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The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership (J-B Warren Bennis Series)

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  1,032 ratings  ·  65 reviews
In this offbeat approach to leadership, college president Steven B. Sample-the man who turned the University of Southern California into one of the most respected and highly rated universities in the country-challenges many conventional teachings on the subject. Here, Sample outlines an iconoclastic style of leadership that flies in the face of current leadership thought, ...more
Kindle Edition, 224 pages
Published May 18th 2009 by Jossey-Bass (first published 2001)
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Aug 28, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a terrific book for wouldbe college presidents, executive pastors and general managers.

following are some of the memorable quotes from The Contrary ends Guide to Leadership:

"Leadership is highly situational and contingent; the leader who succeeds in one context at one point in time won't necessarily succeed in a different context at the same time, or in the same context as a different type."

"But leadership can be taught and learned. More explicitly, a person can develop her own potenti
Sep 07, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: business
My favorite principles from this book:

1. Think grey - put off forming opinions until you have to.

2. Think free - move several steps beyond traditional brainstorming

3. Listen first, talk later - practice artful listening

4. Don't read everything. Focus on mining gold from the super-texts.

5. Delegate, and practice artful procrastination.

6. Know which hill you are willing to die on.

7. Work for those who work for you - spend a lot of time training and supporting your employees and team.

8. Many want
Apr 12, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: leadership
I enjoyed this one. Very down-to-Earth advice. As implied by the title, the contrarian leader would be found "contrary" by the traditionally-trained leader. With such advice as "If a decision can be made tomorrow, don't make it today" and "Work for those that work for you", the contrarian leader always considers the situation from the other person's shoes. Sometimes we get tunnel vision and forget that those we are leading are people too.

Despite its premise, this book shouldn't be a straight-ahe
Aug 07, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: businessbooks
This is a good book on leadership. It really makes you think and the author encourages the reader to question the principles and ideas set down in the book (which is refreshing). It gives a different take on leadership (at least in format) than John Maxwell usually takes. Also it includes a list of ten "super-texts" that the author believes every leader should read several times (at least one super-text a year), which is thought-provoking as well. ...more
Jul 31, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone wanting to improve their leadership skills
Out of all the books/journals I have read on leadership, this one seems to have the most practical and logical advice on how to be a better leader. President Sample writes a book that is easy to read and incredibly applicable. Not to mention the fact that he has managed to breathe new life into the greatest school ever (Fight On!).
Bonnie Irwin
Oct 18, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not all of Sample's advice is contrarian, in my view, but a good read, especially for leadership in the higher education arena. I especially like the section on empowering one's "followers" and the section on"thinking gray." ...more
Dec 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-escapist
I finally finished it. Between renovating the house and the crazy work year this book was a bit of a slog due to the fact that given the title I did not want to read it on the plane when travelling with colleagues.
Overall, I would say this is one of the better leadership books I have read to date. It definately considers blue water thinking (or as he calls it thinking grey), has a fair number of annecdoetes related to real world experience, and does not preach, you must do this or you will fail
Craig Golden
Mar 29, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: leadership
I absolutely enjoyed his book. To be honest, I delayed reading it for so long because I was afraid I would learn nothing new, would not be challenged. While there was a large portion of the book, I already agreed with, there were many challenging principles. His practical view of leadership was quite unique for me. I tend to think of leadership development as a philosophical or idealistic exercise, but Sample challenged me to consider the practical aspect, which is the “people follow this person ...more
Rand Hall
Apr 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This leadership memoir of a university president serves up some (not always) contrarian leadership advice applicable to almost any leader. Of particular value to me, "Think gray, try not to form firm opinions about ideas or people unless and until you have to." Similarly, "Never make a decision today that you can reasonably put off until tomorrow." Interesting was the concept of supertexts--very old texts that have stood the test of time and which contain the underlying fabric of understanding h ...more
Wally Bock
Oct 19, 2020 rated it liked it
The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership is a book of thoughtful and insightful meditations on leadership by a man whose entire work experience was in academia. Business readers may not want to read a book with no business examples. Readers under 50 may not be familiar with many of the historical references. 

See my full review at
Nasir Ali
Feb 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The Contrarians Guide to Leadership and found it thought provoking, challenging and refreshing. Samples challenges all common wisdom on leadership that we are taught, have read and have learned firsthand. Some of his points seem to be common sense though such as active listening, thinking gray, consider all facts before making decisions, and so on
Mar 07, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: business
Ow, this author is so full of himself. All the time he talks about how good his line personnel is (he calls them 'his lieutenants') but all the heroic examples are his own actions.
Worst is his example of how to inspire and motivate your followers with a story. What follows is two pages of a most boring history of his university, USC.

Okay, this is it, why did I buy this book anyway?
Timeo Williams
A fantastic book for the ages on the importance and application of thinking gray, especially as a leader.

