Tribute to Dr. Donald O. Clifton

As Presented by Rick Walker
Legacy Leadership Academy Board of Trustees Chairman

Dr. Donald O. CliftonDr. Donald O Clifton grew up on a Nebraska farm during the Great Depression. Life was hard and uncertain, but these experiences enabled him to see people from a simple, yet positive perspective. He flew as a navigator and bombardier during World War II and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross medal. By living through the hardships of growing up and seeing the destruction of the war he was determined to find a better path for satisfaction and success in life.

After World War II his studies at the University of Nebraska led to his lifelong quest to answer a pivotal question: What would happen if we studied what is right with people instead of what is wrong with them? He spent the rest of his life constructively studying, researching and teaching what is right about people and how to have them realize their talents. Clifton’s work drew him to conclude that focusing on people’s weaknesses rarely develops into strengths yet when people develop their inherent God-given strengths, they learn quicker and to higher skill levels, leading to more productive outcomes with high value and greater feelings of well-being.

Don Clifton’s intense interest in studying human development led to his ground-breaking role in pioneering “strengths science” and Positive Psychology. His journey began when he went to the library and saw that all of the books on psychology were about what is wrong with people – Abnormal Psychology. He couldn’t find a single book on what might be right with an individual. That insight drove him to study and formulate the principles what is now known as “strengths science.” In 2003, he was honored by the American Psychological Association with a Presidential Commendation as the Father of Strengths-Based Psychology and Grandfather of Positive Psychology.

Don Clifton went on to study and research the key traits, characteristics and attributes of great leaders in searching for common leadership themes. His research found only one consistent attribute of great leaders: their ability to find, develop and facilitate their individual “talents” and foster the similar development of others within an organization. Great leaders readily know their strengths and weaknesses and, in so knowing, consciously seek out those strengths in others that best complement their own strengths and compensate for their non-strengths. Don Clifton’s research in strengths-based science naturally evolved into concepts and practices for Leadership Development.

Don Clifton applied his most essential research in working with the adults of corporate clients. However, he came to believe, with one of his close associates, Chip Anderson, that the key to corporate success began earlier, with young students understanding what was already within themselves. Don and Chip believed that by encouraging students to “become the persons God created them to be they could achieve excellence and complete the work that God had designed them to do”.

Chip went on to develop a special love for teaching Strengths Science to adolescent and college age students. Students responded to his desire to bring such a constructive perspective to their lives when they understood that by being “hungry for the sense of meaning, purpose, and direction that an appreciation of their strengths gave them they could achieve success and enjoy a feeling of well-being.

My own personal journey in coming to know the power, freedom and purpose that Don Clifton’s work makes possible in everyone came through my association with Ron Bishop. Ron, as the senior marketing executive for a prominent New England-based life insurance company, met Don Clifton in the early 1970’s. Don had recently started Selection Research Inc. (SRI) to provide research-based selection tools to find high performing insurance salesmen. SRI was created because Don and his team had discovered that certain Talents or Strengths gave a higher probability of success for a particular business effort. By screening the applicants to focus on those best candidates with the most appropriate role Talents, SRI developed an effective predictor of human performance that dramatically enhanced productivity as well as profits. Ron Bishop was a client of Don Clifton for nearly 20 years and consistently had some of the lowest turnover and highest profitability rates among his industry peers. Ron was such an advocate of SRI’s concepts and tools that he almost joined Clifton in the late 1980’s as a Gallup executive.

His love of developing people also carried Ron Bishop into various civic roles, including serving as a Founding Board Member of the Lake Norman Charter School. His steady eye for talent gave the entire Lake Norman Charter School board a rare glimpse into the blossoming concept of “talent development”. While Lake Norman Charter was unable to afford the early Gallup educational talent development tools, Ron Bishop made such a strong impression on me that I was determined to pursue opportunities for talent development in K-12 students.

Some years later Karl Sweeney, a retired Marriott senior executive, shared his extensive research-based talent identification and development success using Gallup within Marriott. His highly quantitative perspective about Marriott’s Gallup successes guided my own talent development sojourn back to Gallup. After years of working with various Gallup advocates, both within and outside of Gallup, the concept of Gallup research-based talent identification and development became a reality for our first client school in 2009. We have never looked back in the subsequent years.

Our own basic research, based on teacher and student satisfaction as well as academic successes within our client schools, has proven Gallup to be the only research-based and field validated foundation for talent identification and development, leadership development and ultimately servant leadership oriented schools. We came to understand that Don Clifton’s foundational research has meaningfully influenced countless organizational and leadership advocates including Stephen Covey. Stephen Covey, in his leadership observations and teachings, advocated that leadership development begins with talent recognition.

My experience with Stephen Covey since reading at age 17 his first book, Spiritual Roots of Human Relationships, has deeply aided me in coming to know better who I am. At age 40, my later experience with Don Clifton has enabled me to have “strengths glasses” to more readily see what’s specifically right and inspiring about all people. Don Clifton has enabled me to better appreciate who other people truly are and what they can fully become. I’m eternally grateful to both Don Clifton and Stephen Covey for their inspired insights and lifelong devotion to helping people understand and develop the best in themselves and others. Both Don Clifton and Stephen Covey have inspired me to bring their profound yet highly complementary research, observations and teachings to each individual, student or adult, that I have the privilege to interact with and serve.