What are your strengths as a leader? Positive psychology proposes 6 virtues and 24 character strengths

January 15, 2020

“Character Strengths and Virtues” is a fascinating psychology handbook that brings together the work of many different projects to create a classification system for widely valued positive traits in people. The aim is to present a measure of humanist ideals of virtue in an empirical and scientific way.

Whilst it offers a theoretical framework in the field of positive psychology practitioners, it is directly practical to the challenge of developing business leaders. It builds effectively on similar “strengths” approaches to leadership such as that promoted by the likes of Marcus Buckingham and the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment model.

Of course there are limits to just focusing on strengths – if the strengths don’t align with the business need, if the strengths are overdone they can become weaknesses, and indeed weaknesses are not something to hide.

The positive aspect to the strengths approach is immediately apparent in the lack of any mention of weaknesses. Of course we all have strengths and weaknesses, yet perhaps spend too much time trying to make our failings better, rather than our best attributes even better.

There are 6 classes of virtues that are made up of 24 character strengths:

Researchers approached the measurement of “good character” based on the strengths of authenticity, persistence, kindness, gratitude, hope, humour, and more.

What makes us strong?

Cultures around the world have valued the study of human strength and virtue. Psychologists have a particular interest in it as they work to encourage individuals to develop these traits. While all cultures value human virtues, different cultures express or act on virtues in different ways based on differing societal values and norms.

Martin Seligman and his colleagues studied all major religions and philosophical traditions and found that the same six virtues (courage, humanity, justice, etc) were shared in virtually all cultures.

Since these virtues are considered too abstract to be studied scientifically, positive psychology practitioners focused their attention on the strengths of character created by virtues, and created tools for their measurement.

The 24 Strengths

The CSV Handbook delves into each of these six traits:

1. Virtue of Wisdom 

The more curious and creative we allow ourselves to become, the more we gain perspective and wisdom and will, in turn, love what we are learning. This is developing the virtue of wisdom and knowledge.

Strengths that accompany this virtue involve acquiring and using knowledge:

  • Creativity (e.g. Albert Einstein’s creativity led him to acquire knowledge and wisdom about the universe)
  • Curiosity
  • Open-mindedness
  • Love of Learning
  • Perspective and Wisdom (Fun fact: many studies have found that adults’ self-ratings of perspective and wisdom do not depend on age, which contrasts the popular idea that our wisdom increases with age).

2. Virtue of Courage

The braver and more persistent we become, the more our integrity will increase because we will reach a state of feeling vital, and this results in being more courageous in character.

Strengths that accompany this virtue involve accomplishing goals in the face of things that oppose it:

  • Bravery
  • Persistence
  • Integrity
  • Vitality

3. Virtue of Humanity

There is a reason why Oprah Winfrey is seen as a symbol of virtue for humanitarians: on every show, she approaches her guests with respect, appreciation, and interest (social intelligence), she practices kindness through her charity work, and she shows her love to her friends and family.

Strengths that accompany this virtue include caring and befriending others:

  • Love
  • Kindness
  • Social intelligence

4. Virtue of Justice

Mahatma Gandhi was the leader of the Indian independence movement in British-ruled India. He led India to independence and helped created movements for civil rights and freedom by being an active citizen in nonviolent disobedience. His work has been applied worldwide for its universality.

Strengths that accompany this virtue include those that build a healthy and stable community:

  • Being an active citizen who is socially responsible, loyal, and a team member.
  • Fairness
  • Leadership

5. Virtue of Temperance

Being forgiving, merciful, humble, prudent, and in control of our behaviors and instincts prevents us from being arrogant, selfish, or any other trait that is excessive or unbalanced.

Strengths that are included in this virtue are those that protect against excess:

  • Forgiveness and mercy
  • Humility and modesty
  • Prudence
  • Self-Regulation and Self-control

6. Virtue of Transcendence

The Dalai Lama is a transcendent being who speaks openly why he never loses hope in humanity’s potential. He also appreciates nature in its perfection and lives according to what he believes is his intended purpose.

Strengths that accompany this virtue include those that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning:

  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence
  • Gratitude
  • Hope
  • Humor and playfulness
  • Spirituality, or a sense of purpose

Female strengths

There’s an interest in identifying dominant character strengths in genders and how it is developed. As Martin Seligman and his colleagues studied all major religions and philosophical traditions to find universal virtues, much of the research on gender and character strengths have been cross-cultural also. In a study by Brdar, Anic, & Rijavec on gender differences and character strengths, women scored highest on the strengths of honesty, kindness, love, gratitude, and fairness.

Life satisfaction for women was predicted by zest, gratitude, hope, appreciation of beauty/excellence, and love for other women. A recent study by Mann showed that women tend to score higher on gratitude than men. Alex Linley and colleagues reported in a UK study that women not only scored higher in interpersonal strengths, such as love and kindness, but on social intelligence, too.

In a cross-cultural study in Spain by Ovejero and Cardenal, they found that femininity was positively correlated with love, social intelligence, appreciation of beauty, love of learning, forgiveness, spirituality, and creativity. The more masculine a man was, the more he correlated negatively with these character strengths.

Male strengths

Brdar, Anic & Rijavac reported that men score highest on honesty, hope, humor, gratitude, and curiosity. Their life satisfaction was predicted by creativity, perspective, fairness, and humor. Alex Linley and colleagues study showed that men scored higher than females on creativity.

Miljković and Rijavec’s study found sex differences in a sample of college students. Men not only scored higher in creativity, but also leadership, self-control, and zest. These findings are congruent with gender stereotypes, as the study by Ovejero and Cardenal in Spain showed that men did not equate typical masculine strengths with love, forgiveness, love of learning, and so on.

In a Croatian sample, Brdar and colleagues found that men viewed cognitive strengths as a greater predictor for life satisfaction. Men saw strengths such as teamwork, kindness, perspective, and courage to be a stronger connection to life satisfaction than other strengths. There is an important limitation to this sample population, as most of the participants were women.

What can we learn?

While there are differences in character strengths between men and women, there are many that they share. Both genders saw gratitude, hope, and zest as being related to higher life satisfaction, as well as the tendency to live in accordance with the strengths that are valued in their particular culture.

Studies confirm that there is a duality between genders, but only when both genders identify strongly with gender stereotypes. It makes one wonder if men and women are inherently born with certain strengths, or if the cultural influence of certain traits prioritizes different traits based on gender norms.

Learn more about strengths and weaknesses tests here.