Mr. Sample delves into personal experiences as a professor and university president, as well as from the classics in history to make his points.

A great read that is most pertinent to our time.
Andy Littleton
Feb 21, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
USC’s president shares his leadership thoughts, many of which diverge from popular opinion. Very thought provoking, some seemed geared best for large / slower moving institutions, but all in all a leadership book I’d highly recommend...and I don’t like a lot of them.
Brian Sankarsingh
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Feb 12, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
While I consider the ideas stated in this book to be mostly true, still the book is written in a tedious and non engaging way.
J.A. Taylor
Aug 15, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
First half is much better than the second half in my opinion.
Robert Jacobson
Feb 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I found numerous useful tactics and strategies in this book co-authored by the late Dr. Steven Sample.
Phillip Kilsner
Feb 27, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Pretty good book with a lot of references for other material.
Cameron Swager
Apr 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Whenever I feel too wrapped up in the whirlwind of the here and now this book brings me back to reality
Jonathan Williams
An incredible book. One of the very few in the leadership genre worth reading. There are hints of thinking from Robert Greene all the way to Nassim Taleb
Omar Halabieh
Dec 12, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As the author best states: "The purpose of the this book is to get you to think about leaders and leadership from a fresh and original point of view - from what I call a contrarian perspective...The Key is to break free, if only fleeting, from the bonds of conventional thinking so as to bring your natural creativity and intellectual independence to the fore." He further argues that: "One of the important and contrarian point we can make about leadership is that it is highly situational and conti ...more
Kanaan Hardaway
Jul 06, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: leadership
Some excellent points about being a leader. As someone who has never held a corporate or academic leadership position, I couldn’t connect with many of the author’s anecdotes.

Definitely a book written for people who are already leaders for some reason and need to improve.
Marie desJardins
Lots of great advice in this book for academic leaders, especially those who haven't come into leadership through a business/MBA trajectory. I didn't agree with everything, and some of the advice seemed a bit obvious, but I liked Sample's way of thinking about many of the "big issues" of leadership.

The book includes 10 chapters (plus a "case study"), each with a different tidbit of advice. Here's my mini-summary by chapter:

1. Thinking gray - check! This comes naturally to me as a scientist (no q
John Daly
This is one of those books that I’ve picked up and down a few times over the past year. Steven Sample was the President of USC (CA not SC) from 1991 to 2010 an engineer by degree but then pursued a career in administration.

He boils it down to these 15 principals to being a contrarian leader:
1. Think Gray
2. Think Free
3. Listen first, talk later
4. Experts are helpful but are no substitute for your own critical thinking
5. Beware of pseudoscience pretending to be true facts
6. Never make a decision t
Jun 02, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very pragmatic and practical leadership book from Steve Sample, former president of USC and SUNY- Buffalo. I appreciated Sample's advice and insights into leadership. Rather than give a formula for leadership, or what a leader should always be, he instead focused on traits he has found that make for effective and good leadership. These traits make complete sense once you read them, but you wouldn't necessarily have thought of it before.

For example:
1. A leader should spend most of his/her tim
Reid Mccormick
Jan 16, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“Sometimes a response is not really necessary, and sometimes no response at all is the best response.”

Clearly, there is no clear unifying definition of leadership. If you ask a thousand people for the qualities of an effective leader, you will probably get a thousand different responses. However the responses that stick out are the responses given by extremely successful leader. Steve Sample is a successful leader.

Though prosperous in the corporate world, Sample’s greatest success exists academi
Mark Gowan
Dec 15, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I do not read many so-called "leadership" books because I am one who believes that the kernels of leadership cannot be found in a book on leadership. That being said, Steven Sample's book offers a few tidbits of information that are helpful to anyone considering leadership positions; one of those kernels of wisdom is that leaders do not read leadership books!
Sample offers a straight-forward and well organized book that orbits around Machiavelli's "The Prince", a book often misunderstood and even
Paul McAtee
Mar 13, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sovreignity
Rather than presenting a model or paradigm for leadership as does say, Tribal Leadership, Sample rather shares a series lessons, thoughts, and notions on Leadership. For instance never commit to a decision until you absolutely have to, work FOR your lieutenants, and probably my favorite is 'thinking grey' which means staying in the middle and not committing yourself to one side or the other of various issues. He also suggests reading what he call the "super texts" which are classics of literatur ...more
Oct 20, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was a great book on leadership. I appreciate Sample's pulling together leadership studies from historical perspective and classical writings to the modern day realities and sensibilities. Steven Sample actually changed the way in which I approach reading years ago when I heard him speak in his emphasis that people should not shy away from what he refers to as the supertexts. These are the books and writings 500 years or older that have stood the test of time such as the Bible, the Qur'an, t ...more
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