A Study in the Signature Strengths of the Iconic Movie Wizard of Oz
“There’s no place like home, is there?”
“I guess to get home you just click your heels three times, right?”
“Well, you’re not in Kansas any MORE, are you?!”
If you have the (mis)fortune of being from Kansas this is what awaits you when you tell a new acquaintance your home state. Frankly, it’s annoying. It makes me resent The Wizard of Oz (LeRoy & Fleming, 1939). And if someone doesn’t make an Oz reference in our first meeting, I instantly award them ‘friend’ status just for their self-regulation. Not that people from Waco, TX or Roswell, NM have it that much easier. But everyone knows and loves Dorothy and Toto. Somehow, this Technicolor movie has become synonymous with the State of Kansas and Kansans, in particular. Our most recent state motto was a groaner: Kansas – the Land of Ahhhs. Clearly the state marketers know what to capitalize on.
Not only have most people I’ve met never been to Kansas – but they have never met anyone from Kansas either. So the drab, brown, flat, tornado-filled scenes from the movie are their only context for imagining modern day Kansas. Victor Fleming accurately portrayed Kansans as hard-working, no nonsense folk who work the land. While this may be less true in larger, modern cities, the signature strengths of Kansans remain: perseverance, fairness, duty/citizenship, prudence, humility, honesty and self-control. We particularly see the strengths of perseverance and self-control in Aunt Emily and Uncle Henry. Working the farm and directing her staff, Auntie Em is too diligent performing her chores to listen to Dorothy’s complaints about Miss Gulch. When Miss Gulch takes Toto away from Dorothy, Aunt Emily has to control her tongue: “Elmira Gulch…for twenty-three years I’ve been dying to tell you what I thought of you, and now, well, being a Christian woman, I can’t say it!” Like her aunt, Dorothy is rife with much strength. Her character fully develops when she journeys into Oz. Because she is the only Kansan in Oz (“I’m not a witch at all. I’m Dorothy Gale. From Kansas.”) with the exception of the Wizard, she becomes the sole representative of the movie and of the state. Her strengths become synonymous with the strengths of Kansas.
Kansans are very proud of and insist on cultivating those strengths. My mother used to tell me when she ordered me to mow the lawn: “You’re building character.” At the time I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. Sperry defines character as the “enduring effects of life experiences on the human psyche” (Sperry, 1997 as cited in McCullough & Snyder, 2000). Dorothy faces many life experiences in Oz that test her resolve and give her the opportunity to build character. We see Dorothy change and we know that is not just her personality and temperament that are changing. Virtue and character are distinguished from personality and temperament because virtue and character have a “moral relevance” and they are “more amenable to change as a result of environmental inputs” (Hogan & Sindan, 1997 as cited in McCullough & Snyder, 2000).
Dorothy responds to many morally relevant life experiences with bravery and leadership. She consistently leads the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion throughout the movie because she possesses more courage than they do. And at the end of the movie, she actually stands up to the Wizard, demanding that he follow through on his promise.
Dorothy’s challenges in the movie shape her character, as the challenges of Kansas has shaped the state’s character. From the slavery battles of Bleeding Kansas to the racial integration of Brown v. Board of Education to Fred Phelps’ controversial stance against homosexuals, Kansas has always been a place where challenge has arisen and its citizens are forced to grow stronger in the face of it. We like to believe that it is something inherent in our character.
It would be reductive to simply say that Dorothy (or the state of Kansas, for that matter) develops signature strengths because she inherently possesses them or because she experiences challenging situations. Although there is a correlation between trauma and resilience (Peterson, personal communication, January 24, 2009), not all humans encounter difficult situations and grow from them. We cannot assume that what does not kill you makes you stronger.
As the army has discovered, soldiers can return experiencing post traumatic growth as well as post traumatic stress disorder. What matters is the disposition of the person before they experience a stressor (Seligman, personal communication, September 7, 2008). As Gordon Allport says: “the same fire that melts the butter hardens the egg” (p. 325, 1937). Allport defines these genotypical traits as “explanatory accounts, seeking underlying motives and stresses” (p. 325, 1937). These are different from what Peterson and Seligman discuss as ‘tonic’ and ‘phasic’ strengths which are either expressed on an ongoing basis or “rise and fall according to…the…situation” (p. 28, 2004). Allport’s principle is more akin to what Aristotle discusses as the kind of actions that a person ‘is the sort’ to do (e.g. 1146a6, 12) (Nichomachean Ethics, 1985, trans. Irwin).
