What is the History of the Strengths Movement?

In 1992, Don Clifton (1924–2003) co-authored the book Soar With Your Strengths: A Simple Yet Revolutionary Philosophy of Business and Management (Dell Publishing, 1992), which revealed his long-standing interest in helping people identify and utilize “their best.” This book laid the foundation, and the Gallup Organization (the company that was Clifton’s home base) followed with the development of an assessment that would help people name and claim their top five themes of talent.

Clifton’s vision went deeply into his colleagues and friends. By the turn of the millennium, his protégé at Gallup, Marcus Buckingham, had become the face of the strengths movement. Writing best-selling books with Clifton and others opened the door for Buckingham to continue researching through consulting and speaking on a national scale. After a 17-year career at Gallup, he now brings his message through The Marcus Buckingham Company®.

As these best-sellers took the corporate world by storm, Peter Drucker’s voice was added to the mix. Drucker said, “Most Americans do not know what their strengths are. When you ask them, they look at you with a blank stare, or they respond in terms of subject knowledge, which is the wrong answer.”

In the realm of higher education, Clifton became fast friends with Edward “Chip” Anderson (1942–2005). Anderson, who was working to help remedial students at UCLA, realized that his calling as an educator was greater than merely seeing students pass. He longed to see them thrive. Anderson came to Azusa Pacific University in the late 1990s and began to enthusiastically ask, “What would happen if we really loved our students?” His vision inspired Lee Noel of Noel-Levitz, and together Clifton, Anderson, and Noel made a concerted effort to bring strengths to college campuses.

Parallel to these developments, rumblings were occurring in the field of psychology. In the late 1990s, at the dawn of his appointment as president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman called his friend Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and together they convened a group of young psychologists to map out a new approach to their discipline. “Positive Psychology” was launched with Seligman’s inaugural presidential address and with the January 2000 issue of American Psychologist, which focused on the “new” Positive Psychology.

Early on, the positive psychologists understood their link to strengths. Clifton was dubbed the “Father of the Strengths Movement” and the “Grandfather of Positive Psychology.”

The research of many, of course, preceded the launch of positive psychology. Csikszentmihalyi had been working with the ideas of “flow” and “creativity.” Ed Diener’s focus on personal and social well-being was oriented toward what has emerged as the science of happiness. Many teachers and authors have since taken on this topic. For example, Tal Ben-Shahar teaches a class at Harvard focused on happiness. This class has become Harvard’s most popular course.

Barbara Frederickson and her work on “positive emotion” was quickly adopted by the positive psychologists, as was Rick Snyder’s research into “hope.” Connections have been made to “positive organizational scholarship” through the leadership of Kim Cameron, Jane Dutton, and Robert Quinn, and veteran researchers Fred Luthans and Bruce Avolio have added another branch to the conversation through their measurement-based work on “psychological capital.”

Azusa Pacific University offers the only strengths-oriented Ph.D. and Ed.D. degrees in Higher Education. Under the leadership of Laurie A. Schreiner, Ph.D., and a team of strengths-oriented faculty, APU students are doing research that continues to deepen our knowledge of strengths in the context of higher education pedagogy, leadership, and student development.

Today, the strengths movement has many friends and supporters. Found in corporate education and university life, focused on thriving individuals and thriving communities, developing interventions to increase good character and personal competence, the Noel Academy is grateful to play a pivotal role amidst this emerging set of ideas and practices that will build a better world.