The Coming Triumph of the Strengths Movement

A few days ago, in the course of some routine correspondence at work with a colleague at another company, I noticed his email signature: “Win Over Others | Communication | Strategic | Analytical | Activator.” In my reply, I included a postscript, “p.s.: I’d be Intellection| Strategic | Input | Context | Ideation.” If this exchange sounds obscure to you, it’s because you haven’t taken the Clifton StrengthsFinder personality test, which is currently undergoing a fax-machine effect of sorts, creating a whole new language of interpersonal communication. The two sets of five words above are “themes” the test reveals. Chances are, you’ve taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test at some point in your career. I suspect the MBTI is currently the most widely-used test of its sort. Today, I make a prediction: the Clifton StrengthsFinder will displace the Myers-Briggs by 2011. Let me tell you why (and why you should care).


The MBTI is built on the rather shady and shaky foundation of Jungian archetypes. You take a test (here’s one) that places you on four spectra: Introversion-Extroversion, iNtuitive-Sensory, Thinking-Feeling, Judging-Perceiving. I am an INTP — very strongly NT, and on the cusp with I and P. The MBTI dates back to World War II, and its conceptual framework dates even further back, to Jung’s work from 1921.

Arbitrary though this may seem (and many professional psychology writers are rather dismissive and sniffy about it), the MBTI is surprisingly useful, not least because of the sort of fax machine effect that the StrengthsFinder is currently starting to enjoy. So many people have taken the MBTI test by now, that it provides a very useful conceptual vocabulary for quickly communicating your personality, and a shorthand for “reading” others. It also seems to correlate fairly well with things like occupation — most engineering researchers I know are _NT_.

So long as you understand the distinctions correctly (Introversion means being “energized by solitude” rather than company, not that you are klutzy socially, for instance), and resist the temptation to adopt your test results as definitive labels, MBTI is great for quick interpersonal-trust building shorthand, and as a lens for introspection. Like any self-reported test, it can be gamed, but why bother doing that?


The Clifton StrengthsFinder on the other hand, is spankin’ new. The underlying ideas sound very intuitive, obvious and have the feel of age-old wisdom, but surprisingly, if you look back to the usual-suspect thinkers, from Maslow to Seligman, you’ll find that while there are times they come close, they don’t quite get there. The instrument, named after Donald Clifton of Gallup, is based on three ideas:

  • A talent is a natural, spontaneous ability that shows up as a natural ability to perform well in a domain
  • A skill is something you can learn. How quickly and well depends on your underlying talents.
  • A strength is an ability to perform consistently at a very high, skilled level in a domain

Quick example: natural athleticism and hand-eye coordination (a talent), coupled with years of training to acquire the skills, might make you strong in a particular sport.

If this sounds obvious, consider the implications derived by the strengths community: everybody cannot be good at everything. You should focus on developing your strengths, and just do the bare minimum to manage around your weaknesses. Most of our formal education systems are built on the premise of fixing weaknesses. If you do badly in math and well in English, your teachers are going to give you remedial training in the former, and leave the latter alone. The strengths movement would say that your teachers should actually focus on creating more English development opportunities for you.

The StrengthsFinder test is designed to reveal your top “themes,” or areas of endeavor where you are likely to have strengths (the themes themselves come from extensive statistical studies). To take the StrengthsFinder, you have to buy one of the books on the theme published by Gallup: Now, Discover Your Strengths and the shorter, cheaper StrengthsFinder 2.0, are the main ones. You then head on over to the StrengthsFinder website and use the code in your book (single-use only, so don’t try to steal a code from a B&N copy) to take the test. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any direct way to take the test on the Website.

My top 5 themes are Intellection, Strategic, Input, Context and Ideation. Here is the personalized report the online test generated for me, explaining these themes: Venkat’s strengths

None of this is new to me (and if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, my themes shouldn’t surprise you either), but then, I discovered and accepted my strengths (and weaknesses) the hard way back in 1999 — through depressing and painful years trying to “fix” my weaknesses. I have played to my strengths since, with shockingly effective results. But a lot of people who haven’t been through painful learning experiences (yet), are actually very surprised by what the test reveals as their strengths. You might be too. The good news is, if you accept and start playing to your strengths before experience validates them, you might save yourself a few unproductive life years. Maybe even an entire wasted life.

