The strengths approach has become increasingly well known over the past 20 years. This is partly due to the work of such people as Don Clifton at Gallup, Martin Seligman and Marcus Buckingham.
The strengths philosophy, however, has a much longer tradition. Some elements of it stretch back more than 200 years. Pioneering educators such as Heinrich Pestalozzi and Friedrich Froebel encouraged each child to learn through their whole being: their heart, head and hands. They believed this approach was more likely to enable a person to find and follow their vocation.
This tradition was picked up by other educators. These included, for example, Maria Montessori in Italy, John Dewey in the United States, Rabindranath Tagore in India and Sylvia Ashton-Warner in New Zealand. Whilst each pursued their own path, they all aimed to help children to build on their individual talents.
From the 1940s onwards the strengths approach was strongly influenced by Humanistic Psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and Virginia Satir. The same era give birth to the Self-Help Movement. This placed great emphasis on people taking responsibility and using their inner strength.
Bernard Haldane did pioneering work with veterans returning from the Second World War. He invited them to revisit their best working experiences and clarify their Dependable Strengths. People built on these to clarify their offering to employers and shape their future careers.
Don Clifton was already embarking on a similar path. Becoming Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Nebraska, he began his revolutionary research into his key question:
“What would happen if we actually studied what is right with people?”
In 1969 he founded Selection Research, Inc. This began as a small business in his basement and in 1988 acquired The Gallup Organization. Don acted as the guiding light in developing Gallup’s work on leadership, management and peak performance.
Viktor Frankl and Al Siebert focused on how individuals found meaning from overcoming terrible setbacks. Their books helped many people to harness their inner strength and shape their futures. This approach was linked to Existential Psychology, which contains themes present in the strengths approach. Martin Seligman and the Positive Psychology Center highlighted similar themes related to human virtues and character strengths.
The Peak Performance movement became increasing popular in the 1970s. Springing from fields such as sports psychology, it invited people to recall their best performances. What had they done right then? How could they follow similar principles in the future? Charles Garfield’s book Peak Performers helped to many people to follow these principles in their own ways.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was already doing pioneering work on Flow. This showed how people could do fine work and create flow experiences. Some schools combined Mihaly approach with that of Howard Gardner and Thomas Armstrong on multiple intelligences. They created environments in which students could pursue their successful learning styles and perform superb work.
David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney gave birth to Appreciative Inquiry. Applying peak performance principles to organisations, they invited employers to revisit when they had done great work. What did they do right then? How could they follow these principles to perform brilliantly in the future? AI has helped many organisations to achieve ongoing success.
During the past 20 years people such as Marcus Buckingham, Curt Coffman and Tom Rath have made millions of people aware of strengths approach. There are, of course, many other practitioners who apply such ideas in their work.
The strengths philosophy has become the focus for academic bodies, such as The Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and CAPP – the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology – in the UK. There are also many organisations that aim to share the strengths approach. These include, for example, The Strengths Partnership and The Strengths Foundation.
* Strengths Philosophers.
Here is a more in-depth description of many philosophers and practitioners who have contributed to the strengths approach.