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Contrarian Leadership Style: 6 Ways Contrarians Think Differently

[fa icon="calendar'] Mar 2, 2018 3:41:25 PM / by Anna Montgomery, MPA


“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.” - Dr. Steven Sample

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Dr. Steven Sample, USC’s 10th president, is a respected author of leadership literature. His book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, is a distillation of his decades spent as a university president, director of corporate boards, civic leader, inventor and professor.

Is leadership an art or a science?

This dichotomy is one of the main distinctions between leadership experts. In his book Dr. Sample states, “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.”  

6 Ways Contrarian Leaders Think Differently

Dr. Sample's contrarian leadership style not only questions age old adages and aphorisms but even the foundation of leadership scholarship. Contrarian leadership is a powerful set of guideposts that enable professionals to excel in law enforcement, emergency services, nonprofit, and corporate environmentsBelow, are six ways contrarian leaders think differently so you can start integrating them with your daily activities.

1. Thinking Gray and Free

Thinking gray is about being liberated from binary thinking, being for or against an idea instantaneously, and enhancing intellectual and creative independence. Thinking gray goes beyond brainstorming alternative actions and sources of information to challenge foundational assumptions about decisions. Contrarian leaders must hold conflicting ideas and perspectives in their minds for long periods of time.

2. Delegate Decision Making

Delegating decision making to a subordinate when appropriate serves two primary functions. First, delegating strengthens the subordinate's capacity to make decisions and engages them more deeply. Second, it helps prevent one person from becoming a bottleneck to advancement.

Delegating decision making is similar to developing others, an integral component of the servant leadership style.


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3. Defer decision making

Dr. Sample’s next guidepost is to never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off until tomorrow. This may sound counterintuitive, but that's what contrarians are known for. If it is reasonable to wait, deferring decision making helps leaders avoid common mistakes such as making decisions too soon and flip-flopping when additional information is discovered.

Dr. Sample makes a distinction between artful procrastination and cowardly procrastination. Dr. Sample notes great military leaders like Rommel, Napoleon, and Washington who made decisions when they had to, and not a moment sooner. Leaders must act diligently to avoid risking losing control over the decision.

4. Listen to experts, but don't follow blindly

Consulting experts is a healthy step in the decision making process. Dr. Sample warns not to blindly trust experts. Experts may have their own agendas and foibles. Listening to experts while holding a conflicting perspective mitigates the tendency to go along with consensus opinion.

5. Balance selling and listening

Contrarian leaders know how to balance selling themselves, their vision and gaining input from followers. A leader who forgets to sell themselves may not survive when they encounter public relations problems. Leaders without vision don’t give followers a reason to follow, and a leader who doesn’t listen to followers comes across as a dictator. Dictatorial leaders miss out on engaging teams in creating a shared vision together.

6. Being vs. Doing

Dr. Sample emphasizes that many people want to be leaders but few want to do leadership. Prestige, power, and accolades drive the leader who wants to be in charge. Whereas, a leader that wants to do leadership understands that most of the time they'll preside over routine matters.

Leaders only spend a fraction of their time moving an important agenda forward. This is the nature of the job. Contrarian Leaders however, know how to make that time count by following counterintuitive and challenging guideposts.

The essence of ‘doing’ leadership was not a sterile exercise in observation for Dr. Sample, it was something he embodied during his stay at USC.

About Dr. Steven Sample

Steven B. Sample, USC's 10th president, led the university from 1991 to 2010.


“Steven Browning Sample, who served as USC’s 10th president from 1991 to 2010 — a time of remarkable transformation at the university — died March 29th, 2016. 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. Photo by Philip Channing.

Topics: Leadership Styles

Anna Montgomery, MPA

Written by Anna Montgomery, MPA

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

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