Why Strengths will Win

So why do I think strengths-based instruments (most likely the Clifton, as early-mover) will displace MBTI? Two reasons:

  1. More Actionable: The Myers-Briggs is rather tricky to use as a guide to action. After the initial head-rush of introspective clarity that it brings, it is hard to answer the question, “now what?” The StrengthsFinder results, on the other hand, are very specific and directive: try and work yourself into a career situation where you get a chance to play to your strengths every day.
  2. More Relevant: For the low-end work of the industrial age, you can train people, and shore up weaknesses enough, that they become roughly interchangeable and identical parts in a workflow. When it comes to all but the simplest sort of information work though, most managers have recognized that you get a lot more productivity by letting people find their way to work that plays to their strengths. This exaggerates differences over time, leading to more unique parts, rather than more interchangeable parts. Management becomes tougher — you have to set coarser, directional objectives rather than specific ones, put a lot more effort into putting people in the right teams, and deal with flux as people elbow their way to their sweet spots, but ultimately it pays off a lot more. Strengths instruments help you quickly detect and manage to strengths.

And why does this matter? The fax machine effect: soon you’ll encounter the vocabulary of StrengthsFinder in everyday life, and whether or not you believe in the test, you’ll end up fumbling in conversations.

I do wish though, that Gallup got rid of the annoying need to buy the damn book to take the test. They really should just let you pay online and take the test. Throw in an affiliate-marketing scheme, and a “train the trainers” certification program, and the fax-machine effect will swamp the world.

Disclosure: When this post appeared, my wife worked for Gallup Inc. I had no relationship with the company however.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Venkat, I doubt in today’s world most people are willing to pay for this. Even if the test is great, they need to have a business model where an individual could do it for free, and money is made from HR departments or whatever.

  2. They actually have quite a line of business going with this test, mainly as part of larger organization-level consulting engagements. “Now Discover your Strengths” was a best-seller.

    But I agree, if they think smart, they’d make the basic test results free. The more people talk the language, the more compelling higher, paid levels of the service stack become.

  3. I disagree. MBTI proves that a lot of individuals(and businesses) are willing to pay for such tests as it too is not free. As a person who has taken both the MBTI and the Clifton Strengthsfinder, I would argue that you cannot fully understand the results of both tests without (in the case of MBTI) having a debriefing with a trained facilitator or (in the case of strengthsfinder) reading one of the books. It is a fallacy to believe one can comprehend the vernacular of either test based upon knowledge of commonplace language.

  4. I, too, find it incredibly limiting that one has to either buy one of those two specific books or engage Gallup consultants in a “programme” where the profiling test is thrown in as a value-add.

    A solution is probably likely to emerge based on how Marcus Buckingham (no longer with Gallup but an independent strengths movement evangelizer) proceeds and how Gallup wishes to capitalize on its research database strength.

    Your prediction on the fate of older, simplistic profiling tools is appealing. There is a small chance of someone coming out with a successful, “freer” rival tool to StrengthsFinder.

    BTW, there are people recommending the free test offered by Martin Seligman called the VIA Signature Strengths Survey at but that, in my view, suffers two disadvantages in terms of applicability in a business career:

    1. It seems to reflect back in a straightforward manner the answers in the questionnaire (especially the shorter version of the survey)

    2. It talks of character strengths such as courage, perspective (wisdom) and gratitude, which are quite different from the kind of specific and unique strengths that one derives from the method suggested by Buckingham in his book, Go Put Your Strengths to Work.

  5. A man named Haldane wrote a book in the 1960s or 1970s called How To Make a Habit of Success that forcefully made the point that a person should build on his strengths rather than his weaknesses.

