These 3 Must-Read Books Can Teach You How to Become a Positive Leader

by Maren Fox

February 20, 2018

Columbia University researchers have found that managers suffer higher rates of depression and anxiety than both individual employees and top executives. The reason? Serving as an intermediary between executives and front-line staff is hard. And, to be blunt, many managers burn out.

However, there is hope. Your management and executive teams can learn how to use positive leadership to draw energy from the relationships and responsibilities that many managers find depleting. Instead of demanding more from individuals, positive leaders invest more. According to Tom Rath in a summary of several studies on positive leadership, this management style leads to improved performance, more engagement, more job satisfaction, and a more positive employee outlook. Three books—Practicing Positive Leadership, How to Be a Positive Leader, and Lift—can help your management teams learn how to become positive leaders.

1. How to Be a Positive Leader
Jane E. Dutton and Gretchen M. Spreitzer (editors)

How to be a positive leader

This collection of 13 essays explores how managers can learn to use positive leadership skills to actually draw energy from their day-to-day responsibilities rather than depleting their reserves. The concept is called “thriving at work,” and it is a core tenet of positive leadership. Editors Dutton and Spreitzer, along with their fellow contributors, highlight years of research into effective organizations in this collection of essays. The collection offers insights into how leaders can use hope instead of fear to unlock their employees’ potential.

In How to Be a Positive Leader, Spreitzer and Christine Porath, an associate professor of management at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, outline four strategies to leverage positive leadership and thinking in employees in their essay “Enable Thriving at Work.”

  1. Share information. Workers thrive when they understand how they contribute to the organization’s larger mission. More information about the strategic direction of organizations, business plans, and competitors gives managers and employees “stronger feelings of thriving at work.”
  2. Offer choices. Managers who allow employees leeway to make decisions that impact their work inspire feelings of empowerment and engagement; mistakes that arise from choices should be framed as knowledge, because these are learning experiences.
  3. Promote civility. Managers who don’t tolerate disrespect or incivility—or engage in these things themselves—create trust and connectivity in their workforce.
  4. Performance feedback. Frequent, two-way discussions about performance—both positive and constructive—make workers more interested in improving.

By helping managers learn to draw growth and vitality from their work, they experience less burnout because “their work generates, rather than depletes resources.” Once managers learn these skills, they can teach them to others as well.

Check out the book on the Berrett-Koehler Bookstore
Check out the book on Amazon

2. Lift 
Ryan Quinn and Robert Quinn


A study by the Harvard Business Review found that, of 200 managers surveyed, just 10 percent reported spending their time “in a committed, purposeful, and reflective manner.” Lots of incoming leaders bring high hopes and lofty dreams into management roles—and many are quickly deflated.

Just as How to Be a Positive Leader helps managers learn how to inspire hope in their employees, Lift helps managers develop tools to shield themselves against burnout and complacency. The authors explore how managers can prevent the daily grind from dragging managers into “more normal states” than the elevated status typically conveyed by the term “management.” When managers fail to develop these tools, they begin to seek comfort, react to situations without contemplation, focus on their own needs, and start to feel that there is little they can do to improve. By providing skills to combat “management morose,” Lift enables managers to inspire energy, passion, and openness to new ideas for the long haul.

Learning to Read the Cues

Research indicates that happy employees are 12 to 20 percent more productive. Leaders can help evoke those positive feelings by learning to read the verbal and non-verbal cues of their coworkers and by responding with empathy. This can help team members overcome personal struggles and perform better. The result is increased energy levels, with team members gaining the confidence to voice new ideas, take risks, and to be open to new possibilities.

Being Externally Open

Another positive leadership skill that managers can learn is to be externally open. By engaging team members in the brainstorming and decision-making process, for example, managers make themselves open to creativity and innovation. One simple trick is to always generate three or more viable strategies to overcome a challenge. Managers who don’t settle on one approach, the authors write, “are likely to see feedback on those strategies as desirable and they are likely to see themselves of capable of learning. They must see all of the strategies as viable, however; if they just make up strategies for the sake of answering the question, they are unlikely to be curious about which strategy is best; they will assume that they already know.”

Being a Positive Force in Every Situation

Lift outlines a positive leadership blueprint—and it culminates in putting it all together to be a positive leader in every situation. The authors identify four key components: being purpose-centered, internally directed, focused on others, and externally open to cues that make learning, adaptation, and growth possible. “As we have suggested, principles for using the fundamental state of leadership are analogous to the principles the Wright brothers used to harness the aerodynamic force of lift,” the authors write. When leaders use these four principles, “they tend to lift themselves and others.”

Check out the book on the Berrett-Koehler Bookstore
Check out the book on Amazon

3. Practicing Positive Leadership 
Kim Cameron

Practicing Positive Leadership

Can positive leadership practices really make organizations more profitable, productive, and innovative? The answer is "yes." In Practicing Positive Leadership, author Kim Cameron outlines steps that managers can take “to use positive leadership practices, tools, and techniques to create an organizational cultural change.” The aim, Cameron continues, is to create a “culture of abundance.”

Cameron, a co-founder of the Center for Organizational Scholarship at the University of Michigan, has researched the ways that positively deviant performance and practices impact organizational outcomes. In Practicing Positive Leadership, he describes the goal of creating a “culture of abundance” that is built on “numerous positive energizers throughout the system, including embedded virtuous practices, adaptive learning, meaningfulness, and profound purpose.”

Practicing Positive Leadership is an expansive book that gives managers tools to develop positive energy networks within their organizations, to deliver negative feedback in a way that strengthens relationships, to effectively establish goals, and to determine exactly how to inspire positive organizational leadership. Cameron also offers a roadmap for management and executive teams to create a culture of abundance using these five steps:

  1. Create readiness. Compare your organization’s current performance levels to the highest standards you can find—not to copy them, but to learn about new ideas and see new perspectives.
  2. Overcome resistance. Bring those affected by organizational change into the fold, find areas of agreement, and, with them, identify benefits and desired outcomes.
  3. Articulate vision. An effective “vision of abundance” must appeal to both the right and left sides of the brain, as well as blend both logic and data with metaphors and vivid language.
  4. Generate commitment. Celebrate “small” wins; make public pronouncements about your organization’s commitment to positive cultural change.
  5. Foster sustainability. Identify indicators of success, find ways to effectively measure those indicators, and set milestones.

The goal of positive leaders is to develop skills and “create the consensus and collaboration required for any organization to sustain change.” Cameron offers a tool kit for management teams to proactively lead and sustain positive organizational change.

Check out the book on the Berrett-Koehler Bookstore
Check out the book on Amazon

The Final Word on How to Become a Positive Leader

Positive leadership isn’t about being nice. It’s about management teams creating a positive environment in which employees can envision and achieve bigger goals. Management and executive teams can foster more engaged, productive employees by using a shared vision of success—rather than fear of failure—to inspire them. By learning to read and react to emotional cues with empathy, leaders can also help create positive energy networks—one person at a time. And by creating a culture of abundance, organizations can harness individual talents and aim for loftier goals. Finally, positive leadership can help managers avoid burnout by teaching them to turn work into a source of energy, not a drain on morale. If you want to see the benefits of positive leadership in your organization, start with Practicing Positive Leadership, How to Be a Positive Leader, and Lift.

Header photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Topics: Your Organization, Recommended Reading, Leadership and Management

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