2013 Volume 16 Issue 1

Leading from Character Strength

Leading from Character Strength

Finding Your “Just Right” Character Strength and Virtuous Behavior Mode

Leaders need to examine their effectiveness at managing virtuous behavior to add value to organizations. Virtuousness is not only important from a humanistic point of view in workplace settings, but helps drive important organizational outcomes.

As leaders, Joe, Bill, and Harriet shared some common ground. Each was ineffective in leading because each both under used and over employed certain character strengths and virtues.

Joe was too honest in giving feedback to his people. He would often offer observations to his employees that were accurate but not necessarily relevant or important. He was also deficient in gauging when to provide feedback to others. His people would say “Joe points out things to us that don’t seem that important or relevant to our success; he rarely withholds judgments even on seemingly unimportant matters.”

Bill’s humility got in the way of him bringing positive focused attention to his own and his people’s accomplishments. He often told his people that good work is the key to success and that accomplishments will speak for themselves. As a result of engaging in this behavioral mode, his people often reported that individually and collectively they did not receive sufficient recognition or get allocated their fair share of organizational resources.

Harriett overplayed her perseverance in many situations. Her people frequently said that she only knew how to “hold and not fold” when dealing with them. She would persist on courses of action when others saw compelling reason to change course. Her behavioral mode of “staying the course” in spite of the circumstances found her projecting an inflexible style in many of her interactions with others. She was considered stubborn.

In addressing the plight of these three individuals, the conceptual and empirical findings relating to strength based leadership, inverted U-shaped relationships associated with many behavior science concepts, and behavioral assessment methodologies for measuring excesses as well as deficiencies are relevant. There is growing evidence that strength based management strategies help individuals positively impact organizations. There is also renewed interest in how curvilinear (U-shaped) relationships impact the execution of relevant managerial leadership practices. In connection to these U-shaped relationships (which includes the study of character strengths and virtuous behavior) new methodologies for assessing leadership effectiveness have emerged.[1] [2] [3] [4]

Character strengths and virtuous behavior like many other leadership practices can be executed effectively or poorly. These snapshots provide a backdrop for a broader discussion of leaders’ execution of character strengths and virtuous behavior. Using the well-researched Values in Action (VIA) survey, we will look at how character strengths can be displayed in organizational settings by leaders. A method to assess the overuse and underuse of these behavioral modes will be offered along with a practitioner oriented self-management approach. Some implications for leadership development will also be provided.

Character Strengths and Virtues

There are a number of strengths oriented assessment tools available. Of those offered, the VIA is one that is empirically sound and practitioner friendly. This tool can be taken online (www.viastrengths.org) and yields an index of an individual’s top five strengths from a universe of twenty-four virtue.[5] The twenty-four virtuous behaviors are categorized under six areas of virtue:

  • Wisdom and Knowledge: Cognitive strengths relating to knowledge acquisition and application.
  • Courage: Goal pursuit despite opposition and resistance.
  • Humanity: Interpersonal strengths relating to interacting with others.
  • Justice: Civic oriented strengths supporting community well-being.
  • Temperance: Demonstrating strengths by avoiding excesses.
  • Transcendence: Strengths that link to the larger universe for enhanced meaning.

Under and Over Using Virtuous Behavior

When a virtue is overused or underused it can become a vice. It seems that the execution of virtuous behavior by leaders follows an inverted U-shaped relationship—virtuous behavior will produce effectiveness to a point. There appears to be an optimal mid-range or threshold for a leader to execute virtuous behavior. Too little virtue as well as too much expression of virtuous behavior produces leadership ineffectiveness. There appears to be a “just right” amount of virtuous behavior for leaders to express when interacting with others.

According to the inverted U-shaped relationship model, the virtue of perspective, for example, can be under utilized, over utilized or optimally expressed. This relationship is depicted in Figure 1 with the left hand side of the graph displaying the situation where a leader is using perspective too little. Here subordinates may report that their boss provides little wise counsel which contributes to leadership ineffectiveness. The right hand side of the graph indicates that too much perspective is being offered which will also contribute to ineffectiveness. Employees working for this leader may say things like, “the pontificating gets tiring” or “we get opinions on everything around here.” In the middle of the graph is where the leader is most effective in providing perspective i.e. the “just right” mode.[6] [7] [8]

Extending the inverted U-shaped relationship to each of the twenty-four character strengths offered in the VIA presents an opportunity for leaders to see impacts of their over and under use of virtues. Table 1 provides a brief overview of these potential impacts in a word or two.

