The contrarian’s guide to leadership

Without exaggeration, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership is one of the most insightful and compelling books on leadership I’ve read. Steven Sample is an analytical practitioner of the highest calibre. He’s an electrical engineer, musician, outdoorsman, professor, and inventor. For nearly 20 years Sample served as the president of the University of Southern California, leading it to become one of the premier universities in the US. This book is the product of research, reflection, observations and experience, woven together with wisdom and clarity. Many books about leadership are riddled with predictable cliches, whereas The Contrarian’s Guide offers fresh and profound insights in every chapter.

1. Thinking gray, and free

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.  (p7-8)

Sample explains how we often jump to conclusions, flip-flop between ideas, or believe things which we think are strongly believed by others. Thinking gray, suspending our binary instincts, filing away our first impressions, helps the leader to consider weighty issues more carefully. Free thinking takes ‘thinking outside the box’ and ‘brainstorming’ to the next level. It involves contemplating outrageous ideas without restraints, well-worn ruts, passions and prejudices getting in the way. A creative imagination, or the ability to encourage this in others, is a huge asset for a quality leader.

2. Artful listening

The average person suffers from three delusions: (1) that he is a good driver, (2) that he has a good sense of humor, and (3) that he is a good listener.  (p21)

Listening is a vital skill for a leader. It’s better to listen first and talk later. As we listen, so we learn, show respect for others, and gain the capacity to make wise decisions. Artful listening connects the leader to new perspectives that enable her to think independently and creatively. Costly misunderstandings and mistakes are often avoided when time is taken to hear from the right people.

3. Experts: Saviors and Charlatans

Experts can be helpful, but they’re no substitute for your own critical thinking and discernment.  (p189)

Sample argues that it’s necessary for an expert to be a ‘deep specialist’ and for a leader to be a ‘deep generalist’. The expert will know more than the leader in a specific field, but the leader needs to be able to integrate the advice of different experts into a coherent course of action. Leaders should never become too dependent on experts, they should maintain their intellectual independence and they should never kid themselves that expertise can be substituted for leadership.

4. You are what you read

In these tempestuous times it often appears that everything is changing, and changing at an increasingly rapid rate. In such an environment a leader can gain a tremendous competitive advantage by being able to discern the few things that are not changing at all, or changing only slowly or slightly. And nothing can help him do that better than developing a close relationship with a few of the supertexts.  (p57-58)

Not many books are still read 10 years after they’re published, let alone 50 years, or centuries later. Such enduring texts are significantly influential. Sample believes that such literature includes The Bible, The Qur’an, Plato’s Republic, the plays of Shakespeare, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and a handful of others. He describes them as supertexts due to their endurance and influence.

I expected Sample to be a freak who devours hundreds of books annually, but he focuses on only a few books and maintains a regular diet of truly significant writings. He briefly scans the newspaper, more for entertainment than information, and replaces his reading time with books of substance. He’s far more interested in understanding original ideas than reading another popular book that repackages and regurgitates the same old stuff. Sample recommends the advice of  Thoreau: “Read only the best books first, lest there not be time enough to read them all.”

This advice resonates strongly with my experience as a pastor, teacher and leader. Every week more books are published in my fields of interest than I could read in a year – if not a lifetime. I can’t keep up with all the latest fads and ideas. But nor do I need to. What offers the greatest reward is concentrating on the supertext that guides me in every area of life. This book was given to me by my grandparents when I was 6 years old and they highlighted these words inside the front cover…

Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
(Psalm 119:105 Revised Standard Version Bible)

5. Decisions, decisions

The contrarian leader’s approach to decision making can be summed up in two general rules:

1. Never make a decision yourself that can be reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant.  (p71)

2. Never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow.  (p72)

The key is to work out what’s reasonable, and this requires skill and practice. Sample argues that the leader must maintain responsibility for hiring and firing key staff, and making the decisions that will have the greatest impact on the organisation. He also argues for artful procrastination, allowing time to make better informed and wiser decisions. Of course, leaving things too long will result in missed opportunities or new problems developing.

6. Give the Devil his due

We must accept the fact that human beings and their institutions hardly ever measure up to our noblest ideals, and that to pretend otherwise is to invite ruin.  (p102)

Sample is a great fan of Machiavelli’s, The Prince. This chapter is his apologetic for drawing on the wisdom of this controversial writer. One of Machiavelli’s strengths is his honesty about the complexity of the human condition. People have capacity for both atrocity and altruism. The contrarian leader won’t be naive about the people and circumstances he’s dealing with. Many decisions will be very complex and the leader must discern the pitfalls of various options and choose the best on offer, knowing that there is no perfect solution.

