USC News

Menu Search

Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership

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.

Photo by Tim Rue

By USC President Steven B. Sample

The best leaders won’t make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow. They don’t form opinions if they don’t have to. They don’t force others to do their dirty work. They don’t keep up with the popular media. And they don’t try to copy their way to the top.

These are a few of the counterintuitive lessons offered by USC president Steven B. Sample in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, the featured book of the fall season for Wiley’s Jossey-Bass division. A distillation of his decades as a university president, director of corporate boards, civic leader, inventor and professor, the book explodes many romanticized views of leadership and presents unorthodox leadership lessons based on his personal experience and his broad survey of history. He also uses USC’s explosive recent growth as a case study in contrarian leadership, noting how an unconventional approach helped USC become world-renowned in the fields of communication and multimedia technologies, earn national recognition for its innovative community partnerships, and solidify its status as one of the nation’s leading research universities.

Royalties from the book – which has already garnered advance praise from Disney CEO Michael Eisner, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, commentator David Gergen and a range of other prominent figures from government, industry and academia – will fund scholarships for USC undergraduate students.

The essay that follows is excerpted with permission of the publisher Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Company, from The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. Copyright © 2001 by Steven B. Sample.

The very concept of leadership is elusive and tricky. It’s hard to define in a way that is satisfactory to everyone, although most people believe they know it when they see it. Certainly there are natural leaders who seem to gravitate effortlessly to positions of power and authority. And yet many of the world’s greatest leaders demonstrated relatively little aptitude for leadership in their youth, but instead learned this esoteric art through study, apprenticeship and practice.

Of all the different kinds of human capital, leadership may well be the most rare and precious. Think of the companies one can point to that were going down the tubes in spite of gaggles of consultants and new plans and policies, until finally the CEO was booted out, a new leader was brought in, and the company turned around as though by magic. History abounds with similar examples among armies, universities, churches and nations.

But there is also the other kind of leadership transition, in which the untimely loss of a talented and effective leader proves disastrous for the organization he was leading. Try as they may, a succession of new leaders simply cannot stem the inexorable decline of the very same organization which a few months or years before was at the peak of health and vitality.

So if leadership is largely situational and contingent, why read books on leadership at all? Why shouldn’t a person simply jump into a leadership role and sink or swim on her own merits? Granted, there is no infallible step-by-step formula for becoming an effective leader. But leadership can be taught and learned. More explicitly, a person can develop her own potential for leadership by reading about what’s worked for others, and then selectively applying those lessons to her own situation.


Most people are simply unable to force themselves to think positively for even a few minutes about an idea which they believe in their hearts is stupid, wrongheaded, immoral, impractical or illegal.

Photo by Tim Rue

My purpose here is to get you to think about leaders and leadership from a fresh and original point of view – from what I like to call a contrarian perspective. By contrarian I don’t mean counter to all conventional wisdom – indeed, much of the conventional wisdom about leadership (and about most other things for that matter) is absolutely true. But just as you can’t become an effective leader by trying to mimic a famous leader from the past, so you can’t develop your full leadership potential, or even fully appreciate the art of leadership, by slavishly adhering to conventional wisdom. 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.

Many of the concepts expressed in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership will seem strange and counterintuitive at first: think gray; see double; never completely trust an expert; read what your competition doesn’t read; never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a subordinate; ignore sunk costs; work for those who work for you; know which hill you’re willing to die on; shoot your own horse; sometimes allow the led to lead the leader; and know the difference between being leader and doing leader. Do all these concepts run completely counter to conventional wisdom? No. But they certainly challenge conventional thinking in ways I believe you’ll find to be both stimulating and beneficial.

Contrarian leaders think differently from the people around them. In particular, such leaders are able to maintain their intellectual independence by thinking gray, and enhance their intellectual creativity by thinking free.

Conventional wisdom considers it a valuable skill to be able to make judgments as quickly as possible, and conventional wisdom may well be right when it comes to managers. But contrarian wisdom argues that, for leaders, judgments as to the truth or falsity of information or the merits of new ideas should be arrived at as slowly and subtly as possible – and in many cases not at all.

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching a class on leadership has been the opportunity to watch bright undergraduates learn to “think gray” while holding firmly to their core principles. Thinking gray is an extraordinarily uncommon characteristic which requires a good deal of effort to develop. But it is one of the most important skills that a leader can acquire.