What matters equally is the context in which Dorothy finds herself. In order to understand her virtue, it is important not to take Dorothy out of her society – Kansas. McCullough and Snyder define virtue as “any psychological process that enables a person to think and act so as to benefit both him – or herself and society” and character as having several component virtues (p. 1, 2000). Peterson and Seligman link trait theory to character strengths saying that traits “are stable and general but (are) also shaped by the individual setting and thus capable of change” (p. 10, 2004). Looking at the setting of an individual is the direction that the study of signature strengths must develop. Over 1 million people have taken the VIA Inventory (Peterson, personal communication, January 25, 2009) and many business professionals have followed Clifton and Harter’s advice that “the most important form of strengths investment lies with the individual” (p.1, 2003). While this is a great beginning place we need to see the individual as part of a wider context. How do the strengths of individuals interact with their family? Their work teams? Their organization? Their community? How does my kindness interact with your capacity to love and be loved? Peterson and Seligman state that “the display of a strength by one person does not diminish other people in the vicinity” (p. 21, 2004). We must start exploring how strengths interact with one another as well as exploring the wider context.
As a corporate communications trainer, if I go into companies and direct employees to use their strengths, I must have an awareness of the company culture. As a coach, I need to have a context of the clients’ social and familial network before I make recommendations. I also have to be aware that I have my own framework when I come into an organization. No matter how long I live in New York City, I still come at some issues with a Kansas framework.
In the case of our heroine and her compatriots, the interaction of strengths can have a magnifying effect. We discover at the end of the movie that the Scarecrow had practical intelligence all along, the Tin Man had the capacity to love and be loved all along and the Cowardly Lion had bravery all along. Those strengths combined with Dorothy’s leadership, hope, kindness, loyalty, bravery, and perseverance mean that as a group they are able to overcome enormous obstacles. From the flying monkeys, to the high castle walls, to the wicked witch of the west and her burning broomstick the four of them work as a team when, finally, Dorothy demands that the Wizard keep his promises. Although each of them had the capacity all along, it is their combined strengths that ensure their success.
The opening of the movie states: “For nearly forty years this story has given faithful service to the Young in Heart; and Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion.” What exactly is that kindly philosophy? Perhaps it is that if you are “looking for your heart’s desire, you need not look further than your own back yard. Because if it is not there, it was never lost to begin with.” Positive psychologists working in coaching and training would agree that if we look with an appreciative eye, we can see that our clients have all that they need to be successful. It is our job to help them realize that. The VIA Classification assesses for all 24 character strengths. Everyone (and every state) has all 24, so it is a matter of developing and using each one to suit the situation.
In conclusion, I will flex my authenticity (which is one of my top five signature strengths) as well as open-mindedness (which is not). I am still slightly irked when someone says, “Wow. Kansas is a long way from New York. How did you get here?” I’m still tempted to respond that planes go to Kansas too. But after revisiting the story of Oz with the lens of signature strengths, I see that this movie connects Kansas with many wonderful characteristics. I am proud of my state and I am proud of its citizens. Like Dorothy we are kind and brave and fair and industrious. What we might lack in curiosity and zest is made up for in modesty and citizenship. As the Wizard says, Kansas is “the land of E pluribus unum” which means ‘out of many, one’. Blending all of the colors of character in Kansas creates a unified state of which I am proud to call home.
Allport, G. W. (1937). Chapter XII. The nature of traits. In Personality: A psychological Interpretation (pp. 312-342). New York: Holt.
Aristotle. The nicomachean ethics. (1985). Irwin, T. (Ed.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
Clifton, D. O., & Harter, J. K. (2003). Investing in strengths. In K. S. Cameron, J. E. Dutton, & R. E. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline (pp. 111-121). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
LeRoy, M. (Producer) & Fleming V. (Director). (1939). The Wizard of Oz [Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
McCullough, M. E., & Snyder, C. R. (2000). Classical sources of human strength: Revisiting an old home and building a new one. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 1-10.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Chapter 1. Introduction to a “manual of the sanities.” In Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification (pp. 3-32). New York: Oxford University Press/Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.