  6. I am a HUGE believer in strengthsfinder and my profile (Woo/command/restorative/activator/communication)

  7. To those who object to buying the book to be able to take the assessment, let’s be real. We’re talking about $15 for StrengthsFinder 2.0 on Amazon. An assessment like this is usually $50-$100 per person. You’re already receiving a high value item at a bargain price. And, to really understand the assessment, you will need the book, plus some time with a coach or trainer who can explain the assessment.
    Greg (connectedness/strategic/arranger/empathy/developer)

  8. Your correct in strengths being a rather simple and useful tool for individuals who are seeking to align there futures with where their best strengths will most used. It is an excellent coaching too, but I believe you would be well served to do more research on the MBTI.. just a couple of things to think about:

    The MBTI has a foundation of some well over 60 years of research as a foundation of it’s practice. Used in WWII.. practitioners can interpret one’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses in a much more in depth and powerful way. And while you may have issues with Jung’s work, it has emerged as far more valuable to the field of psychology that originally thought. In addition to the use of the MBTI as a coaching tool, it is used for a host of other areas.. from spiritual areas, to marriage counseling, to conflict interventions, etc.. it is way more robust that strengths and I would never compare the two. They both serve purposes and while I think Strengths is the flavor of the month… MBTI is not going to be diminished by any success it has.

  9. I’m a fan of both MBTI an SF. My “ideation” is all over the concept of mapping these in an overlay. I’m aware of another test, European originated, that utilizes SF. In this overlay, I score relationally, whereas the Strengths based leadership buckets of four find me in only two. We need it all guys (girls)! As a general principal, anyone attempting to do anything with anyone else would be wise to get as much understanding in these areas as possible-but I guess I’m revealing my “input” strength.

  10. good points, all– I like the SF 2.0 because it is : comprehensive, positive (there goes my positivity score) and actionable. Even with the cost of the book it is far cheaper than most online assessments (Myers Briggs, Birkman, DiSC, and so on) and the book is a good framework and take-away for the implementing the results of the assessment. this is also a great tool for team building. If I need a strength I don’t have, to whom on my team might I go? also how do I value the strengths of others that are not my personal “favs”? Great stuff, I am seeking a Train the Trainer if anyone knows of one.

    • Kathy,
      I’ve become certified in the StrengthsFinder through Roy J West, a Gallup Senior Scientist (only one of 3 non-Gallup employees who are Senior Scientists). Roy has his own company. Roy is allowed to distribute (and train for!) the Gallup profile of products – StrengthsFinder and also Gallup’s employee and client engagement. If you’re interested in learning more, you can speak with me or Roy (tell him I sent you!) Roy’s website and mine is Through us you can learn your entire Strengths Profile (all 34) and can become certified yourself. I hope that helps! Sure enjoyed the dialogue above.

  11. I just bought one of the books and took the assessment. I found the concepts behind my top strengths interesting, but was singularly underwhelmed by the execution of the material. I’ve mucked around with MBTI and Enneagram stuff for a few years, and noticed that a lot of people think those Jungian test are too touchy-feely and spiritual (being an INFP and a 4w5, I like that stuff…). The benefit of those tests, though, is the wealth of well-written material that’s out there. I was really put off by the language in my SF report; it manages to be simultaneously vague and stilted, and is unpleasantly corporate.

  12. Cheryl Stevens says

    First, a question – why is my StrengthsFinder report so brief compared to yours? All I received was my 5 strongest themes with nothing related to action steps. I purchased “Now, Discover Your Strengths” instead of “StrengthsFinder 2.0” because it seemed to have more content. Is the assessment I took as a result an older version, lacking the guidance on action steps? If so, then I do feel a bit cheated. I am studying this tool and accompanying info for a workshop I’m doing within an Executive Education program and it has been so frustrating trying to find information to support development of the content. I am authorized in a number of assessment tools, all of which have TTT programs, certification programs, etc. All Gallup seems to have is very expensive programs for large corporations. I guess it’s their business model but certainly limiting my enthusiasm for using the tool and spreading its goodwill. Do I need to also buy SF 2.0 book to take the assessment that yields more info? I also need to decide which book to purchase for the Executive Education participants.

