The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership

No doubt, the title says it all. This is not your management-flavor-of-the-month treatise. In fact, it’s only peripherally about “management.” While author Sample acknowledges how his perspectives may be of value to some managers, what he’s really talking about is leadership, and that’s not the same thing. Leadership, as Sample stakes it out, is not for the faint of heart. It’s situational and contingent, not predictable or guaranteed. A leader may succeed in one arena or at one point in time and not another.

With his varied background and interests as an engineer, musician, professor, outdoorsman, and inventor, Sample speaks from the amalgam of those experiences and as the tenth president of the University of Southern California (USC) with more than ten years at its helm. He was also president of the State University of New York-Buffalo during a turn-around period and has enough real-world business acumen that he and his engineering colleagues hold patent rights on a digital electronic control device now found in most home appliances.

If nothing else, Sample’s gift in this book is the notion that there is no tried and true formula for good leadership or for becoming an effective, let alone good, leader. Should we aspire to doing leader, as opposed to being leader (in which we like the trappings of office but don’t want to dirty our hands with the day-to-day, not-always-pleasant requirements of actually doing the job), we are encouraged to break out of conventional thinking, cultivate some tendencies that diverge from what we may have learned, and take responsibility for our own and others’ actions. As Sample says, if you’re not willing to do what it takes, stay out of the leadership business altogether.

A few Contrarian principles suggested in this book include:

  • Think gray: try not to form opinions about ideas or people unless and until you have to. Sample calls this “seeing double,” and “the ability to simultaneously view things from two or more perspectives.”
  • Think free: train yourself to move several steps beyond traditional brainstorming by considering really outrageous solutions and approaches. Too often we rush to judgment or give in to the naysayers who only focus on how or why something cannot or should not be done.
  • Listen first, talk later; and when you listen, do so artfully.
  • Experts can be helpful, but they’re no substitute for your own critical thinking and discernment.
  • Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant; and never make a decision today that can be reasonably put off to tomorrow. But then, Sample also says…
  • Shoot your own horse. Don’t make others do your dirty work.
  • Ignore sunk costs and yesterday’s mistakes. You can only influence the future.
  • Reading Machiavelli can help make you a more moral leader.
  • Work for those who work for you. Hire people who are better than you and help them succeed.
  • You can’t really run your organization; you can only lead individual followers, who then collectively give motion and substance to the organization you nominally head.
  • You can’t copy your way to the top; true excellence can only be achieved through original thinking and unconventional approaches.

Sample is also a huge proponent of something he calls “open communication with structured decision making,” which allows the freedom to talk informally with anyone in the organization but doesn’t undercut the authority and responsibility of line administrators and managers.

If you really want to avoid micro-managing and if you truly want to empower those who work with and for you, such an approach is critical. You might say it’s contrarian leadership at its best.

Author: Steven B. Sample
Published: San Francisco: Jossey-Bass / A Wiley Company ©2002

Copyright ©2013 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos