The Contrarian Leader: Questioning Conventional Wisdom Puts a New Spin on Leadership
by Ellen Stuhlmann - Managing Director of ExecuNet

With new leadership books hitting the bookstores daily, there's no shortage of material on how to become an effective executive. Some tout tried and true methods; others attempt to break through with new leadership principles. In his book The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership, Steven B. Sample challenges readers to look at leadership from a new perspective - with a willingness to question and sometimes defy conventional wisdom. Currently president of the University of Southern California, Sample also is an electrical engineer, musician, professor and inventor.

We talked to him recently about what it means to be a contrarian leader. Here is what he had to say:

ExecuNet: What are the most significant hallmarks of contrarian leadership?

Sample: There are several, but two contrarian rules in particular are good examples of questioning conventional wisdom for decision-making. They are: never make a decision that can reasonably be delegated and never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off until tomorrow. On the surface these two are very contrary to conventional wisdom, but on the other hand, the weasel word is reasonably.

So what it really says is the contrarian leader will try to delegate whenever possible because she knows it will strengthen the lieutenant or subordinate. And the contrarian leader knows she has to allow lieutenants to make as many decisions as is reasonably within their capacity to make, even if it means from time to time that they will make mistakes that the leader might have avoided.

With respect to timing, almost all great leaders have understood that making quick decisions is typically counter-productive. I'm not talking about what to have for breakfast or what tie to wear today. President Harry Truman almost personified this concept. When anyone told him they needed a decision, the first thing he would ask is "how much time do I have - a week, 10 seconds, six months?" What he understood was that the nature of the decision that a leader makes depends to a large extent on how much time he has in which to make it. He also understood that delaying a decision as long as reasonably possible generally leads to the best decisions being made.

ExecuNet: So there are times when procrastination is a good thing?

Sample: Even in the military - where we have the image of military leaders making snap decisions all the time - the greatest generals understood not to make a decision until they had to. Rommel, Napoleon, Washington. They all understood the difference between what I call artful procrastination and cowardly procrastination. The danger with cowardly procrastination is that the leader waits too long and in the process allows the decision to be taken out of her hands. So it is important to understand the difference between artful and cowardly. Remember, too, that we're talking about leaders. This rule may be very bad advice for managers, but very good advice for leaders.

ExecuNet: So do contrarian leaders ignore conventional wisdom?

Sample: Contrarian leadership in a number of ways goes a little bit against the grain. It questions conventional wisdom but doesn't reject it out of hand. Most conventional wisdom about leadership is absolutely right, so this isn't a total rejection of conventional wisdom. But the contrarian leader is always suspicious of conventional wisdom and is willing to go against it when it's in the best interest of his organization or institution to do so.

ExecuNet: What can a leader gain by taking this approach?

Sample: One of the precepts in the book is that you can't copy your way to excellence. So I think a person who practices some of the principles of contrarian leadership is in a better position when the going gets really tough to understand that she can't just try to catch up with her competitors; that's not a formula for winners. If a person is regularly able to question conventional wisdom then on the really important issues she has a better chance of seeing the new direction that will allow her not just to catch up with competitors, but to leapfrog over her competitors.

ExecuNet: One of your contrarian principles is "thinking free." What does that mean?

Sample: Thinking free is forcing yourself to consider absolutely outrageous and impractical approaches, not because in the end you believe you will adopt an outrageous approach, but because it's that process that frees up your mind so that your mind begins to seriously consider new ideas and fresh approaches to a particular problem and opportunity. Our minds tend to run in very deep ruts. That is part of being human. I was a successful inventor and often times the best inventions in a field are from people who are too na´ve and too ignorant to know all the compelling reasons why something couldn't be done. They didn't know it couldn't be done so they came up with a way to do it.

ExecuNet: What are some other important concepts in contrarian leadership?

Sample: I think taking responsibility for your own actions and that of your organization is pretty contrarian. A lot of people try to make their careers -- and are successful in the early stages - by pawning responsibility off on others and never having to take the heat. Most leaders are made or broken based on the performance of their lieutenants or direct reports. That point is missed a lot in books on leadership and management. So probably the most important thing a leader does is select, nurture encourage, chastise, compensate and, when necessary, fire his or her direct reports. The contrarian leader believes that leaders should be the first assistant to their direct reports. One of the leader's primary jobs is working on behalf of those subordinates to help the subordinates get their jobs done and to do it well. That's a very contrarian idea, even in this era of fuzzy feelings about bureaucratic structure.

It's also important to note that a leader can never shed the moral responsibility for her actions and her decisions. Rather than trying to duck it and pretend that good leadership is just a matter of technique I think it's better for the leader to understand that she is going to be judged by her own moral standards and by those who are her lieutenants and followers and just accept that responsibility from the outset.

ExecuNet: Being a contrarian leader requires a change in the way leaders think. Do you think it's hard for most leaders to take this approach?

Sample: I don't think it's easy but I don't think it's really difficult. My suggestion is the place to start in becoming a contrarian leader is called "thinking gray." It turns out that we're all programmed in a binary way. When we hear something we immediately decide whether it is good or bad, useful or not useful. There is no reason to decide right away, with limited information.

Thinking gray is being able to take in a new idea that someone has and hold it in suspense right away, without deciding one way or the other. It turns out that's not a natural act. It is very difficult for people to do, but it is a very, very powerful asset and it's a good place if a person wants to experiment with contrarian leadership.

The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership
by Steven B. Sample and Warren Bennis,
Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated,
October 2001.

Ellen Stuhlmann is Managing Director of ExecuNet. ExecuNet is recognized as the Internet's most comprehensive resource for effective career management, exclusively for executives and senior-level managers with salaries above $100,000. Founded in 1988 and online since 1995, ExecuNet is the nation's first and most respected online executive career site. ExecuNet is a community of senior level executives, and has served more than 50,000 executives and 5,000 companies and executive recruiters by posting more than 30,000 executive positions annually.

Reproduced with permission of ExecuNet.

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