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Soundview Executive Book SummariesIn The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership, Steven Sample, the president of the University of Southern California (USC) offers his no-holds-barred, unconventional wisdom on what it takes to be a great leader.
He writes that contrarian leaders think differently from other people. They maintain their intellectual independence by thinking gray, and enhance their intellectual creativity by thinking free. Contrarian wisdom holds that judgments should be arrived at slowly or not at all. Most people immediately categorize things as good or bad, true or false, friend or foe. Sample explains that truly effective leaders see shades of gray.
Thinking Gray and Free
Sample writes that the essence of thinking gray is this: Don't form an opinion about an important matter until you have heard all the relevant facts and arguments or until circumstances force you to form an opinion. Resist the temptation to immediately classify everything you read or hear as either true or false, good or bad, right or wrong, useless or useful.
A close cousin of thinking gray is thinking free - free from all prior restraints. Sample writes that the key to thinking free is to first allow your mind to contemplate really outrageous ideas, and only later apply constraints of practicality, practicability, legality, cost, time and ethics.
According to Sample, contrarian leaders know it is better to listen first and talk later. And when they listen, they do so artfully because artful listening is an excellent means of acquiring new ideas and gathering and assessing information. If leaders can listen attentively without rushing to judgment, they will often get a fresh perspective that will help them think independently. He writes that a good leader listens carefully to his or her inner circle and even the most obnoxious self-appointed advisers.
Listening gray requires open communication at all levels of the organization, he writes. It requires that leaders avoid categorizing people into an "A" list and a "B" list, and means they should not dismiss ideas strictly because of who they come from. He also adds that a leader should pay close attention to experts but never take them too seriously, and never trust them completely. Sample writes that it helps to clarify the roles experts and leaders should play. Experts are deep specialists whose role is to offer leaders greater insight than they have in one small area; the leader's role should be to integrate the advice of several experts into a coherent course of action.
According to Sample, to be an effective leader, a person must be able to lay down rules and evenhandedly punish those who violate them. Evenhanded but tough justice inspires a sense of security among followers.
Decision-making is another major element of leadership. It can be fun, exhilarating, an ego trip, a tremendous burden, agonizing and scary. A leader's legacy is determined by the long-term effects of his or her decisions. Sample summarizes the contrarian's approach to decision-making in two general rules:
- Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant.
- Never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off until tomorrow.
Most people confuse good leadership with effective leadership, but the contrarian leader knows that there is an enormous difference between the two. Being a leader sometimes requires making tough moral decisions. Sample writes that moral choosing requires that you "decide which hill you're willing to die on." Good leaders need to perform a delicate balancing act. Sample explains that a contrarian leader must develop and hold moral convictions, but remain as open as possible to the strongly held moral beliefs of others.
Sample writes that contrarian leaders support those who work for them, and advises leaders to spend 90 percent of their time supporting their employees, and 10 percent hiring, evaluating and firing them. He writes that leaders should accept them as equals, and should work for those who work for them.
Hire Those Stronger Than You
Sample writes that leaders should hire the best possible people, and beware of the common tactic of hiring those who are weaker than themselves. In an ideal world, he writes, leaders would only hire those who are stronger than themselves.
Before one can lead, one must acquire followers. Sample writes that to gather followers, leaders must sell themselves first, and their visions and policies second. Contrarian leaders also understand that if they seek out leadership positions with a well-established podium, the task of getting followers will be easier.
Once a top leadership position has been attained, Sample advises, leaders should use the rule of 70/30. Up to 30 percent of their time should be spent on substantive matters and the remaining 70 percent on matters that are trivial or routine. He writes that 30 percent might not seem like a lot, but it really is.
Why Soundview Likes This Book
The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership is an inspiring book from a man who has spent much time leading and learning about successfully turning an organization around. His impressive academic background and business accomplishments lend credibility to his insightful book, and his no-nonsense approach makes it a fascinating look at how leaders can become more effective by eliminating many bad ideas from the leadership toolbox. Copyright (c) 2002 Soundview Executive Book Summaries