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  • Writer's pictureDr. Christine Senn, PhD

Character Strengths: Transcendence

I did not think that the virtue of transcendence was going to apply to business, but it absolutely does, especially in inspirational leadership. The common theme running through the strengths of transcendence is that each allows individuals to forge connections to the larger universe and thereby provide meaning to their lives. That still doesn't sound like it applies to business but listen to the first character strength: appreciation of beauty and excellence. The people with this strength notice excellence and appreciate it profoundly. So, imagine that you have two leaders. One appreciates excellence and notices it profoundly and one does not. I think it's going to feel a lot more fulfilling and inspirational to have the leader who is in awe of the greatness around them. One of the ways, and this is of course what people would think of first, is loving art, for example, or music. But they (Drs. Peterson and Seligman in their book Character Strengths and Virtues) also talk about loving skilled athletic performances. The example they give of a person who is a paragon for this character strength is Alfred Nobel, who created the Nobel Peace Prize, because he was noticing the excellence in the world and wanted a way to celebrate it. Leaders can celebrate other people. That's an extraordinary thing.

The next character strength in this is gratitude. This is a big field of psychology right now that's being published around the benefits of a “gratitude practice” as they call it. And the way they write about gratitude here is that it is “a sense that we have benefited from the action of others.” To me, at least in business, this very much ties into the appreciation of excellence, because I personally have worked with people for quite a few years who are excellent at their jobs. And I have enormous gratitude for the extent to which they have made my life better, my work life, but just knowing them and seeing their work ethic or their skill or their way of thinking about things, and also how they've made the company better because of this excellence. And I have immense gratitude for them. So, if you are a leader and you are able to hone the skill – the character strength – really think about having the appreciation for other people's excellence and then expressing it through gratitude. I think that you would be a phenomenal leader, at least in that regard. I mean, that's totally separate from technical skill, right? People want to be around people who appreciate them and see their greatness.

I know I've talked before about these character strengths and that they all have criteria that they're supposed to meet. One of the criterion is: “does not diminish others.” This is a character strength, after all. So, if a characteristic were to diminish another person, it really wouldn't be a strength and it really wouldn't be part of positive psychology. One of the things they note on this is most assuredly that gratitude can never diminish another person. It is always a positive. The only way to make it not a positive is to convert gratitude into passive-aggressive commentary, and that is not the same thing. So, speaking of what kind of supervisor or leader you would want to be or want to have, the negative opposites of gratitude are “ungrateful, unappreciative, entitled, unthankful.” Well, no one wants that. No one wants to work with that person. That's just not going to be someone who inspires you. So, gratitude is a phenomenal strength to have in business.

The next one is hope, and they also call it “optimism, future mindedness, future orientation.” I won't go too much into that, except that the definition itself is not simply about the hope that something will go well, which is kind of what the name applies implies to me. It's that the person “not just expects the desired effects and outcomes will happen, but they act in ways that they believe will make those outcomes more likely.” So, it's not simply an intellectual or imaginary event that you're thinking, it's that you're actually doing the behaviors and actions that should make that action happen. The negative opposite of that is “pessimism, hopelessness, gloom.” None of those are desirable and people really don't follow others who seem pessimistic. They might, for a while. They might see it as maybe risk management or something like that. But a truly pessimistic person is not going to bring on the charismatic following that another person could.

We're going to talk about one more and then I have a challenge for you to figure out what I missed. Because the one we're going to talk about is humor, or playfulness. This one's actually fun, because you would, first of all, never expect it. But as a character strength, you can see that it has a positive aspect. The researchers already note that they may pull it out from being a character strength to a “value-added” strength because they see it as probably needing to be coupled with another strength to be the most useful. One of the examples they give of this is if you ever saw the movie Good Morning, Vietnam – Vietnam, wartime, a very problematic war, and bombing. I mean, they're in the middle of it in this movie. And they have a DJ who is trying to use humor and playfulness to make a horrible situation better. And I think that some people don't always want to add playfulness to a difficult situation, but it really can make things a lot better. So, they said that “we had defined the humorous individual as one who was skilled at laughing and bringing smiles to the faces of others, at seeing the light side. A highly playful person may never tell a single joke, but still inject humor into a situation by choosing the right moment to make a wry comment.” The negative opposites would be “humorless, grim, sour, tedious.” So, as a character strength, the person who has a bit of a playful levity about them is more positive. I'm not sure, I'll say inspirational here, but is more positive than someone who is dour.

The last one is the one I couldn't figure out how to make apply to business, at least not a business I know, maybe in a certain business it would. It’s spirituality. So I'll leave you with the definition and you can let me know if you can apply it to business: it's “having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe and one's place within it.” And all I really thought of is that if you felt like you had your place within the universe, in the job you're doing, that you might give it your all. But aside from that, I actually didn't come up with anything. But the other ones I love: the appreciation of excellence, gratitude, hope, playfulness, and humor. I would love to hear what you think, and I'll see you next time!

Further Reading: 

  • Character Strengths and Virtues by Drs. Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman (2004) 

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