Table 1: Character Strengths: Too Little, Just Right, Too Much

Character StrengthToo LittleJust RightToo Much
3JudgmentImpulsiveCritical ThinkerIndecisive
4Love of LearningClosed-mindedInquisitiveMeddling
9ZestSluggishEnergeticOverly Zealous
10LoveColdWarmly AssertiveTouchy Feely
11KindnessUncaringCompassionateToo Nice
12Social IntelligenceUnawarePerceptiveToo Sensitive
13FairnessUnfairFair-mindedToo Rationale
17HumilityBoldModestLacks Visibility
18PrudenceToo CautiousCarefulReckless
20Appreciation of ExcellenceUnawareAppreciativeAwestruck
22HopePessimisticRealistic OptimismNaïve
23HumorToo SeriousApproachableInsincere

The words and phrases in Table 1 reflect what employees have said (or may say) about their leaders in surveys. The under and over use of character strengths can produce impacts on followers that detract from a leader’s effectiveness.

It is important for managerial leaders to recognize that research evidence suggests that both “too much” of a good thing as well as “too little” expression of a desirable leadership practice, may contribute to ineffectiveness. Based on intuition and some writings found in the literature relating to virtue and virtuous behavior, one may be left with the false impression that the more virtuous behavior a leader displays, the more effective he/she will be. The fallacy in this thinking is revealed in the words and phrases frequently offered by employees, as noted in Table 1, when their bosses over and/or under use a character strength. Given the importance of managing one’s character strengths to ensure optimal impact, it is important that leaders use an appropriate assessment approach to measure excesses, deficiencies and “just right” execution of character strengths.

Measuring Too Little/Too Much/Just Right

To connect with the inverted—U relationships, between character strengths, effective execution, and frequency of use, an appropriate rating scale method is needed. This need is addressed by the use of a rating scale which reflects an inverted—U oriented response scale. A “too little/too much” response scale which also includes a “just right” response is available for leaders to receive feedback on how effectively they are executing specific character strengths such as those indexed in the VIA .

An example of what one of the character strengths, “hope and optimism,” from Table 1 would look like as a survey item in a “Too Little/Too Much/Just Right” survey of Character Strengths follows:


The “too little/too much” response scale reflects both frequency and effectiveness since it asks (how much?— -4 to +4) and (how well?—way too little to way too much). In addition, the scale likely accounts for situational context relating to a specific leader in a specific position at a specific time within an organization.[9] [10]

A Self-Management Approach

While it is desirable for organizations to invest in leadership development using the type of assessment tool offered here, in the end it is up to the individual leader to take responsibility for his/her development. This would include ensuring that he/she is executing his/her character strengths effectively. With this in mind, the following stepwise approach is offered for leaders to follow as they strive for “just right” execution of their character strengths.


Self-Management Approach

Step 1: Complete the VIA on-line and index your character strengths.

Step 2: Convert your character strengths identified from the VIA into items on a “Too Little/Too Much/Just Right” Rating Scale.

Step 3: Have 5 to 10 individuals complete the “Too Little/Too Much/Just Right” Rating Scale on your execution of the selected character strengths.

Step 4: Collect and analyze the ratings looking for excesses and deficiencies.

Step 5: Identify opportunities to adjust your execution of your identified virtuous behavior for optimal/just right performance.

Step 6: Document a Personal Effectiveness Action Plan to help focus your developmental efforts, provide accountability, and offer a mechanism for follow-up.

With increased awareness that an individual leader is unlikely to be effective in executing all facets of leadership, developmental plans should include leaders becoming skilled at identifying and utilizing complementary talents offered by other team members. One leader’s deficiency may be addressed or fulfilled by another team member’s strength. In terms of character strengths, a more prudent managerial leader may, for example, need to link with another individual team member who has curiosity as a character strength when, for instance, new markets or additional customer accounts need to be explored. (In addition, while the above stepwise approach is applied to character strength execution, it can also be adapted to other leadership behaviors that may be important for an individual leader’s development.)

Implications for Leadership Development

It is important that leaders consider how well they are doing in executing virtuous behavior. There is mounting evidence that virtuousness is important to organizational performance and well-being.[11] [12] [13] [14] Since virtues seem to conform to inverted-U shaped response patterns, it is critical that leaders have ways to accurately assess their performance. Too much of a good thing (virtuous behavior) can indeed be as detrimental to performance and well-being as the display of too little character strength. Leaders need useful feedback on how effective they are in executing their character strengths and virtuous behavior repertoire.

The “Too Little/Too Much/Just Right” approach to response scaling can assist the individual leader in his/her efforts to track his/her effectiveness at leading with character. The approach offered here including the scaling method and the six-step self-management approach can help individual leaders improve their effectiveness.