Most people are binary and instant in their judgments; that is, 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: don’t form an opinion about an important matter until you’ve heard all the relevant facts and arguments, or until circumstances force you to form an opinion without recourse to all the facts (which happens occasionally, but much less frequently than one might imagine). F. Scott Fitzgerald once described something similar to thinking gray when he observed that 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.

After all, thinking gray is not a natural act, especially for people who see themselves as leaders. Our typical view of great leaders is that they are bold and decisive people who are strongly governed by their passions and prejudices. Who could imagine a Teddy Roosevelt or a Vince Lombardi thinking gray?

A black-and-white binary approach to thinking may in fact be a successful strategy for some leaders, especially if they must deal daily with fight-or-flight situations. But even many of the world’s most noted military leaders were adroit at thinking gray on the battlefield. Napoleon, Washington and Rommel all knew the value of suspending judgment about important matters, and especially about the validity of incoming intelligence, until the last possible moment.

For the vast majority of people, giving in to this natural compulsion toward binary thinking is relatively harmless. But for leaders it can lead to disaster.

There are three very real dangers to effective leadership associated with binary thinking. One is that the leader forms opinions before it is necessary to do so, and in the process closes his mind to facts and arguments that may subsequently come to his attention. The second danger is flip-flopping. A leader hears something in favor of a proposition and decides on the spot that the proposition must be true. Later that same day he hears an argument against the proposition and decides the proposition must be false. Many failed leaders have tended to believe the last thing they heard from the last person they talked to, thereby putting themselves and their followers through mental (and sometimes physical) contortions which were both unnecessary and counterproductive.

The third danger relates to an observation by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, to the effect that people tend to believe that which they sense is strongly believed by others. A well-developed ability to think gray is the best defense a leader can have against this kind of assault on his intellectual independence. Leaders may want to nurture a herd mentality among their followers, but they should never succumb to such thinking themselves.

Nietzsche’s point was beautifully illustrated by an experiment fashioned by psychologist Solomon Asch a half-century ago and repeated by others many times since then. In the experiment, eight subjects, supposedly chosen at random, were brought together in a room and shown a series of cards on which were printed four vertical lines. Each subject was asked in turn to identify which one of the three lines on the right side of the card was the same length as the line on the left side of the card. The experiment was arranged so that seven of the eight “subjects” were in fact ringers who, with conviction and sincerity, would each identify the same one of the right-hand lines as being equal in length to the left-hand line, when in fact it was not. The one true subject in this experiment was then faced with either going along with the judgment of the group and declaring as true something he knew to be false, or taking a position which was at odds with the consensus opinion of his peers. Roughly three-quarters of the subjects went against their better judgment and joined in with the false consensus at least once.

As in so many other areas that are essential to effective leadership, the popular media are a major stumbling block to thinking gray. There is no such thing as an unbiased article in a newspaper or an objective soundbite on television news. On the contrary, reporters and editors are trained experts at getting you to believe what it is they have to say and to adopt their point of view. Indeed, à la Nietzsche, the media want you to believe that everyone else (or at least, every other important person) believes what it is they have to say. It is precisely this patina of believability and respectability that makes the popular media so attractive to us, especially when their messages comport with our own passions and prejudices. And it is precisely this same patina that stands in the way of our thinking gray.

Thinking gray is decidedly not the same thing as thinking skeptically. The skeptic initially places everything he hears or reads in the “not true” box, with an implied willingness to move things to the “true” box if the accumulated evidence warrants such a transfer. There’s often a hint of cynicism about the skeptic that can be very off-putting to followers. It’s difficult for people to be inspired by a Doubting Thomas.

By contrast, the contrarian leader who can think gray doesn’t place things he hears or reads in either the “not true” or the “true” box. He is as open to enthusiastically embracing a new idea as he is to rejecting it. And he can truthfully compliment a lieutenant for having come up with a new idea or observation, without misleading the lieutenant as to whether he (the leader) believes it to be good or true or useful.

A close cousin of thinking gray is what I like to call thinking free – free, that is, from all prior restraints. It’s popular these days to talk about “thinking out of the box” or “brainstorming,” but thinking free takes that process of inventiveness to the next level.

