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The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership

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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, but a style that unquestionably works, nevertheless. Sample urges leaders and aspiring leaders to focus on some key counterintuitive truths. He offers his own down-to-earth, homespun, and often provocative advice on some complex and thoughtful issues. And he provides many practical, if controversial, tactics for successful leadership, suggesting, among other things, that leaders should sometimes compromise their principles, not read everything that comes across their desks, and always put off decisions.

224 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2001

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Steven B. Sample

8 books9 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 72 reviews
176 reviews18 followers
December 22, 2020
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 potential for leadership by reading about what's worked for others and then selectively applying those lessons to her own situation."

"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... "think gray"... most people are binary and instant in their judgments... he 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."

F. Scott Fitzgerald suggested 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.

"Most new inventions are merely novel combinations of devices or techniques that already exist. Thus, the key to successful invention often lies in getting one's brain to imagine new combinations of existing elements that solve the problem in a way no one has ever thought of before."

"The leader has to be able to imagine different organizational combinations in his mind and see how they will play out. He has to be able to move people around him his mind and grasp how they would respond to new situations. He has to be able to move resources and budgets around and be able to discern how those moves would affect the bottom line. He needs to be able to look at complex human situations can sense how the outcome would be affected depending on the sequence in which he interacts with various participants. If you cannot do these things effectively using only his imagination-if he can only work with tangible, concrete data-he may well fail as a leader. It is far too time-consuming, far too risky and far too expensive to conduct an actual experiment to test the feasibility of every new idea. Generally speaking, a leader must be able to accurately play out contingencies within the arena of his imagination."

"The contrarian leader prices and cultivates his ability to simultaneously view things from two or more perspectives... toward that end it is usually best to keep one's inner circle of advisers relatively small-typically no more than eight."

"Leaders who listen attentively and carefully run the risk of being misunderstood. In particular sympathetic listening by a leader can be misinterpreted by his followers as giving his assent. Franklin Roosevelt suffered especially from this problem. Almost everyone who had a private conversation with FDR left feeling the president agreed with him, while in fact Roosevelt might well have been in total disagreement with the person doing the speaking."

"It's essential for an expert to be a "deep specialist" and for a leader to be a "deep generalist." The experts role is to offer greater insight than the leader has in one or a small number of areas, while the leader's role is to be sufficiently broad so as to be able to integrate the advice of several experts into a coherent course of action."

"I'm always astounded by the extent of the herd instinct within the artistic professions."

"The key contribution of the supertexts is not a set of timeless truths about leadership, but rather some time as truth about human nature."

Sample recommends the following supertexts: The Prince, Moses in Exodus, David in 1 & 2 Samuel, Jesus in Matthew and Paul in Acts. Plato's Republic, Shakespeare's Hamlet and Othello, Sophocles' Antigone, John Ciardi's translation of Dante's Divine Comedy.

"For the contrary leader, just one truly original idea is worth 100 regurgitations of conventional wisdom. And the chances are very high that one original idea will be stimulated by something the leader reads or hears from OUTSIDE his established field."

If reading is a continuum, Sample recommends that one spend relatively less time near the left (newspaper) end of the spectrum and relatively more near the right (supertext) end.

Sample likes to practice what he calls "artful procrastination." Harry Truman personified this trait when he would ask, "How much time do I have?"

"As noted earlier, we are as fully human, and no more human, that our brothers and sisters in ancient Egypt or in modern Mongolia. And one of mankind's deepest and most abiding concerns for all times, in all places, and for all peoples, is our feeling for an relationship with God."

"You should be the first assistant to the people who work for you... it's not simply that you should be your lieutenant's staff person, you should be his BEST staff person."

"There's no such thing as 'the right man for the job.' The appropriate question' to ask is, 'is he the best man available for the job within the timeframe in which I must fill the position?"

Great people, not great job descriptions, that make an organization successful.

Between two roughly equal candidates, one should always choose the younger.

According to capital Derek Bok, the distinguished former president of Harvard, "because you already know an inside candidate's shortcomings and blemishes, an outside candidate must be at least two notches above the leading insider in order to be a good risk.... after all, no matter how many reference checks you make, the outsider exists largely on paper, while the insider is a flesh-and-blood person whom you've seen perform in the heat of battle."

