6 Ways Contrarian Leaders Think Differently

Steven B. Sample, USC's 10th president, led the university from 1991 to 2010. (Photo/Philip Channing)

Is leadership an art or a science, or a combination of the two? What scholars believe about this dichotomy is one of the main distinctions between leadership experts.

Dr. Steven Sample, USC’s former president, is a respected author of leadership literature. His book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, is a distillation of his decades as a university president, director of corporate boards, civic leader, inventor and professor.  His contrarian leadership style not only questions adages and aphorisms but even the foundation of leadership scholarship.

In his book he stated: “One must always keep in mind that leadership is an art, not a science. In this sense, leadership is more akin to music, painting and poetry than it is to more routinized endeavors.”

“Of all the different kinds of human capital, leadership may well be the most rare and precious . . . The key is to break free, if only fleetingly, from the bonds of conventional thinking so as to bring your natural creativity and intellectual independence to the fore.”

The essence of ‘doing’ leadership was not a sterile exercise in observation for Dr. Sample, it was something he embodied during his tenure at USC. The following infographic covers a few of Dr. Sample’s counterintuitive guideposts for enacting Contrarian Leadership.

Contrarian leadership is one leadership style that enables professionals to excel in executive healthcare careers. Below, we'll cover 6 ways contrarian leaders think differently so you can start integrating them with your daily activities.

6 Ways to Think Differently

Thinking Gray and Free

Thinking gray is about being liberated from binary thinking, being for or against an idea instantaneously. Dr. Sample argues that jumping to conclusions can cause leaders a number of problems including making decisions too soon, flip-flopping when additional information is discovered, and the tendency to go along with consensus opinion. Thinking gray goes beyond brainstorming alternative actions and sources of information to challenging foundational assumptions about decisions. Contrarian leaders must hold conflicting ideas and perspectives in their minds for long periods of time. Consulting experts is important to good decision making but he warns leaders not to blindly trust experts. Experts may have their own agendas and foibles. Which dovetails with another of Dr. Sample’s guideposts, defer decision making if it is reasonable to wait. Or even delegate the decision to a subordinate when appropriate.

Being Versus Doing

Contrarian leaders also know how to balance selling themselves and their vision to followers and gaining input from followers. A leader who forgets to sell themselves may not survive when they run into public relations problems. Leaders without vision, on the other hand, don’t give followers a reason to follow. In contrast, the leader who doesn’t listen to followers comes across as a dictator. Dictatorial leaders miss out on engaging followers in creating a shared vision together. Finally, Dr. Sample emphasizes that many people want to be leaders but few want to do leadership. Prestige, power, and accolades are the driver of the leader who wants to be in charge. Whereas, a leader that wants to do the day in, day out work of leadership understands that most of the time they will have to preside over routine matters. According to Dr. Sample leaders only spent a fraction of their time moving forward an important agenda. This is the nature of the job. Contrarian Leaders know how to make that time count by following counterintuitive and challenging guideposts.

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About Dr. Steven Sample

To read an expanded excerpt from Dr. Sample’s groundbreaking book on leadership go to Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership.

“Steven Browning Sample, who served as USC’s 10th president from 1991 to 2010 — a time of remarkable transformation at the university — died March 29. He was 75. During Sample’s 19-year tenure as president, the university ascended the national academic ranks. USC became a highly selective undergraduate university, recruited many nationally prominent faculty, created a global presence, completed what was at the time the largest fundraising campaign ever in higher education and built partnerships in the communities surrounding USC’s campuses,” from Sue Vogl and Lynn Lipinski’s In memoriam: USC President Emeritus Steven B. Sample, 75.

Anna Montgomery, MPA

Written by Anna Montgomery, MPA

Anna Montgomery earned her MPA at USC Price and is pursuing her EdD at USC Rossier.