    • Greg Smith says

      Cheryl, the StrengthsFinder assessment you took is the same assessment referenced in Now, Discover Your Strengths and StrengthsFinder 2.0. Buying the SF 2.0 book may have value in the content it offers, but the assessment will be the same and you will not find that valuable. Gallup does have several more several more extensive reports they use other than the one you received. Many of the non-Gallup StrengthsFinder coaches and consultants are able to access those for their groups and clients. Unfortunately, Gallup’s business model does target large companies and makes it hard for individuals to go deep in understanding their strengths, particularly in relation to others. Send me an email if you have additional questions – I’d be happy to work through them with you. -Greg

  13. Cheryl Stevens says

    Hi Greg and thanks for your response. I explored the Gallup web site a bit more and saw that “Now. .” has version 1 of the assessment. The only parts missing from the example I saw on this site are the action steps/recommendations of things to do under each strength. Given the session I’m teaching/facilitating, these could be helpful. So I guess I’m now wondering if version 2 would give me this small addition. The program I’m teaching in will continue with similar workshops and would be a good audience for Gallup to reach but there’s no budget for everyone to get the “richer” report as this is just 1/6 of the overall program. I am really looking for meaningful content for my 4 hour session. If nothing is available, I can certainly create my own – just wish there was more I could help the participants do w/StrengthsFinder. Thanks again – Cheryl

    • Though my wife works for Gallup, I didn’t do/get anything special (I keep trying to get her to get me special treatment, but no-go!).

      My report is the standard one that I got from SF 2.0 (book AND test).

      Seems like it would be cheap enough to ask all your audience members to personally buy a copy?


  14. Cheryl Stevens says

    We will buy a copy of the book for them – I have no issues w/buying the book and think it’s a good deal. I’m just trying to determine which they should buy – “Now, . .”, SF 2.0 or the one focused on leadership. Guess I”ll have to purchase all 3 and see for myself. Does seem you could get special treatment :)

  15. Adrienne Adams says

    I think you should have noted at the beginning of this post that your wife works for Gallup. Even if you do not receive any “special treatment.” It’s your blog, and you’re not in public service, but still…

    • She doesn’t work there anymore, and I’d read the books/taken the test before she joined (in fact I encouraged her to). Still… fair enough. Will add note.

  16. Hi

    I am a trainer/coach working in the UK and used StrengthsFinder 2.0 in a programme within a multi-national a couple of years ago (at their request). I’ve just been asked to put together another session for a different client and wondered what training material anyone had when facilitating a group. I’ve searched the Strengthsfinder website but there’s not much on there. Happy to write some of my own (and share) however there is no point in re-inventing the wheel!

  17. This is a great discussion. I am certified in both programs and have to say that Strengths WINS! The methodology behind SF, MBTI and DISC are rooted in cognitive development. The question is who makes the best use of it. MBTI has been around for a long time, but it’s founders and their thinking have continued to be controversial and recently among younger leaders feels like New Age Science. Strengths is based on foundational cognitive science, but it’s founders undo a universal collision humans face – what to do with my EVIL side, the stuff that’s not working! In a radial and courageous break with religious based thinking, Gallup says get over it! Avoid it! And what ever you do, don’t try fixing it! Instead, understand your themes, understand how to leverage these and build them into Strengths that work for you and others, and understand how the best of who you are can also get in your way. The latter point is critical because in drives emotional intelligence and helps individuals seek out the perspective of others. It also acts as a tool for providing one another meaningful feedback, without eroding confidence. YES, you need a Strengths facilitator to guide you and your team through this journey – as you do with DISC – but you do get what you pay for. MBTI is outdated, riddled in a shady past that feel like New Age Science today and most importantly, it drives assumptions more than understanding. It never resonated with me for these reason. I watch teams play with it like a game because as someone here said, no one knows what to do next. They are trying though – Flex Talk! Another New Age type tool from MB. Like I said, you get what you pay for. The MBTI is free for a reason.