In the 1950s television series called I Remember Mama, Mama always reassured the children by telling them she had $500 in a bank account downtown in case they ever ran into real trouble. After the children were all grown she informed them that there was not and never had been any $500 bank account; there was no nest egg. Yet the mere idea that there was one had been enough to get them through.

An important asset for any leader to have as he works to inspire and motivate his followers is a credible creation story or myth for the organization or movement he's leading. This should be an engaging story ,and he should tell it often!

According to Warren Bennis, "Leaders are sentenced by their sentences."

Anything worth doing at all is worth doing just well enough. When Gen. Patton was chasing the German army and needed to cross a major river, he wasn't interested in building a new bridge or an attractive bridge. All he wanted was a bridge that was just good enough to allow his tanks and troops to cross the river, and to cross only once.

In his conclusion, Sample summarizes the 15 points of the book:

1. Think gray: try not to form firm opinions about ideas or people unless and until you have to.

2. Think free: train yourself to move several steps beyond traditional brainstorming by considering really outrageous solutions and approach.

3. Listen first, talk later; and when you listen, do so artfully.

4. Experts can be helpful, but they're no substitute for your own critical thinking and discernment.

5. Beware of pseudoscience masquerading as incontrovertible fact or unassailable wisdom; it typically will do nothing to serve your interests or those of the organization you are leading.

6. Dig for gold in the supertexts while your competition stays mired down in trade publications and other ephemera; you can depend on your lieutenants to give you any current news that really matter.

7. Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant; and never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow.

8. Ignore sunk costs and yesterday's mistakes; the decisions you make as a leader can only affect the future, not the past.

9. Don't unnecessarily humiliate a defeated opponent.

10. Know which hills you are willing to die on, and realize that your choice may at some point require you to retreat from all the surrounding hills.

11. Work for those who work for you; recruit the best lieutenants available, and then spend most of your time and energy helping them to succeed.

12. Many people want to BE leader, but few want to DO leader; if you are not in the latter group you should stay away from the leader business altogether.

13. You as a leader can't really run your organization; rather, you can only lead individual followers, who then collectively give motion and substance to the organization of which you are the head.

14. Don't delude yourself into thinking that people are intrinsically better or worse than they really are; instead, work to bring out the best in your followers (and yourself) while minimizing the worst.

15. You can't copy your way to excellence; rather, true excellence can only be achieved through original thinking and unconventional approaches.
Profile Image for Sarah.
91 reviews5 followers
September 7, 2017
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 to DO leader, few want to BE a leader - know if you are cut out for being a leader before taking on a position of leadership. This will be a favor to yourself as well as to others.
Profile Image for Jeff.
145 reviews1 follower
May 25, 2009
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-ahead "how-to" book. The underlying theme is simply to think balanced. Consider the other view. Make reasonable decisions. Even though our personal step-by-step may vary, to make reasonable decisions is admirable in any instance.
Profile Image for Lauren.
134 reviews2 followers
August 7, 2007
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.
Profile Image for Nicole.
26 reviews
July 31, 2008
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!).
Profile Image for Bonnie Irwin.
726 reviews12 followers
October 18, 2015
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."
Profile Image for Chet Kennedy.
20 reviews
June 21, 2022
The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven B. Sample is thought provoking, timeless and one of my most favourite leadership books.

Although I read this book years ago I refer to it and recommend it all the time. The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership is laid out chapter by chapter with unusual leadership practices that are both simple and practical and yet seem to come completely out of left field. This book reminds me so much of Marcus Buckingham’s First Break all the Rules.

My favourite principles from this book are Thinking Gray, and Free; Artful Listening; Know Which Hill you’re willing to die on and You are what you Read. This is the first leadership book that challenged me to read, and especially to read extensively. Sample writes, “All leaders, whether contrarian or otherwise, are heavily influenced by what they read. Indeed, in many cases leaders are directed and inspired as much by their readings are they are by their closest advisers.”

Some of my favourite quotes:

“Effective leadership at any level, from parenting to running a large corporation, requires that the leader lay down rules and evenhandedly punish those who break the rules.”

“Ethical leadership requires that the leader choose one set of moral values over all others, and then take full responsibility for his actions based on those values.”

“A man has to shoot his own horse, because he owes it to the horse. Doesn’t a leader similarly owe it to his lieutenants to fire them himself?

