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Latent Strengths: Growing Your Career By Growing Your Character

By Brett N. Steenbarger

Over the course of my career, I’ve served in a number of student development roles, including student counseling at universities and trader development at financial firms. The thread linking those positions is the focus on facilitating growth: helping others build their careers. My signature strengths on the VIA Survey are gratitude, spirituality, honesty, love, and creativity. Little wonder that one of my great loves is helping people utilize creative processes to find career niches that develop them both as people and professionals. When your students are your teachers, the work never really feels like work!

When I look at how students develop their careers, however, what I see is not just the exercise of existing strengths, but the cultivation of new ones. Dr. Ryan Niemiec recently cited research suggesting that our performance in the workplace is enhanced when we draw upon at least four signature strengths. Careers are unique expressions of the clusters of capacities we bring to our work. When we cultivate new strengths in the workplace, we create new clusters: new ways of combining our talents and passions. Careers thus become dynamic paths to personal development.

Calling On Latent Strengths

In routine situations, we can draw upon existing strengths and meet the demands in front of us. Highly challenging situations, however, are uncomfortable precisely because they don’t readily fall into our wheelhouse. They call for more than what we typically do well. In these situations I find that students draw upon latent strengths. Any of the 24 character strengths can be latent strengths – untapped or undeveloped strengths that hold great potential. Some people have signature strengths that are latent and some have lower strengths that are latent. For this article, I focus on how our middle strengths can be latent strengths— genuine parts of us, but not strengths we typically recruit. Those middle strengths can join with our signature capacities to form the fresh character clusters that meet novel challenges.

Consider several examples:

  • During the recent period of the COVID pandemic, I have found myself drawing upon two middle strengths in working with others: hope and perspective. Those have been essential in helping people navigate the most common challenge shared with me: fatigue and burnout from living and working from home without the usual outlets for socialization, travel, and fun. The latent strengths of hope and perspective have joined with my signature capacities for gratitude and spirituality to help people (and to help me!) find meaning and purpose during an otherwise dark period.

  • The pandemic has led to an explosion of virtual internships, in which students can participate in global work and learning experiences from their homes. This has created fresh challenges, as students now need to coordinate their efforts across multiple cultures within a new work medium. One student reached out to me, overwhelmed by a broad research assignment and the lack of guidance for how to communicate findings in unfamiliar organizational and social cultures. This led us to explore one of her latent strengths, humility, and define strategies for helping her colleagues help her. This humility became an important part of a new repertoire that helped her function in uncertain environments, as she exercised that strength daily in multiple settings, turning the strength into a habit. Her experience nicely illustrates how the competencies that define career readiness are cultivated through critical incidents that draw upon latent strengths.

  • A successful manager at a hedge fund was allocated capital to build a team and expand his investment business. He was excited about the opportunity, but realized that leadership and teamwork were not his primary strengths. With an initial, unsuccessful hire, his challenges at people management began to overwhelm his efforts at money management. Among his latent, middle strengths, we found, were curiosity and love of learning. He blended these nicely with his signature capacities for creativity and perseverance by defining a team structure and process that maximized sustained intellectual risk-taking. These character strengths guided his subsequent hiring, creating a culture that valued love of learning and intellectual curiosity. He was a failure leading a traditional investment team, but a success organizing a dynamic think-tank. By turning idea generation into a set of dynamic habits and processes, he and the team achieved unique, positive, and diversified returns for investors.

We often hear that crisis can be a source of opportunity. One way this happens is that crisis forces us to reach beyond our dominant strengths and uncover/discover strengths that are latent. We cannot grow our careers by staying inside our comfort zones. It is when we push the boundaries of the familiar and comfortable that we discover aspects of our selves that reshape who we are at our best. The most meaningful career growth follows from our own development.