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Jon Clifton has his grandfather Don's five most prominent strengths close at hand, a list on his smartphone.

Of the late Don Clifton's big handful, measured by an assessment tool of his own creation, "significance" stands out to Jon, his dad Jim Clifton and his aunt Connie Rath. 

One line of its interpretation on the Gallup website says: "An independent spirit, you want your work to be a way of life rather than a job, and in that work you want to be given free rein, the leeway to do things your way."   

That would be Don Clifton. And the study of human strengths is his legacy, a profound and historically significant contribution to academia, business and the psychology of the human race. 

In his memory, his family's foundation and Gallup are giving $30 million to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to establish the Don Clifton Strengths Institute, continuing what his adult children called his mission in a long-term partnership with the College of Business Administration.

It's one of the biggest gifts in University of Nebraska history and will be spent over a period of years on a variety of purposes serving the Clifton legacy. Some of it will be used on construction of the new CBA building at 14th and Vine streets. 

Born in Butte in 1924, Clifton attended UNL on a regents scholarship and earned three degrees there, one in math and two in educational psychology.

In 1969, Clifton started Selection Research Inc. in Lincoln after teaching and researching educational psychology at UNL for 19 years. Private and public employers paid SRI to help them find the best-suited people to work for them. It started an industry that includes other companies in Lincoln and around the world.

Clifton founded strengths psychology: the identification, examination and use of people's strengths to maximize their vocational performance. The American Psychological Association recognized Clifton with a Presidential Citation in 2003, the year Clifton died.

SRI acquired the Gallup organization in 1988, and Clifton became chairman, four years after founder George Gallup died. Clifton's children continue to be leaders of what is a family business. Jim is chairman and CEO; Mary Reckmeyer is executive director of Gallup's Donald O. Clifton Child Development Center; Connie Rath is president of the Clifton Foundation; and Jane Miller is chief operating officer of Gallup. Their mother is Shirley Clifton. Grandson Jon is managing director of Gallup Global Analytics.  

About 800 people work for Gallup in Omaha, 450 to 500 in Lincoln and others in Washington, D.C., and around the world.  

When Don Clifton died in 2003, one of his former students, Tom Osborne, described what Clifton was pursuing in his research at UNL.   

"Most people were studying abnormal behavior in rats. Don was saying what we need to do is study the best in human behavior and performance. If you want to make a better insurance salesman, study the top 10 and find out what makes them tick. It was an entirely different approach. I was really impressed he was willing to step out and go against the trend."

Osborne said he was also impressed when Clifton left academia and put his ideas to the test in the business world. 

"He went 100 percent upstream," Osborne said. "His ideas didn't resonate with traditional academics in psychology. He had a great idea and he made it work, a great understanding of what makes people tick."

That independent streak made him a maverick then, but the rest of the world has come around.

"Dad didn't believe in traditional management," Jim Clifton said.

"Forty years ago, this (the strengths institute) wouldn't have fit in the Nebraska business school. Now it fits perfectly."  

From going upstream, this study has become mainstream. And as Connie Rath said, the Internet has given it scale. 

Under Clifton's leadership and that of his children, Gallup has grown beyond its popular reputation as a public opinion pollster to the broader field of management consulting for some of the world's most prominent companies, public agencies and institutions.

The Clifton StrengthsFinder, an online assessment tool released in 1999, has helped millions of people worldwide discover, understand and maximize their innate talents. 

The accompanying book, "StrengthsFinder 2.0," written by Tom Rath, another grandson, was Amazon's No. 1 bestselling book in 2013 and 2014. Clifton StrengthsFinder is used in Fortune 500 companies, schools and universities. 

“Don Clifton believed that nothing would change human development, and subsequently the world, more than if every living person knew their strengths and maximized them,” Connie Rath said.  

She and Jim Clifton said the family had discussed the creation of an institute at UNL for years.  

"We feel good about what it can be," she said. "It's the kind of gift he'd want."

Previous donations to UNL provided for a Clifton Chair in Leadership and two Clifton professorships in Survey Research Methods.

The Clifton Foundation's purpose is to provide early identification of talent and accelerated development of leaders, educators, entrepreneurs and business builders for global, societal and economic prosperity. Gallup has offices in 25 countries and delivers analytics and advice to help leaders and organizations solve their most pressing problems.

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Reach Richard Piersol at 402-473-7241 or dpiersol@journalstar.com.

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