A Contrarian's View of Leadership:
Of all the different kinds of human capital, leadership may well be the most rare and precious. Think of the companies one can point to that were going down the tubes in spite of gaggles of consultants and new plans and policies, until finally the CEO was booted out, a new leader was brought in, and the company turned around as though by magic. History abounds with similar examples among armies, universities, churches and nations.
So if leadership is largely situational and contingent, why read books on leadership at all? Why shouldnt a person simply jump into a leadership role and sink or swim on her own merits? Granted, there is no infallible step-by-step formula for becoming an effective leader. But leadership can be taught and learned. More explicitly, a person can develop her own potential for leadership by reading about whats worked for others, and then selectively applying those lessons to her own situation.
My purpose here is to get you to think about leaders and leadership from a fresh and original point of view from what I like to call a contrarian perspective. By contrarian I dont mean counter to all conventional wisdom indeed, much of the conventional wisdom about leadership (and about most other things for that matter) is absolutely true. But just as you cant become an effective leader by trying to mimic a famous leader from the past, so you cant develop your full leadership potential, or even fully appreciate the art of leadership, by slavishly adhering to conventional wisdom. The key is to break free, if only fleetingly, from the bonds of conventional thinking so as to bring your natural creativity and intellectual independence to the fore.
Many of the concepts expressed in The Contrarians Guide to Leadership will seem strange and counterintuitive at first: think gray; see double; never completely trust an expert; read what your competition doesnt read; never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a subordinate; ignore sunk costs; work for those who work for you; know which hill youre willing to die on; shoot your own horse; sometimes allow the led to lead the leader; and know the difference between being leader and doing leader. Do all these concepts run completely counter to conventional wisdom? No. But they certainly challenge conventional thinking in ways I believe youll find to be both stimulating and beneficial.
Contrarian leaders think differently from the people around them. In particular, such leaders are able to maintain their intellectual independence by thinking gray, and enhance their intellectual creativity by thinking free.
Conventional wisdom considers it a valuable skill to be able to make judgments as quickly as possible, and conventional wisdom may well be right when it comes to managers. But contrarian wisdom argues that, for leaders, judgments as to the truth or falsity of information or the merits of new ideas should be arrived at as slowly and subtly as possible and in many cases not at all.
One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching a class on leadership has been the opportunity to watch bright undergraduates learn to think gray while holding firmly to their core principles. Thinking gray is an extraordinarily uncommon characteristic which requires a good deal of effort to develop. But it is one of the most important skills that a leader can acquire.
The essence of thinking gray is this: dont form an opinion about an important matter until youve heard all the relevant facts and arguments, or until circumstances force you to form an opinion without recourse to all the facts (which happens occasionally, but much less frequently than one might imagine). F. Scott Fitzgerald once described something similar to thinking gray when he observed that the test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time while still retaining the ability to function.
After all, thinking gray is not a natural act, especially for people who see themselves as leaders. Our typical view of great leaders is that they are bold and decisive people who are strongly governed by their passions and prejudices. Who could imagine a Teddy Roosevelt or a Vince Lombardi thinking gray?
A black-and-white binary approach to thinking may in fact be a successful strategy for some leaders, especially if they must deal daily with fight-or-flight situations. But even many of the worlds most noted military leaders were adroit at thinking gray on the battlefield. Napoleon, Washington and Rommel all knew the value of suspending judgment about important matters, and especially about the validity of incoming intelligence, until the last possible moment.
Photo by Tim Rue