In 1952, as a graduate student, Don Clifton looked around at psychology’s hyper focus on deficits and illness and wondered, “What would happen if we actually studied what is right with people?” This question, which is still provocative more than half a century later, inspired his graduate dissertation and became his life’s work, which he shared with his family, then his students, then his clients, then millions of people around the world. Born on February 5, 1924, in Butte, Nebraska, Don Clifton led a life marked by quiet achievement and a drive to help people recognize and build on their strengths, so that they may realize their unique potential.
After returning from World War II with a Distinguished Flying Cross and the opportunities offered by the GI Bill, Clifton earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a doctorate in educational psychology. He then was a university professor for 19 years, a period during which he studied successful individuals using techniques that still are considered both innovative and rigorous. In 1969, Clifton founded Selection Research, Inc., which began as a small business in his basement and grew into a large human resources consulting company that, in 1988, acquired Gallup. Clifton was Gallup’s board chair until 1999, leading the organization through an impressive period of growth in revenue, broadening scope, and creativity.
Clifton led a team of Gallup researchers to study top performers, make discoveries, and develop practical applications on many strengths-related topics, including strengths development, employee selection, employee engagement, management, and leadership. The study of success across multiple roles also led to the development of the Clifton StrengthsFinder, Gallup’s online assessment that has helped millions of people around the world recognize their talents and develop their strengths. Clifton and his research team also developed Gallup’s Q12, an assessment that measures engagement through a simple set of actionable items. Gallup University, one of the world’s leading providers of management and leadership education, applies Clifton’s theories to improve workplaces around the world.
In 2002, the American Psychological Association honored Clifton with a Presidential Commendation as the Father of Strengths-Based Psychology. An educator, thought leader, inventor, and entrepreneur, Clifton is remembered for his unusual ability to bring out the best in people and help individuals and organizations achieve outstanding results. The Clifton Strengths School is the final piece of Don Clifton’s legacy of discovery, which began humbly in Nebraska more than 50 years ago with a simple question that led him to find that identifying what is right with people can help them create the circumstances they want for themselves at home, at school, at work, and in life.