The difference between thinking out of the box and thinking free can be understood when we imagine ourselves coming out of a heated swimming pool on a cool, brisk day. When we merely think out of the box, we stay in the cold just long enough to feel slightly uncomfortable, and then hastily retreat either back into the warm pool or indoors. But when we are truly thinking free, we stay out in the cold until we shiver and our teeth chatter. It’s the ability to tolerate the cold long after it becomes unpleasant – to forcibly sustain our thinking free for more than a fleeting moment – that leads to the greatest innovations.

The key to thinking free is first to allow your mind to contemplate really outrageous ideas, and only subsequently apply the constraints of practicality, practicability, 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.

Here’s a simple example. A leader brings a group of people together who share a common goal (e.g., keeping their company afloat in a brutally competitive market), but who have widely varying opinions as to how the goal might best be achieved. The leader asks each person in turn to offer up an off-the-wall idea for achieving the goal, with the proviso that every other person in the group must respond with at least two reasons why the idea will work. The result is often surliness or sullen silence on the part of the participants. Most people are simply unable to force themselves to think positively for even a few minutes about an idea which they believe in their hearts is stupid, wrongheaded, immoral, impractical or illegal.

Now please do not misunderstand me; I am not suggesting that leaders should pursue evil or illegal or ridiculous ideas. On the contrary, I have found that one’s principles, passions and prejudices always reassert control after a few minutes of thinking free. But during those few minutes the leader or his or her associates just might come up with a truly original idea.

Congenital naysayers are one of the greatest stumbling blocks to thinking free. Rather than imagining how a new idea might possibly work, they instinctively think of all the reasons why it won’t. They sincerely believe they’re doing everyone a favor by reducing the amount of time spent on bad or foolish ideas. But what they really do is undermine the creativity that can be harvested from thinking free.

Most new inventions are merely novel combinations of devices or techniques that already exist. Thus, the key to successful invention often lies in getting one’s brain to imagine new combinations of existing elements that solve a problem in a way no one has ever thought of before.

My favorite way to stimulate this kind of thinking free is to force myself to contemplate absolutely outrageous and impossible ways to address a particular problem. For example, in 1967 I was struggling to invent a new way to control a dishwasher, in order to replace the ubiquitous (and troublesome) clock-motor timer. At one point I lay on the floor and forced myself to imagine hay bales, elephants, planets, ladybugs, sofas, microbes, newspapers, hydroelectric dams, French horns, electrons and trees, each in turn and in various combinations controlling a dishwasher.

This exercise was, to say the least, extremely difficult and disconcerting, so much so that I could only do it for 10 minutes at a time. But after a few such sessions I suddenly saw in my mind’s eye an almost complete circuit diagram for a digital electronic control system for a home appliance. This system was unlike anything I or others had ever contemplated before. As a consequence my colleagues and I were able to establish a very strong patent position in this particular area of technology, and my invention was eventually employed in hundreds of millions of home appliances around the world.


Steven Sample (left) and Warren Bennis teaching their groundbreaking course The Art and Adventure of Leadership.

Photo by Tim Rue

As improbable as it might sound, this same approach to thinking free can lead to novel ways of addressing some of the competitive, political, legal, policy and bureaucratic challenges one must confront as a leader. 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.

Really thinking free is hard work, and it usually requires a good deal of effort and determination beyond simple daydreaming or mental freewheeling. It’s tough to break out of the deep ruts in which our minds normally run. But the benefits that accrue to the leader from thinking free can be truly spectacular.

Of course, microbes, hay bales and elephants never found their way into my application for a patent on a new way to control a home appliance. On the contrary, the solution to this problem involved a simple combination of standard electronic components – so simple, so nearly obvious, that I wondered why no one had ever thought of it before.

That’s the way it is with so many innovations – they seem obvious once they’ve been discovered and deployed. But prior to that time they are anything but obvious. For example, the benefits of universal adult suffrage seem obvious to 21st-century Americans, but it took millennia after the development of writing to discover and implement this novel idea (which was not fully adopted in England until 1928, when women were finally given the vote). The wheel-and-axle seems an obvious bit of technology to us today, but it was not discovered until thousands of years after the invention of the roller, and many human societies never discovered the wheel-and-axle on their own. The auto mall would appear to be an obvious way to increase the sales of new cars, but when I was a boy the Ford dealer in town wanted to be located as far away as possible from the Chevrolet dealer.

