A leader must break free of the wisdom of the herd, and strike out in bold new directions.
In 2002 Steve Sample, Tenth President of the University of Southern California penned the book “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership”. I was reminded of this great little read during a discussion with a business colleague today. Not surprising, when I found my copy it was full of many long-forgotten marginal notes and post-it stickers (also covered with my characteristically unreadable scrawl).
The key take-away of the book is that most people are incapable of truly original or independent thought, but a leader must have that ability. Sample draws heavily on classical works from Shakespeare to Machiavelli to Abraham Lincoln to support this proposition. As an aside, his recommendations for a reading list are fun, and…well, contrarian.
A leader’s vision is important, but just as critical is this ability to “think free” and consider a range of ideas.
My dictionary defines contrarian as “one who opposes or rejects popular opinion”. That certainly sounds like free thinking. Sample pulls together a few contrarian principles “which will help a leader break free of the wisdom of the herd, and strike out in bold new directions.”
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 approaches.
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 organisation you are leading.
6. Dig for gold in the subtext 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 matters.
7. Never make a decision yourself that can be reasonably delegated to a lieutenant and never make a decision today that can reasonably put off till 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 hill you’re 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 leadership business altogether.
13. You as a leader can’t really run your organisation; rather you can only lead individual followers, who then collectively give motion and substance to the organisation 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 the best in your followers (and yourself) while minimising the worst.
15. You can’t copy your way to excellence; rather true excellence can only be achieved through original thinking and unconventional approaches.
Sample records that these principles are based in a belief that leadership is highly situational and contingent. He rightly states that “every leader is locked in a moment-to-moment struggle with the context and circumstances of his own place and time”. The leader must work hard to master the struggle.
Reference: S B Sample (2002) The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0 7879 5587 6
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