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November 22, 2001

Jack Covert Selects: Jack Covert Selects - The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 7:57 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

The Contrarians Guide to Leadership: by Steven B. Sample; Jossey-Bass; 192 pages; $24.00 Hardcover; October 15, 2001; 0787955876
When I picked up this book, I thought, Hmm. So this guy is the President of the University of Southern California. OK. Hes going to give a list of things he did to turn around his organization and then tell us we should do them too. Its going to be dry, bland, and academic. Boring. Boy, was I wrong. Way more than just a university president, Sample is an inventor, a musician, an engineer, a professor. Instead of just sitting behind a desk, he lives life. Thats why his ideas are so fresh, and why he has beenand isso successful at what he does. Hes constantly thinking gray and thinking free (Ill explain later)hes constantly thinking. Thats a hard thing to come by in todays world of leaders who have such definite proven philosophies that they stodgily do not evolve or grow past.
Samples philosophy is one of growth; its not one of following the rules: he says NOT to follow the rules because following the rules doesnt allow for growth. Dont follow the rules? OK! This is my kind of guy! True to the books title, he believes that being contrary leads to more possibilities, for once one decides on something, the growth of different possibilities stops.
The first chapter explains two core concepts of the bookthinking gray and thinking free. I thought with all the gray hair on my head, Id have the thinking gray part down quick. However, Samples concept is a little tricky. It goes against everything weve ever been taught about leaders and leadership. Sample posits that most people think in terms of pairs of extremes: good or bad, true or false, black or white. However, an effective leader looks at the context of an individual situation and is able to sees things in varying shades of gray; and then make smart decisions on how to go forward. Unlike many leadership theories that say a good leader is one who can quickly formulate an opinion on an important matter, Sample says the best thing a leader could do is not form an opinion right away. He says to hold out on forming a definite judgment until you have considered all facts and arguments, or until you are forced by circumstances to form an opinion. Why? When a leader succumbs to forming split second opinions, he closes his mind to facts and arguments that may come up later. Also, the leader may find himself flip-flopping, or going from one opinion to another as new information is presented to hima process which causes unnecessary and unproductive mental strain.
Thinking free is a related concept. It is a creative process of solving a problem in which one proposes extremeand even oppositionalsolutions, and thinks positively out to other different possible solutionsinstead of thinking down to the different reasons why a possible solution may not work. Thinking free allows for more possibilities, and more innovative ones at that.
The book as a whole is an intelligent (but easy to grasp) philosophical work that offers many good ideas for any reader who wants to become a more successful person as well as a more successful leader. I was surprised by some of the ideas, especially the one about how we should not read what everyone else is reading. However, after Sample explains why, I felt like I was in the know on a new secret weapon. This concept, like many in the book, uses common sense logic, but goes against the current flow of convention.
Going against the current has always been a hallmark of the great leader. Sample vigilantly reminds us of this and reiterates the importance of being contrarian in todays competitive and changing world.

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.