A Contrarian's View of Leadership:
Leaders may be made, not born, but Steven B. Sample believes they also can be taught.

The best leaders won’t make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow. They don’t form opinions if they don’t have to. They don’t force others to do their dirty work. They don’t keep up with the popular media. And they don’t try to copy their way to the top.
These are a few of the counterintuitive lessons offered by USC president Steven B. Sample in
The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, the featured book of the fall season for Wiley’s Jossey-Bass division. A distillation of his decades as a university president, director of corporate boards, civic leader, inventor and professor, the book explodes many romanticized views of leadership and presents unorthodox leadership lessons based on his personal experience and his broad survey of history. He also uses USC’s explosive recent growth as a case study in contrarian leadership, noting how an unconventional approach helped USC become world-renowned in the fields of communication and multimedia technologies, earn national recognition for its innovative community partnerships, and solidify its status as one of the nation’s leading research universities.
Royalties from the book – which has already garnered advance praise from Disney CEO Michael Eisner, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, commentator David Gergen and a range of other prominent figures from government, industry and academia – will fund scholarships for USC undergraduate students.
The essay that follows is excerpted with permission of the publisher Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Company, from
The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. Copyright © 2001 by Steven B. Sample.


The very concept of leadership is elusive and tricky. It’s hard to define in a way that is satisfactory to everyone, although most people believe they know it when they see it. Certainly there are natural leaders who seem to gravitate effortlessly to positions of power and authority. And yet many of the world’s greatest leaders demonstrated relatively little aptitude for leadership in their youth, but instead learned this esoteric art through study, apprenticeship and practice.
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.
Just as you can’t become an effective leader by trying to mimic a famous leader from the past, so you can’t develop your full leadership potential by slavishly adhering to conventional wisdom.
But there is also the other kind of leadership transition, in which the untimely loss of a talented and effective leader proves disastrous for the organization he was leading. Try as they may, a succession of new leaders simply cannot stem the inexorable decline of the very same organization which a few months or years before was at the peak of health and vitality.
So if leadership is largely situational and contingent, why read books on leadership at all? Why shouldn’t 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 what’s 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 don’t 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 can’t become an effective leader by trying to mimic a famous leader from the past, so you can’t 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 Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership will seem strange and counterintuitive at first: think gray; see double; never completely trust an expert; read what your competition doesn’t 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 you’re 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 you’ll 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.

Most people are binary and instant in their judgments; that is, they immediately categorize things as good or bad, true or false, black or white, friend or foe. A truly effective leader, however, needs to be able to see the shades of gray inherent in a situation in order to make wise decisions as to how to proceed.
The essence of thinking gray is this: don’t form an opinion about an important matter until you’ve 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 world’s 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

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