It’s well known among engineers that the most important inventions in a particular field are often made by people who are new to that field – people who are too naïve and ignorant to know all the reasons why something can’t be done, and who are therefore able to think more freely about seemingly intractable problems. The same is true of the leadership of institutions: It’s often fresh blood and a fresh perspective from the outside that can turn an ailing organization around.

One must always keep in mind that leadership is an art, not a science. Effective management may be a science (although I have my doubts), but effective leadership is purely an art. In this sense, leadership is more akin to music, painting and poetry than it is to more routinized endeavors.

All of the arts, when practiced at the highest levels of excellence, depend on a steady stream of fresh ideas and creative imagination. Make no mistake, Mozart was thinking free when he composed, even though his music may sound canonical today. As a former professional musician, I know that the best solos in jazz occur when the soloist frees his mind of prior constraints and makes up entirely new musical associations as he goes along. Can anyone view Picasso’s paintings or Frank Gehry’s buildings and not see flashes of unrestrained thought and imagination? And when I read Shakespeare I hear the cacophonous undertones of thinking free – his constant testing of unusual juxtapositions of words, his novel metaphors and similes, his making up of new words and stretching the meanings of old ones with impunity.

So it is with effective leadership. The leader whose thinking is constrained within well-worn ruts, who is completely governed by his established passions and prejudices, who is incapable of thinking either gray or free, and who can’t even appropriate the creative imagination and fresh ideas of those around him, is as anachronistic and ineffective as the dinosaur. He may by dint of circumstances remain in power, but his followers would almost certainly be better off without him.

The Bennis Connection

“What [Sample] has to say is so fresh, yet paradoxically so timeless, so at-an-angle to conventional wisdom, that this book will instantly be recognized as an invaluable addition to the literature on leadership.”

– Warren Bennis

The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership is the newest installment in Jossey-Bass’s Warren Bennis Signature Series, named for the USC professor who has long been recognized as one of the world’s top authorities in the study of leadership.

Steven Sample notes, in fact, that it was Bennis who helped recruit him and his wife Kathryn to USC in 1990 from the State University of New York at Buffalo; and it was Bennis who persuaded Sample to co-teach with him a course in leadership for juniors and seniors over the past six years. Sample describes the course as “one of the best learning experiences of my life.”

It was also Bennis who convinced Sample to capture his philosophy of leadership on paper. In the foreword to The Contrarian’s Guide, Bennis notes that, as the two began co-teaching their course, “I quickly realized that what Steve was teaching wasn’t being said in the management textbooks and popular literature of our day.

“What he has to say is so fresh, yet paradoxically so timeless, so at-an-angle to conventional wisdom, that this book will instantly be recognized as an invaluable addition to the literature on leadership.”

Trained as an engineer, Sample has spent the better part of his life as a university leader. Before accepting the top job at USC in 1991, he was president of SUNY Buffalo for nine years. At age 33, he was named executive vice president of the University of Nebraska. And at 29, as a newly tenured associate professor of electrical engineering at Purdue University, he spent a year as an administrative intern working with Purdue president Fred Hovde – already consciously preparing for his future career in one of the most complex of leadership arenas.

“No manner of leader, save possibly a mayor of a large city, deals with as vast and complicated a cartography of stakeholders as does the head of a major American research university,” says Bennis, himself a past president of the University of Cincinnati. “Speaking from personal experience, I can say that a university president is called on to be an entertainer, a visionary, a priest, a psychologist and a CEO of 10 or 20 vastly different enterprises gathered under the seal of one university. With that, it’s obvious that leaders in other realms have a great deal that they can learn from an effective university president, and Steve is the best – perhaps one of the two or three best in the past half-century.”

At USC, Sample has shown “an unusual ability to ‘evangelize the future’ to a dizzying array of stakeholders,” Bennis says. “Even more impressively, the results – which include a doubling in the number of applications from high school students, a dramatic 240-point rise in SAT scores for incoming freshmen, the establishment of pioneering research institutes, the development of a unique undergraduate curriculum, and the smashing of national fundraising records – show that he has been able to mobilize those constituencies to follow through with the work and the sacrifices necessary to attain this shared dream.”

Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership

Top stories on USC News