiasm and it you’ve noticed that they seem to be able to spread the joy without apparently trying (Zest). Work with those people to build energy in the team.
- Lesser strengths – many people confuse the last four or five strengths in their character strengths profile with weaknesses. First of all, the assessment does not measure weaknesses. The foundation of character strengths theory is that the 24 character strengths are universal, and that we all have the capacity for all 24 – even if engaging them is a stretch. As an example, Self-regulation (self-control) and Prudence (the planning with grounded caution strength) are two of the strengths most often ranked toward the bottom of the character strengths profile. (An exception appears to be Prudence in project managers! You can read more about that here: https://www.projectmanagement.com/blog-post/47971/5-ways-to-be-a-strong---and-socially-intelligent---project-manager)
Character Strengths Use Fatigue
And what about strengths fatigue? What does that look and feel like?
What happens when we have to use strengths that are lower in the ranking for us? Well, unsurprisingly, it is tiring. In the last few months many people have been suffering Prudence and Self-Regulation fatigue. The pandemic has meant that some things we take for granted if we are fortunate – shopping at the store – are now taking a lot more planning. Planning requires Prudence. Wearing a mask around others for their safety – even though it may feel uncomfortable – uses self-regulation (at least until we create a habit). That is why it is important to be consistent with things like wearing a mask. If we do it for ALL social situations, it starts to use less self-regulation. We use self-regulation more when we are constantly making decisions about “is this a situation where a mask is appropriate?” and “is this a situation where a mask is unnecessary?”
I have noticed this in friends. One or two of them are blessed with self-regulation as a top strength – yes, they are unicorns! – and they did not find it hard at the start to have masks in their car, by the front door etc. (at least not once they had found masks!). One or two others have Kindness as a top strength and these people used that kindness – manifested as a concern for the health and well-being of others – to groove in a habit of go to the door, put on a mask, pick up the car keys, put on a mask and so on. Although their self-regulation was not high, they were able to use other strengths to build a desirable habit.
And what about Bravery fatigue? Bravery is a strength that is about feeling apprehension, anxiety and fear and doing something anyway. There are three types of bravery[i]. There is physical bravery – the type that involves running into a physically threatening situation. This could be stepping in when there appears to be a physical threat to someone, saving someone from an accident or fire. What comes to mind for you?
There is psychological bravery – feeling apprehension and fear and taking a difficult step – this might be accepting stage fright and speaking at a conference or giving the most important workplace presentation. What have you experienced?
There is moral bravery which is speaking up for what is morally right even when confronted with push back. We are seeing a lot of that at the moment in the US as we confront our history and our present. It can be something like pointing out that a project no longer makes sense, or that the short-term benefit of a project is at the expense of a long-term detriment, or to call out unfair work practices. How does moral bravery impact you?
In our day-to-day, during Covid-19 we have all to keep leaning on bravery, it is exhausting and there are so many ways in which we are having to engage bravery at the moment. Another interesting tidbit of information is that bravery is very rare as a signature strength (see above). In fact, it tends to rank quite low in most profiles – 18 or 19 is pretty common.[ii]
As we embark on the next months and years of challenge and change, how will you embrace it?
Leading from Who and How You Are - Being and Doing
As a leader, what are the options? Consider these five questions. Journal about them. Discuss with others and get their perspective. Two heads are better than one (and many diverse heads are better than two!)
- Know your own strengths well – explore them, understand how they work for you and even against you or others.
- Start seeing strengths in others – what is at their core? What motivates them?
- How do your strengths and theirs complement each other?
- How do your strengths and theirs contribute to conflict?
- How can you as a leader – of yourself or others – engage the enormous strengths of your community?
When you begin to answer these five questions, you start to increase your value as a leader because:
“You can be the lead in your own life.” – Kerry Washington
[i] Niemiec, Ryan M., and Robert E. McGrath. The Power of Character Strengths: Appreciate and Ignite Your Positive Personality. VIA Institute on Character, 2019.
[ii] Robert E. McGrath (2014): Character strengths in 75 nations: An update, The Journal of Positive Psychology: Dedicating to furthering research and promoting good practice.