7. Know which hill you’re willing to die on

When he turned 16, Sample was given the same advice by his father that my father gave me and that I’ve since passed on to my children:

“If a cat or dog or squirrel (or kangaroo in Australia!) runs in front of your car,” he told me, “just steel yourself and kill it like a man. You have the responsibility not to endanger people in your car or in other cars by swerving in an effort to save the animal.”  (p107)

Let me tell you, this is hard to do, and I’ve hit a few kangaroos in my time! But I’ve also seen people wipe out themselves and still hit the kangaroo by attempting to swerve. Some decisions are very tough and some are much tougher than the one above. Moral choices can be incredibly complex. Sample asks us to choose what hill we’re willing to die on. In other words, what moral compass will guide us to work out what we will and won’t do as leaders? The ethical dimensions of leadership are very important and they require us to ask difficult questions of ourselves. Every leader must come to terms with their own moral beliefs and be accountable for the decisions they make based on those beliefs. What you believe or don’t believe about God will play a significant part in this.

8. Work for those who work for you

If a would be leader wants glamour, he should try acting in the movies. However, if he in fact wants to make a consequential impact on a cause or organization, he needs to roll up his sleeves and be prepared to perform a series of grungy chores which are putatively beneath him, and for which he’ll never receive recognition or credit, but by virtue of  which his lieutenants will be inspired and enabled to achieve great things.  (p122)

I loved this chapter – haven’t always lived it out – but I love what it teaches! There is great wisdom here about who we employ and how we support them once they’re employed. There is sober advice about firing people, and how the leader should always do this in person. There are excellent recommendations for evaluating, assessing and equipping our key staff.

Choosing these people, motivating them, supporting them, helping them grow and achieve, inspiring them, evaluating them and firing them are among the most important things a leader does.  (p139)

9. Follow the Leader

Whatever the basis of his authority may be, when an effective leader turns in a new direction his followers turn with him; that’s the test of real leadership. To paraphrase Harry Truman, leadership in involves getting others to move in a new direction in which they’re not naturally inclined to move on their own.  (p142)

Sample identifies a number of skills required by effective leaders. Premium among these is communication. Words are their tools. Most highly effective leaders have an excellent command of language, either spoken or written or both. The most powerful form of communication between a leader and his followers is the spoken word. It’s not the email, bulletin or memo that’s going to inspire people – it’s direct, face to face, oral speech.

Leadership is about people; connecting with real people one to one. A leader may not be able to do this with everyone in the organisation, but it’s important that someone can and does. Sample emphasises the power and leverage of people chains, through which the leaders goals, vision and values are communicated orally and personally to every follower. Jesus was amazingly effective at achieving leadership leverage through people chains. A dozen followers grew to 120, then thousands, then thousands more, such that 2000 years later millions of people continue to follow him.

10. Being president versus doing president

The best physician won’t necessarily make a good hospital administrator or medical dean, the best engineer won’t necessarily make a good division president, the best teacher won’t necessarily make a good school principal, and the best athlete won’t necessarily make a good coach. There is no shame, and often much merit, in a person’s simply deciding he’s not cut out to have power and authority over, and responsibility for, a large number of followers.  (p161)

To which I would add from the world of my experience, the best people serving others in Christian ministry won’t necessarily make a good leader of a church. Effective leaders need to be well tuned to the people around them and they need to be clear on where they’re taking people and how they will do it. It’s important for would-be leaders to recognise that leadership often removes them from doing what they’re best at and enjoy doing the most. That remains the privilege of those who serve under them. In fact, Sample argues that even the best leaders, under ideal conditions, will spend less than 30% of their time and effort on substantive matters. The rest of the time will be spent reacting to or presiding over trivial, routine, or ephemeral matters. Wanting to be the leader and wanting to do the work of a leader are two very different things!


If you’re a leader or a would-be leader then I’d put this on your short list of recommended reading. If you’re wanting some fresh input on leadership then get hold of this book. There are plenty of pearls to be plucked from its pages. Many of my texts on leadership are built on an explicitly Christian platform, deriving their message from the Bible. This isn’t one of them. Who knows, Steven Sample may be a follower of Jesus. He’s certainly familiar with Christianity’s supertext and much of his wisdom resonates with things I’ve learned from the Bible. Like any other good book, this one needs to be read with discernment and with a view to application.

Let me finish with the following quote:

…before you spend several hours carefully reading a relatively new book, you deserve a thoughtful preview from a person whose passions and prejudices are familiar to you. In many cases you’ll find that this thoughtful preview is all you’ll ever want or need to know about that particular book.  (p70)

Kind of justifies this blog, doesn’t it?! 😉

3 thoughts on “The contrarian’s guide to leadership”

  1. Dave, thanks for your hard work in reviewing the good books from all the ones you’ve read. A great service to other leaders. And truly a sad but good providence from God via your circumstances, as your other recent post said.

  2. Dave – enough already! Argh!!! my reading pile is getting out of control – will have to add this one to my long-service-reading stack. Seriously though – huge thanks for putting such a solid reading list together. It is a great gift you are providing so i don’t have to read so much rubbish to get to the gold. Keep it up. In Him, Dom

  3. Dave – Ed Vaughan gave me this book to read a couple of years ago, it’s great. In fact I think it’s the best thing on leadership I’ve read. Especially the chapter about, you employ people and then spend the rest of the time working for them, ie helping them get their jobs done, not doing their job for them, but lending some influence or a push on a door here or there.
    It’s a great book.
    Al Stewart

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