Guest Post By R. Lisle Baker
Professor of Law, Suffolk University Law School, Boston, MA
How can we cultivate wellness in those who lead and those who are led?
Lead from our strengths and draw on the strengths of those being led.
The late Dr. Christopher Peterson was a psychologist who offered this prescription for wellness in his Positive Psychology Primer: “if you want to be healthier, you should eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly and not smoke. You should have good relationships with other people and pursue activities that are fulfilling.”
Most of us think we understand diet, exercise and smoking – even if we don’t always follow the behaviors they reference. But how about having good relationships and finding fulfillment? They are general principles with less clear content.
One way I have found helpful with my students is to help them understand their unique set of character strengths, which can help them pursue activities that are fulfilling. Then they can use their awareness of their own strengths to perceive those strengths in those with whom they might interact – helping them have better relationships with those they lead. But how do they learn what those strengths might be?
Many law teachers are aware of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, used by psychologists to classify and treat various kinds of behavioral health concerns. What is less well known is that the same Dr. Christopher Peterson directed and co-authored with Dr. Martin Seligman a treatise they referred to as a “manual of the sanities.” Their joint work, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, examined 24 strengths of character which have been valued across time and cultures. They are:
But what makes their work most helpful is a questionnaire which allows anyone, without charge from the nonprofit VIA Institute on Character, to see what particular pattern of such strengths they have. The ones we rely on most often feel so natural to us that we may be unaware of them, like using a dominant hand, unless asked to reflect on what it would be like if we could not use them for an extended period. But people who become aware of their strengths, and use them appropriately in a chosen role, can lead more fulfilling lives. That is one way to meet part of what Dr. Peterson recommended for wellness.
As for good relationships with other people, when we become aware of our own strengths, we can also begin to notice strengths in other people. Mark Twain once wrote, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” Often, however, for want of something better, our compliments may oftenfocus on something obvious, like how we dress. But what if instead we tell them what good they have done and how they have done it?
Part of the challenge is that we may not have a large enough vocabulary to do so. But if you notice and comment on other people’s perseverance or bravery or kindness, and say how you saw it expressed, you are honoring some of their 24 character strengths. A bonus is that because their top strengths are aspects of who they are, they may also take them for granted and not be as aware of them as we might be as observers of their behavior. When, however, they find them pointed out, they feel appreciated – perhaps even if a little bashful, as accepting a compliment is sometimes harder than giving one. Doing so, however, honors the giver as well as the recipient.
Leadership, however, extends beyond compliments. When we notice and call upon the strengths of those we lead for action, we can combine theirs with ours to enhance chances for success in a chosen task, just as a team can do more on the playing field than an individual can alone.
Looking for opportunities to compliment – and complement – character strengths in other people also provides us opportunities to honor others’ diversity. We often rely on visible signs of our differences rather than also looking for those invisible distinctions that can add additional value. Spotting and calling on their strengths offer us a means to that end which can further deepen our relationships. We, as law professors, have a role to play in teaching students how to be well themselves and lift up others. Understanding and appreciating our strengths and that of others can be helpful ways for aspiring leaders – as well as those of us who teach them – to have good relationships with other people and pursue leadership activities they find fulfilling – with greater wellness for all involved.
– R. Lisle Baker