Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A leader must break free of the wisdom of the herd, and strike out in bold new directions.”





In 2002 Steve Sample, Tenth President of the University of Southern California penned the book, “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership”   I was reminded of this great little read during a discussion with a business colleague today. Not surprising, when I found my copy it was full of many long-forgotten marginal notes and post-it stickers (also covered with my characteristically unreadable scrawl).

The key take-away of the book is that most people are incapable of truly original or independent thought, but a leader must have that ability.  Sample draws heavily on classical works from Shakespeare to Machiavelli to Abraham Lincoln to support this proposition.  As an aside, his recommendations for a reading list are fun, and…well, contrarian.

A leader’s vision is important, but just as critical is this ability to “think free” and consider a range of ideas.  I’m digging deeper into the book as I’m finding it fascinating to revisit after 12 years during which my experiences give me a richer reference point (and will probably post some further comments.

My dictionary defines contrarian as “one who opposes or rejects popular opinion”.  That certainly sounds like free thinking.  Sample pulls together a few contrarian principles “which will help a leader break free of the wisdom of the herd, and strike out in bold new directions.”

1.    Think gray: try not to form firm opinions about ideas or people unless and until you have to.

2.    Think free: train yourself to move several steps beyond traditional brainstorming by considering really outrageous solutions and approaches.

3.    Listen first, talk later.  And when you listen, do so artfully.

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

5.    Beware of pseudoscience masquerading as incontrovertible fact or unassailable wisdom; it typically will do nothing to serve your interests or those of the organization you are leading.

6.    Dig for gold in the subtext while your competition stays mired down in trade publications and other ephemera.  You can depend on your lieutenants to give you any current news that really matters.

7.    Never make a decision yourself that can be reasonably delegated to a lieutenant and never make a decision today that can reasonably put off till tomorrow.

8.    Ignore sunk costs and yesterday’s mistakes.  The decisions you make as a leader can only affect the future not the past.

9.    Don't unnecessarily humiliate a defeated opponent.

10.   Know which hill you’re willing to die on, and realize that your choice may at some point require you to retreat from all the surrounding hills.

11.   Work for those who work for you; recruit the best lieutenants available, and then spend most of your time and energy helping them to succeed.

12.   Many people want to be leader, but few want to do leader.  If you are not in the latter group you should stay away from the leadership business altogether.

13.   You as a leader can't really run your organization; rather you can only lead individual followers, who then collectively give motion and substance to the organization of which you are the head.

14.   Don't delude yourself into thinking that people are intrinsically better or worse than they really are; instead work to bring the best in your followers (and yourself) while minimizing the worst.

15.   You can't copy your way to excellence; rather true excellence can only be achieved through original thinking and unconventional approaches.

Sample records that these principles are based in a belief that leadership is highly situational and contingent.  He rightly states that “every leader is locked in a moment-to-moment struggle with the context and circumstances of his own place and time”.   The leader must work hard to master the struggle.

Reference: S B Sample (2002) The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership.  Jossey-Bass.  ISBN 0 7879 5587 6

Ends

A good leader is always willing to do the dirty work.

Leadership is a diverse topic, and there is an enormous literature that surrounds it.  Social media abounds with “insights”, to the extent that I have recently begun reflecting on what I have learnt about leading over the last 30 years in the work force. Not much seems to be new!! 
 One dominant theme in the social media is an attempt to describe good leadership.  The following is an older contribution from Schmertz and Novak on the topic that seems to cover much of what is advocated in more contemporary contributions.

A good leader
  • is always willing to do the dirty work.  He'll sweep out the store if that's what's required to make a project succeed.  If everyone on the team has to make a sacrifice, he'll set an example for others to follow.
  • isn't afraid to hire people who are smarter or more creative than himself.  He knows that if he goes to the usual mediocre sources, he's going to end up with the usual mediocre results.  A real leader can harness the energy of creative people in a way that will enhance the entire enterprise.  Since most people "per se" are mediocre, the true leader can be recognised because, somehow or other, his people consistently turn in superior performances.
  • is enthusiastic during tough times.  Leaders who constantly complain about a bad situation can rarely motivate the troops and help them to overcome adversity.  In a crisis, optimism and confidence are even more important than experience and intelligence.
  • has vision.  In our experience there are two kinds of leader - the "lets-not" and the "why-not".  When times are tough, the lets-not prefer to retreat, to stay with the familiar, to avoid taking risks.  The why-nots, on the other hand, are open to fresh ideas and bold possibilities.  If the old answers don't work, they're willing to experiment with new and unconventional solutions.
  • is tough - a quality that has less to do with personality than with character.  It's not that the tough leader is abrasive, or uncaring, or insensitive.  It's simply that he's willing and able to make the difficult and unpopular decisions - and live with their consequences.
  • holds a set of philosophical principles that guide him when it comes to specific issues.  Rather than making decisions on an ad hoc basis, he has formed some conclusions about the basic objectives of the organisation and about how those objectives should be reached. By the same token, he knows that the long-term health and survival of the organisation must take precedence always over short-term gains.

See:  Schmertz H and Novak W (1986)  Goodbye to the low profile.  The art of creative confrontation.  London: Mercury Books


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