I highly recommend The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven B. Sample to pastors, business leaders and anyone who holds the mantle of leadership and desires to lead well.
Profile Image for Chris.
165 reviews1 follower
December 5, 2019
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.
Overall I would recommend people read this book if they already have some form of leadership role and responsibility, as this is not a how to become a leader but more of a book on being a good leader and does not provide a path to getting there other than saying age 40 is a critical milestone to maturity.

From an editorial perspective this book is very well edited with no noticable errors on my side.
9 reviews7 followers
March 29, 2020
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” aspect. Yes, empathy, yes resonance, but also storytelling, inspiration, and action. Specifically, the principles of artful procrastination and being careful about what you read are particularly counter-intuitive to me.
Profile Image for Dave.
58 reviews2 followers
February 7, 2022
Given that's it been nearly two decades since this book was published, it's impressive just how much of Steven Sample's contrarian leadership principles are still contrarian (and no less effective) today.

The biggest challenge in reading this book is that the second half, mostly focused on his real-life applications of his principles at work, becomes somewhat droll and self-aggrandizing. Still, they are enough overlooked, yet fundamentally powerful, principles of leadership in this book that I'd still recommend it to any new leader, or those who need a refresh in their perspective on leadership. It's definitely a book I'll be revisiting from time to time.
Profile Image for Rand Hall.
119 reviews
April 2, 2018
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 humanity.
106 reviews45 followers
October 19, 2020
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

Profile Image for Nasir Ali.
122 reviews2 followers
February 18, 2018
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
Profile Image for Mirjam.
281 reviews10 followers
March 7, 2018
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?
Profile Image for Timeo Williams.
249 reviews6 followers
October 27, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Maha.
36 reviews
December 4, 2021
The title of the book is pretty self explanatory -
1st half is definitely more engaging.

Best chaps are
- thinking gray, and free
- you are what you read

* can't agree more just that you are also what you listen, watch and who you share your space with. Leaders hold responsibility of passing on so much, it becomes an obligation to give authentic and stimulating information *
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Andy Littleton.
Author 6 books9 followers
February 22, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Brian Sankarsingh.
Author 8 books2 followers
September 18, 2020
Who would ever imagine that to solve a problem you should stop thinking about it? Why Stephen Sample of course. Be prepared for some very contrarian thinking. I still struggle with putting off decisions to allow them to make themselves.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Kelly Kerns.
85 reviews1 follower
May 12, 2023
By definition a Contrarian approach should have supporters and distractors. That’s exactly where this book fell. The author presents on equal balance some great ideas and others that make you say ‘but what?’

Worth the read for a few pearls or wisdom hidden in an autobiographical anecdotal lessons learned overview of the author’s (sometimes insightful and brilliant) work view.
Profile Image for Timur.
42 reviews17 followers
February 12, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Robert Jacobson.
Author 3 books9 followers
February 23, 2020
I found numerous useful tactics and strategies in this book co-authored by the late Dr. Steven Sample.
1 review2 followers
April 16, 2020
Whenever I feel too wrapped up in the whirlwind of the here and now this book brings me back to reality
Profile Image for Sajad.
3 reviews6 followers
April 15, 2022
The first half of the book is valuable. The second half is repetitive.
Profile Image for Omar Halabieh.
217 reviews62 followers
February 23, 2013
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 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 at a different time."

The principles of such leadership are then discussed over ten (10) chapters as follows: 1) Thinking Gray, and Free 2) Artful Listening 3) Experts: Saviors and Charlatans 4) You Are What You Read 5) Decisions, Decisions 6) Give the Devil His Due 7) Know Which Hill You're Willing to Die On 8) Work for Those Who Work for You 9) Follow the Leader 10) Being President Versus Doing President. The author then concludes the book with an illustrative example through his experience at the University of Southern California.

A great recommended read that brings fresh perspective on servant leadership!

Below are key excerpts from the book, that I found particularly insightful:

3- "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."

4- "...clients who benefited most from my services were leaders who never became too dependent on me, who always maintained their intellectual independence, and who never kidded themselves that expertise could be a substitute for leadership."

5- "The key contribution of the supertexts is not a set of timeless truths about leadership, but rather some timeless truths about human nature. One of the great fallacies of our age (and perhaps any age) is the belief that we are fundamentally different from our ancient forebears, that we have somehow outgrown the barbaric and benighted practices of centuries and millennia past...we are every bit as human, and no more human, that the characters in the Old Testament or the people of sixteenth-century Florence."

