top of page
the Contrarian's Guide to Leadership. By Stephen Sample

•Do everything possible to help your direct reports succeed.  You should be the first assistant to the people who work for you.


•The best executive is the one who recruits the most competent men around, tells them what he wants done, and then gets out of their way so they can do it.  Teddy Roosevelt


•Since so much of effective leadership involves bringing in the best talent possible, we should take note of an almost universal human truth: most people tend to hire people who are weaker than themselves.  



















Moreover, this rule of thumb is nonlinear in practicethat is, excellent people tend to hire people only slightly weaker than themselves, while weak people tend to hire people who are much weaker than themselves.  Or to paraphrase an old saw, As hire A minuses, and Bs hire Cs.


•One of the trickiest parts of major-league leadershipthe inevitable trade-off between whom wed like to have as a lieutenant, and who can actually be recruited within the time thats available for making the appointment.


•Dont overwrite job descriptions and job requirements.  The worst thing is to find the best candidate who does not have a minor requirement needed.


•A primary challenge for any leader is to surround himself with people whose skills make up for his own shortcomings.  This is much easier said than done, because most leaders are more comfortable being surrounded by people who are similar to the leader himself.


•When firing a direct report: A man has to shoot his own horse, he owes it to the horse.


•A close cousin to firing lieutenants yourself is evaluating them yourself.  Every senior lieutenant deserves a complete and frank evaluation by the leader at least once a year.  It should be clear to the lieutenant that the leader has spent a good deal of time thinking through the evaluation, and that the leader has taken pains to identify the lieutenants achievements and failures as measured against the goals that the lieutenant and the leader had agreed to at the preceding evaluation.


•Ask each of your direct reports to prepare an in-depth self-assessment of his own performance.


•Leadership involves getting others to willingly move in a new direction in which theyre not naturally inclined to move on their own.  Harry Truman


•The most effective leader in history in this regard (teaching with stories) was Jesus.  The stories and parables which he used to teach his followers are as fresh and appealing today as they were two thousand years ago.  One needs not be a Christian to appreciate the tremendous power of the stories of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son.


•Jesus was extraordinarily effective in achieving leadership leverage through people chains.  He recruited a dozen principal followers, who in turn recruited hundreds of others, who in turn recruited thousands of others, and so forth to a cumulative total of billions of followers over the past two thousand years.


•Many people want to be leader, but few want to do leader; if youre not in the latter group you should stay away from the leader business altogether.

•The US has more practicing lawyers and lawsuits per capita than any other nation.


•Ive always believed that a physicist who cant say something intelligible about quantum mechanics to a bright twelve-year old simply doesnt understand quantum mechanics himself.  The same rule of thumb should apply to everything.


•Reading is a way to gain perspective and stimulate original thinking.


•Become a discerning reader.  Begin with the supertexts; books that are 400 years or older; The Bible, Republic, Politics, Divine Comedy, Iliad, Odyssey, Don Quixote, The Prince and Shakespeare.


•These supertexts have had, and continue to have an enormous influence on every part of our culture.  Anyone who in 2004 writes a book or an article or a poem or a play, or makes a movie, or gives a speech, is influenced far more than he knows by these supertexts, even if he has never read them or even heard of them.  They are part of the very foundation of our culture.


•Books that are still being read 50 years later is a major achievement.


•The man who reads nothing at all is better informed than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.  Thomas Jefferson


•To be fair, no human being, not even the most disciplined scientist, can begin an investigation without having his mind at least partially made up from the outset.  Every scientist, and every investigative reporter, starts out with an hypothesis in mind and then tries to collect facts and observations in support of that hypothesis.  Neither the scientist nor the reporter is being objective at this point.


•Read only the best books first, lest there not be time enough to read them all.  Henry David Thoreau


•Carefully choose your books like you would choose an adviser.  Failing to make conscious choices about what to read is one of the worst things a leader can do.


•A leaders legacy is often determined by the long-term effects of his decisions.


•2 General Rules for making a decision as a leader; 


(1) Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant, 

(2) Never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow.


•3 great reasons to delegate decisions;

(1) Time constraints of the leader, 

(2) Helps to develop and nurture strong lieutenants, 

(3) The leader who is willing to delegate almost all decisions to lieutenants has an opportunity to build a much stronger and more coherent organization than does the leader who tries to make all the decisions himself.


•Reserve to yourself all decisions on; hiring, compensating, motivating, molding, assessing and firing of your chief lieutenants.


•If you delegate a decision, take full and complete responsibility for the outcome if it goes wrong.


•Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  St Francis of Assisi.


•Whenever a staff member would come to Harry Truman requiring a presidential decision, the first thing Truman would ask was, How much time do I have?  Was it essential that he make the decision in 30 seconds, in an hour, in a day, sometime next week, in a month, within a year?  Truman well understood that the timing of a decision could be as important as the decision itself.


•Sometimes no decision by Tuesday is in fact a decision by default.

Author: Steven Sample (President of USC)


•Most people are binary and instant in their judgments; that I, they immediately categorize things as good or bad, true or false, black or white, friend or foe.  A truly effective leader, however, needs to be able to see the shades of gray inherent in a situation in order to make wise decisions as to how to proceed.


•The essence of thinking gray is this; dont form an opinion about an important matter until youve heard all the relevant facts and arguments.


•The test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time while still retaining the ability to function.  F. Scott Fitzgerald


•The key to thinking free is first to allow your mind to contemplate really outrageous ideas, and only subsequently apply the constraints of practicality, legality, cost, time, and ethics.  As with thinking gray, thinking free is an unnatural act; not one person in a thousand can do it without enormous effort.


•The key is to break free for just a few minutes from the incredibly tight constraints that rule our thinking almost all of the time, even when we dream or engage in so-called free association.


•The average person suffers from three delusions;

(1) that he is a good driver,

(2) that he has a good sense of humor, and

(3) that he is a good listener.  Most people, however, including many leaders, are terrible listeners; they actually think talking is more important than listening.


•Minds are of three kinds, Machiavelli wrote.  One is capable of thinking for itself; another is able to understand the thinking of others; and a third can neither think for itself nor understand the thinking of others.  The first is of the highest excellence, the second is excellent, and the third is worthless.


•A leader must be able to see double.  See things through the eyes of his followers while at the same time see things from his own unique perspective.


•A leader must select an inner circle of advisers and demand the highest degree of candor from them.  He should show indignation if he senses he isnt getting it.  Machiavelli


•A contrarian leader always seeks to understand the motive when listening.  When the conversation is crucial the leader should ask the question, Who is saying what to whom?  What is the motive?  Discern the truth.


•A single human being can never give you a completely unbiased report on any event or issue; he will always give you a view that is filtered to some extent through his own prejudices.


•A leader should pay close attention to experts but never take them too seriously, and never ever trust them completely.  Even experts have their own motives.  Eric Hoffer


•Modern science tradition: one does not prove a theory; rather, one can only disprove it.

A Discerning Reader


Carefully choose your books like you would choose an adviser.  Failing to make conscious choices about what to read is one of the worst things a leader can do.

bottom of page