In particular the “Too Little/Just Right/Too Much” rating approach has positive implications for raters, leaders as recipients of the feedback, organizations and researchers. Raters report that this scaling method allows them to be more discerning when evaluating others. They also observe that this method has face validity and is very practical. Leaders who receive feedback from this approach have a clearer idea of what the results mean. Instead of receiving a number on a 1-5 unidirectional scale they are told whether their behavior is “too little,” “the right amount,” or “too much.” Organizations benefit by using this approach to help them more accurately calibrate behavioral excesses and deficiencies within their leadership ranks. This approach can provide useful data on which to help create and sustain a “just right” virtuous organizational culture. Finally, researchers using this approach can further explore the inverted U—relationships between and among specific character strengths and virtuous behaviors.


Organizations may also adapt these tools to create leadership development programs to spur self-improvement. For self-management programs to take hold, organizations need to create and sustain workplace cultures where this type of approach is encouraged.[15] Self-improvement efforts may likely include leaders specifying explicit linkage plans with others who possess complementary strengths. Efforts by leaders to connect with others who have needed complementary strengths will give the individual leader more balance as he/she executes his/her various leadership roles. This developmental action will likely enhance organizational leadership effectiveness, and benefit the individual leader, the leadership team, and the entire organization.


In Summary

Having leaders examine their effectiveness at managing virtuous behavior can add value to organizations. There is emerging evidence that virtuousness is not only important from a humanistic point of view in workplace settings, but that virtue helps drive important organizational outcomes.

The approach offered here can be applied by individual leaders to enhance their effectiveness in delivering virtuous behavior within their organization. It can also be employed to assess and develop other leadership behaviors that are important to organizational effectiveness and well-being. An individual leader can benefit by knowing when he/she is executing actions important to his/her role deficiently, excessively, or in a just right mode. This will help them lead with greater confidence and credibility.


[1] Grant, A. and B. Schwartz, “Too Much of a Good Thing: The Challenge and Opportunity of the Inverted U,” Perspectives in Psychological Science, 6 (2011).

[2] Le, H; S. B. Robbins, E. Holland, I. Oh, R. Ilies, and Westrick, “Too Much of a Good Thing: Curvilinear Relationships between Personality Traits and Job Performance,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 96 (2011).

[3] Rath, Tom and Barry Conchie, Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow, (Gallup Press: New York, 2008). Based on extensive research conducted across the globe of leaders, workplace teams, and independent contributors, The Gallup Organization offers a new version of the StrengthsFinder program which is focused on leadership.

[4] Kerns, C.D. “Managing Your Strength: An Approach to Boost Happy High-Performance,” Leadership Review, 9 (2010). A systematic and practical approach is offered leaders for identifying, clarifying-confirming, optimizing, and assessing their strengths.

[5] Peterson, Christopher and Martin E. P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, (Oxford University Press: New York: 2004). This comprehensive handbook classifies, defines and offers research support for twenty-four specific character strengths/virtuous behavior modes under six broad virtues. The empirical support along with further discussion of the content in the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA) is offered.

[6] Grant (2011).

[7] Kaplan, Robert E. and Robert B. Kaiser, The Versatile Leader: Make the Most of Your Strengths-Without Overdoing It, (Pfeiffer: San Francisco, 2006). This publication offers research support and practical guidance for the use of a rating scale that can identify excess as well as deficient leadership functioning.

[8] Kaiser, Robert and Robert Kaplan, ”Overlooking Overkill? Beyond the 1-to-5 Rating Scale,” Human Resources Planning, 28 (3) (2005). Provides additional research support and useful application information on excess response scaling methods.

[9] Kaplan (2006).

[10] Kaiser (2005).

[11] Cameron, K. S.; C. E. Mora, T. Leutcher, and M. Calarco, “Effects of Positive Practices on Organizational Effectiveness,” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 47, (2011).

[12] Cameron, K. S., D. Bright, and A. Caza, “Exploring the Relationships Between Organizational Virtuousness and Performance,” American Behavioral Scientist, 4 (2004).

[13] Wright, T. A., and J. Goodstein, “Character is Not Dead in Management Research: A Review of Individual Character and Organizational-Level Virtue,” Journal of Management, 33 (2007).

[14] Rego, A., N. Ribeiro, and M. Cunha, “Perceptions of Organizational Virtuousness and Happiness as Predictors of Organizational Citizenship Behaviors, Journal of Business Ethics, 93, (2010).

[15] Kerns, C. D. “Creating and Sustaining an Ethical Workplace Culture,” Graziadio Business Review, 6 (3) (2003).

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Author of the article
Charles D. Kerns, PhD, MBA
Charles D. Kerns, PhD, MBA, is a professor of applied behavioral science at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. He has more than 30 years of business, management, and consulting experience. Through his private consulting firm, Corperformance, he has implemented performance management programs and systems to help companies from many industries maximize their results. Since 1980, he has taught in almost every program in the Graziadio School, first as an adjunct faculty member, then, since 2000, as a member of the full-time faculty. He has also served as the associate dean for Academic Affairs. Dr. Kerns holds a Diplomate, ABPP, in both Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Organizational-Business Consulting Psychology.
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