6- "All leaders, whether contrarian or otherwise, are heavily influenced bu what they read. Indeed, in many cases leaders are directed and inspired as much by their readings as they are by their closest advisers...In reading as in so many other areas, maintaining one's intellectual independence is an essential prerequisite for effective leadership."

7- "The contrarian leader's approach to decision making can be summarized in two general rule: 1) Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant. 2) Never make a decision today that can reasonably be pt off to tomorrow."

8- "The challenge for the leader isn't to delude himself into thinking that people are intrinsically better or worse than they really are; rather, it is to find ways to bring out the best in his followers (and in himself) while minimizing the worst."

9- "An outstanding candidate (for an open position) must be at least two notices above the leading insider in order to be a good risk."

10- "In the long run the most difficult part of building a diverse team of lieutenants is to integrate people whose intellectual and moral perspectives cover a wide spectrum and are not simply isomorphic with those of the leader."

11- "It has been my experience that money is often as essential element in attracting and retaining outstanding people...however I don't believe money is a very effective tool for inspiring people to reach for and achieve extraordinary goals; rather, the actual motivation in such instances seems to be pride or the desire to beat out the competition."

12- "The challenge is for the person at the top to be such an excellent supervisor - fair, supportive, demanding, a good listener, motivating, and inspiring - that these values will be internalized and replicated via people chains at every level in the organization."

13- "The contrarian leader knows that he himself must answer the question of what's right both a worldly and a moral perspective. This at times will make his experience more exhilarating than that of other leaders, and at times more excruciating. But it will always be his experience - one for which he willingly takes responsibility And what could be a greater or more meaningful adventure in leadership than that?"
Profile Image for kAnAAn hArdAwAy.
122 reviews
July 18, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Marie desJardins.
321 reviews
July 26, 2016
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 question has a black-and-white answer). My only quibble here is the odd wording that Sample uses to describe his interview process: "When my wife and I were interviewing..."

2. Artful listening/active learning - "listening gray" is something that doesn't come as naturally to me, because I am a very straightforward/candid person and I assume others will be the same. Hearing the nuance behind the words is a useful leadership skill that I continue to work on, and Sample's thoughts help to clarify the process and value of "listening gray." I very much approve of Sample's approach of "open communication with structured decision-making" -- anybody in the organization should be able to talk directly to any leader, but decisions resulting from those conversations should flow through organizational channels.

3. "Experts -- don't always trust them." I didn't get too much out of this chapter -- seems obvious.

4. Great suggestions of "great books" to read - Machiavelli's "The Prince," Plato's "Republic," Dante's "Divine Comedy." But the more I read this chapter, the more I felt that Sample would frown heavily on fiction reading and/or reading for pleasure. Oh, well, I guess I wouldn't score 100% on his leadership quiz.

5. Decisions - Delegate when you can, and postpone within reason.

6. Machiavelli as a fabulous role model. Hm, this felt pretty inappropriate as a leadership strategy for even a moderately well functioning academic institution. I think it's just a tricky topic to talk about (what can you take away from Machiavelli without buying into "the bad stuff") and I didn't think that this chapter succeeded especially well.

7. Know Which Hill You're Willing to Die On. OK, first of all, that should be "Know On Which Hill You're Willing to Die." :-) I was uncomfortable with the focus on morals and God, but I agree that ethical principles matter and prioritization is esseential.

8. Work for Those Who Work For You. Um, this just seems like a big "duh," especially for academic leaders. (But then again, plenty of academic leaders don't seem to follow this principle.)

9. Follow the Leader - this chapter seemed to define a leader as one who has and exercises "power and authority." I just disagree with that, particularly in an academic setting. You see people everywhere on campus who have leadership by communicating and convincing, even though they have no nominal power or authority. Maybe this is just a semantic disagreement.

10. Doing President - the big message I got out of this chapter is that much of your time as a university president/leader is spent on minutiae, and that you must often subordinate your personal goals to the goals of the organization and those who work for you. My favorite tidbit takeaway, though, was "Anything worth doing at all is worth doing just well enough." It reminds me of the concept of "satisficing" in decision theory - we don't always have to optimize everything we do; sometimes "satisficing" is good enough to make progress (and much better than doing nothing).
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