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Paul Manning, (2002) "The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership", Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 23 Issue: 5, pp.293-294,
The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership
Steven B. Sample
2002-03-09 192 pp
ISBN 0-7879-5587-6
Leadership Development, Supertexts
Steven B. Sample’s ‘The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership’ calls widely on the
authors’ impressive range of leadership experience, including striking examples from
his current position as president of the University of Southern California (USC). This
is both a strength and, at times, a weakness of this provocative consideration of
effective leadership: a strength because the author offers a number of insightful
observations based on his own experiences, a weakness because too often anecdotes
are presented when analysis is needed to support the leadership concepts under
discussion. Written from an American perspective, non-American’s will find the
syntax challenging, for instance, in the acknowledgements, the author comments on a
colleague’s assistance in writing the book, ‘… I would never have gotten it done
without Rob’s persistent handholding, creative ideas and brilliant editorial skills.’
The introduction sets out the author’s central conceits that leadership is highly
situational and contingent. He also contends that leadership can be taught and learned;
but not by mimicking a famous exponent of leadership or by slavishly adhering to
conventional wisdom. Of course, the extent to which there is a canon of conventional
wisdom on leadership in practice is open to debate. Sample also reveals that his
inspiration for this book, in part, derives from the ‘privilege’ of co-teaching-with
Warren Bennis-a course on leadership to ‘USC’s brightest’. Leaders studied range
from Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald
Reagan and it would have been instructive if the criteria for choosing these exemplars
of leadership had been revealed.
Chapter one is indicative of the breathless style of the rest of the book. Aristotle,
Napoleon, Washington, Rommel, Teddy Rooseveld, Soloman Asch, J. Robert
Oppenheimer, Franklin Roosevelt, Orson Welles, Nietzche, Motzart, Picasso and
Shakespeare are all mentioned within the space of twelve pages. This profusion of
name-checks slightly derides from the rest of the chapter, which contains a number of
incisive observations, such as the practice of leadership being an art, not a science and
on the necessity of avoiding ‘binary and instant judgments’.
Chapter two considers the necessity of artful listening in achieving excellence in
leadership. An opinionated chapter follows; this considers the role of experts,
emphasising that leaders should maintain their intellectual independence and not
confuse expertise for leadership. These observations are well developed. However the
author is also willing to offer intemperate criticisms, presumably in what he would
term a ‘contrarian’ fashion. For example, Freud is dismissed as too fuzzy, Wright’s
architecture is labelled ‘a dismal failure’ and elsewhere he opines, ’I’m always
astounded by the extent of the herd instinct within the artistic profession,’ concluding
that most of them are, ‘…slaves to fashion.’ If nothing else this approach will provoke
a reaction from the reader.
The next chapter continues in the same controversial vein. Entitled ‘You Are What
You Read’ the author argues that reading can sap intellectual independence. As
evidence for this the author boasts about the benefits of his experiment in shunning
newspapers and the media for six months. In contrast, the author admits, apart from
the previously mentioned reading hiatus, to spending thirty minutes a day reading. In
his own words, the result has been that, ’...I’ve gotten a pretty good liberal education,
especially for an engineer.’ From this lofty, self-educated vantage Sample then
introduces writers that offer ‘timeless truths about human nature’. To be sure, these,
‘supertexts’ are the ones oft- referenced in tones on leadership. However, it would
have been informative if a more lengthy discussion on the criteria for inclusion into
the ‘supertexts’ had been included.
Chapter five coherently considers decision-making, finding time to praise Reagan’s
crisis management when he personally fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
There is also a baffling reference to Greek houses and Greek life at the author’s
Chapter six offers an unusual interpretation of Machiavelli and although the author is
certainly not a Renaissance historian, he approaches ‘Uncle Niccolo’ with freshness
and spiritedly promotes the benefits for modern leaders in considering the brutal
philosophy of the Florentine. However, the value of the author’s lengthy quotes is
limited by his failure to provide any referencing. Chapter seven develops these
‘realpolitik’ ideas by considering historical figures such as Thomas Moore and Henry
VIII-the latter being described as a ‘...morally depraved pig who murdered his wives’!
The message of this chapter is for the leader to select with care the areas that they
regard as essential to their ability to succeed as a leader. Chapter eight contains
practical advice on how best to manage colleagues, discussing hiring and firing
strategies, the value of job descriptions and the necessity of championing diversity
within organisations.
The next two chapters offer a definition of a leader as, ‘someone who has identifiable
followers over whom he exercises power and authority through his actions and
decisions,’ a sound definition. In addition, there is a provocative observation on the
metaphor of war, which the author contends serves to power the free market resulting
in heightened efficiency and more brilliantly sharpened leadership. Chapter ten
discuss the realities of leadership and references the authors varied leadership
experiences. The concluding chapter offers a case study that illustrates the author’s
‘Contrarian Leadership’ during his tenure as president of the USC, baldly revealing
this leadership concept in action
This is a self-confident book with the author promiscuously blending his own
experiences with interpretations on the leadership lessons to be gleaned from the
‘greats’ from history. It is anecdotal, name drops to a prodigious degree, yet it is worth
reading for the insights it offers on leadership in contemporary American higher
Paul Manning
The University of Liverpool
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