The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership


August 2002

The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership

CIDMIconNewsletter Wendy Sedbrook, Consultant, Comtech Services, Inc.

A contrarian is defined as a person who takes a contrary position or attitude; specifically, an investor who buys shares of stock when most others are selling and sells when others are buying. In other words, a contrarian is an individual who thinks for himself and walks to the beat of his own drum. In The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2002), Steven Sample walks us through the elements of a contrarian leader.

Thinking and Listening Gray

First, Sample engages us in the concept of thinking gray. By his definition, thinking gray means taking in information and suspending judgment with respect to its truth or falsity as long as possible. The concept of thinking gray is a bit unnatural in the sense that we are typically binary thinkers. It requires a conscious effort to change the way in which our minds process information. We form opinions before it is necessary to do so, flipflop between decisions, and believe what others believe. What would happen if we suspended judgments or decisions as long as possible to allow our minds to create new ideas with the same information to solve a problem? Sample refers to this process as free-thinking or creative imagination. It is very unnatural for us to abandon what we know in order to suspend judgment. But, suspending judgment is exactly what he is suggesting.

The other side of the coin, according to Sample, is listening gray, which means absorbing stories, reports, complaints, posturing, accusations, and extravagant claims without immediately offering a definitive response. This restraint is extremely hard. By nature we are trained to deliver instant responses.

The Supertexts

Sample spends an entire chapter discussing the idea that you are what you read. His point: If you think reading only the latest CIO magazine or even the latest Best Practices newsletter is better than reading Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, or Homer, you are doing yourself a disservice. Sample agrees that staying connected with the media and best practices is important, but he also believes that the most important truths can be learned from texts that have stood the test of time. His advice: Don’t forget to read the supertexts in favor of periodicals that espouse opinions that change yearly, monthly, and daily. Contrarian leaders read and reread the supertexts as frequently as possible and limit the daily intake of newspapers. So, dig out the books from your undergraduate philosophy class and re-read the supertexts.

Delegation and Decision-Making

According to Sample, never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to one of your employees, and never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off until tomorrow. Sample uses the term artful procrastination. Timing is everything here, and judgment is key. Remember to have a clear understanding of decision deadlines. If someone needs an answer in an hour, obviously you can’t wait until tomorrow. Make sure that the answer is really needed in an hour and it is not just a preference. Remember that delegating a decision doesn’t relieve you of responsibility.

The benefits of delegating a decision are time savings for you as well as developing and nurturing your employees. To delegate, there must be a clear understanding of urgent versus important decisions.

Leadership Morality

Do you practice ethical and moral leadership? Sample poses a scenario. You are driving a bus. There is a cliff to the right side and a two hundred foot drop-off to the left. As you turn the corner, a 5-year-old girl is retrieving her ball. You have three choices: Stay on course and kill the girl, intentionally swerve and kill yourself by falling over the drop-off, or hit the brakes, skid, swerve, killing both yourself and girl. What do you do? Is it possible to make a choice? You may be noble now and say you would sacrifice yourself, but in the immediate situation, would you react differently?

Sample’s belief is that the contrarian leader must choose his moral course of action moment by moment and accept undiminished responsibility for the full scope and effect of his choices. Some leaders avoid moral consideration. “Develop and hold your own moral convictions, while being as open as possible to the strongly held moral beliefs of others,” states Sample.

He continues by saying, “You should be the first assistant to the people who work for you.” Leadership is about the people who work for you, not how high you are above them. “Contrarian leaders know that great people, not great job descriptions, make an organization successful.” Always be available to your staff. You are only a leader if you have followers.


Sample offers some concrete principles that will lead to effective leadership practices. He also sites many examples from his role and experiences in the university setting that help the reader understand how to apply the concepts he is introducing.

As with most books on leadership, the ideas may only be the latest fad. Try the concepts. If you don’t like them or they aren’t applicable, you haven’t lost much time because the book is a quick and easy read. In a concise, indirect approach, Sample puts much emphasis on “the self” in terms of your character, values, morals, ethics, and history. I appreciate his acknowledgement of that, and I believe that understanding our own qualities is an important and necessary attribute to being an effective leader. Sample’s concepts are useful but take practice. The ability to think and listen gray and practice artful procrastination are fundamental principles that will assist you in excellent leadership. CIDMIconNewsletter