Home All How to Be a Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact (Book Review)

How to Be a Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact (Book Review)

written by Kathryn Britton 30 July 2014

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits, and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Her Sit Write Share website has resources for writers. Kathryn's articles are here.

Let’s assume for a moment that you’ve been convinced by articles describing the connections between workplace well-being, business performance, and business being a contributor to a better world. Recent articles on these topics include Shannon Polly’s recent report on the Work and Well-being 2014 conference and Giselle Nicholson’s report on the Positive Business Conference. Let’s further assume that you have set a goal for yourself to make some of these benefits happen in your own workplace.

Hope theory tells us that to move forward hopefully and confidently toward this goal, you need two more things:

  • A sense of agency, a belief that you have it in your power to make a difference
  • Multiple pathways, because you will run into obstacles along the way. If nothing else, you’ll meet keepers of the nightmare, people who are convinced that what you are describing is not possible because they have never seen it.



That’s when I suggest you crack open the recent book edited by Jane Dutton and Gretchen Spreitzer, How to Be a Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact.

As the title suggests, this is a book about how to take action. It lays out practical ways to make progress in our business and organizational world just as it is today.

Many Voices

Thirteen chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue, each around 10 to 12 pages long, present more than 70 strategies and practices from seventeen leading thinkers in the field of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Contributing scholars were invited to identify and make the case for what the editors call a seed idea, that is, something that can start small and grow large.

“Small actions by leaders can and do have a big impact. The authors identify small actions that make a big difference in the potential for enlarging capacities for positive impact.”
~ Jane Dutton and Gretchen Spreitzer, p. 3


Looking Deeper: Job Crafting

Let’s take a look at one chapter as a way to explore how each topic is treated. Amy Wrzesniewski introduces the idea of job crafting as one that already happens by employees operating in stealth and below the radar. Acknowledging that organizational leaders may be nervous about the idea of employees taking liberties with their jobs, she explains the value of job crafting in five specific outcomes that benefit organizations.

Then she sketches a few strategies for crafting your own job into one that uses your talents, strengths, and passions more fully. These strategies can be executed alone or in combination.

Next she explains how leaders can design organizations that enable job crafting using the following four practices:

  1. Boosting autonomy and support
  2. Building job crafting into developmental plans
  3. Communicating strategic goals, since an understanding of strategic goals has a beneficial impact on the outcome of the individual job crafting strategies
  4. Holding job-crafting swap meets where people can trade job elements: sometimes one person will want to do a particular task less at the same time another person wants to gain more experience with it.

Next comes a brief case history of job crafting occurring at Burt’s Bees, showing both the organizational and individual impacts.

The chapter ends with a set of tweets about the chapter content. That’s a novel way to summarize!

Every chapter has a similar structure, including specific benefits, specific strategies, a story of the ideas in action in a particular organization, and a set of tweets for quick review. Go ahead and use the tweets on your own twitter account (just link back to the Center for Positive Organizations at @positiveorgs).

Rock Star Line Up

Let’s take a quick look at the 17 leading thinkers and the 13 chapters organized into 4 clusters. Shawn Achor recommends reading the book as if you “were going through an incredible semester of classes taught by rock-star professors.”

  • Foster Positive Relationships by
    • Building high-quality connections (Jane Dutton)
    • Connecting workers to their impact on others (Adam Grant)
    • Negotiating mindfully (Shirli Kopelman and Ramaswami Mahalingam)
  • Unlock Resources from Within by
    • Enabling thriving at work so that people have energy and creativity (Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porath)
    • Cultivating positive identities (Laura Morgan Roberts)
    • Shaping jobs to draw out the strengths and passions of available workers (Amy Wrzesniewski)
  • Tap into the Good by
    • Activating virtuousness (Kim Cameron, includes a clear discussion of Everest goals)
    • Leading ethical organizations (David M. Mayer)
    • Imbuing organizations with higher purpose (Robert E. Quinn and Anjan Thakor)
  • Create Resourceful Change by
    • Cultivating hope (Oana Branzei)
    • Creating micro-moves for organizational change (Karen Golden-Biddle)
    • Treating employees as resources, not resistors (Scott Sonenshein)
    • Creating opportunities from crisis (Lynn Perry Wooten and Erika Haynes James)

Where to Go For More

Let’s assume you’re skeptical about some of the ideas and want to know if they are really rooted in research. Or you feel that 10 pages aren’t really enough to give you a full understanding of the strategies in the chapter. After all, the first chapter is an 11-page reprise of Jane Dutton’s earlier book, Energize Your Workplace, adding one new pathway, Play. Turn to the notes section for a rich collection of books and journal papers that go deeper into both the research and the application of the ideas.

Seeds of Hope

“… we have reached a unique time where we can no longer increase working hours and workloads expecting to maximize productivity. We have tripped over the top of the time-management curve and now find the old way of leading, that is, “work harder, longer, and faster” is causing us to work slower, shorter, and more unhappily. … By immersing yourself in the research in this book, you can help your organization to navigate to a different place by using a different leadership formula.” ~ Shawn Achor, foreword to How to Be a Positive Leader, p. xii

Sprouting acorns

Sprouting acorns grow large

I highly recommend this book as a source of ideas for changing your own leadership formula, whether you lead yourself or thousands of people.

The many stories of positive outcomes can give you confidence to reach for big impact. Yes, you can make a difference.

For multiple pathways, there are approximately 70 strategies and practices clearly labeled throughout the book.

The book ends with a final section called Making Positive Leadership Stick that ends with the sentence, “Through the small actions identified in this book, we are confident that your impact will be great.”



Dutton, J. E. & Spreitzer, G. (2014, June 2). How to Be a Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Dutton, J. E. (2013). Talking Management. McGill University. Talks about unlocking resources from within with techniques such as job crafting.

Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business.

Cameron, K. & Spreitzer, G. (2011). The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Oxford University Press.

Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nicholson, G. (2014). What Good Can Positive Business Achieve in the World? Positive Psychology News.

Polly, S. (2014). Workplace Well-Being is not an Oxymoron. Positive Psychology News.

Snyder, C. R. (2000). Handbook of Hope : Theory, Measures, and Applications. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Spreitzer, G. (2013). Two Minute Tip. Center for Positive Leadership.

Turner, D. (2008). Restoring Hope. Positive Psychology News.

Wrzesniewski, A. (2012). Understanding the whole career. Yale School of Management.

Photo Credit via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses :
Natural leadership courtesy of Gidzy

“What is distinctive about these flights is that the geese always fly in a V pattern. The reason for this pattern is that the flapping wings of the geese in front create an updraft for the geese that follow. This V pattern increases the range of the geese collectively by 71 percent compared to flying alone. On long flights, after the lead goose has flown in the front of the V for a while, it drops back to take a place in the V where the flying is easier. Another goose then takes over the lead position, where the flying is most strenuous. If a goose begins to fly out of formation, it is not long before it returns to the V because of the resistance it experiences when not supported by the wing flapping of other geese.” David Whetten and Kim Cameron, Developing Management Skills (8th Edition), p. 493

Sprouting acorns courtesy of Edward Britton

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Louis Alloro 30 July 2014 - 3:20 pm

Thanks so much for this thoughtful and comprehensive review, KB. I’ve bought the book!

Amanda Horne 4 August 2014 - 2:11 am

Thanks Kathryn – a good review; I’m encouraged to buy the book

Bren Murphy 21 July 2016 - 8:26 pm

Thanks for such a detailed analysis – I am still in awe at how explaining things like this works so well. Agency is something I had not considered in this setting – thank you!


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