Steven B. Sample

Jossey Bass, 2002, 192 pp.   ISBN 0-7879-5587-6


Steven Sample, an electrical engineer by training, and a musician, outdoorsman, professor and inventor by practice, is the highly regarded president of USC (The University of Southern California).  He has mobilized a broad array of constituencies to achieve success for more than one major university.  Sample regularly teaches undergraduate courses while serving as president.  His leadership style is “contrary” because it rejects much “common wisdom.” 


Leadership is highly situational.  A person who succeeds in one situation and time may fail at another.  (1)


“Sometimes whole societies lose their ability to produce great leaders.”  “There are numerous cases of societies which lost their earlier highly developed culture….  In many cases it would seem that the retrogression was due to a failure of will and a lack of leadership.” (2)


“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.” 


“Contrarian leaders think differently from the people around them.”  Delay as long as possible making judgments on the truth of information or the merit of ideas.  See the shades of gray. (7) Practice suspending judgment. (11) 


The popular media is a great stumbling block to thinking.  There are no unbiased stories.  Reporters and editors are trained experts at getting you to adopt their point of view.  (10)


Be as open to accepting as to rejecting a new idea.  Go beyond brainstorming to the next level.  Forcibly sustain thinking free, contemplate outrageous ideas (an unnatural and difficult act).  This leads to the greatest innovations or new combinations of existing elements. (12-13)


Often fresh blood and a fresh perspective from the outside can turn around an ailing organization. (15)


Creative imagination may be as important as vision.  “The leader has to be able to imagine different organizational combinations in his mind and see how they will play out.” (17)


“In many cases it’s sufficient if the leader simply recognizes and nurtures thinking free among his followers, and then capitalizes on their creative ideas and imaginations.”  This may be more important than for the leader to be creative. (18)


Listen artfully.  It is “an excellent means of acquiring new ideas and gathering and assessing information.”  Listen first and talk later. (21)


See double.  Listen to your followers so you can see things through their eyes as well as through your own eyes.  Cultivate the ability to simultaneously view things from two perspectives.  (22)


A leader must demand candor from his inner circle, even if it’s hard to accept their advice and criticism.  (24)


Be wary when told generalities like, “our customers want this.”  Find out who is speaking, how many are speaking, to whom they are speaking, etc.  (27-8)


Go beyond passive listening.  Draw the other person out.  You learn not only the information but also the person’s filters and biases.  (28)


Have open communication with structured decision making.  Everyone can communicate openly with everyone at every level.  But all commitments, allocations and decisions are made through the hierarchy.  (32)


“I’m always amazed by the really egregious mistakes that new CEOs make when they come to a new organization from the outside.  It’s not that they’re stupid; it’s just that they’re ignorant.  A few months spent in artful listening…would almost guarantee their getting off to a good start.” (35)


“A leader should pay close attention to experts but never take them too seriously, and never ever trust them completely.” (39)  You must know your goals precisely and how you think the expert can help you achieve them. (40)


“A lot of what can be counted doesn’t count, and a lot of what counts can’t be counted.” (quoting Albert Einstein) (50)


“Neither you nor your lawyers can know with any certainty what the law is today, because the law can at any time be modified retroactively by the courts.”  (51)


To a great extent we are what we read.  You can miss several months of the daily newspaper and be no worse off for it.  (55)  Leaders are heavily influenced by what they read. (70)


Sample recommends the “supertexts,” books that have lasted a few hundred years, such as the sacred scriptures of several religions, Shakespeare, Plato, Homer, “and of course Machiavelli’s The Prince.” (56)  He draws a lot from the latter! 


In times of great change, a leader can gain a tremendous competitive advantage by being able to discern the few things that are not changing.  The supertexts reveal timeless truths about human nature.  (57-9)


It’s a mistake to let the media decide for us what is important and what to ignore. (62) There is a strong herd instinct in the news media.  The tendency toward conformity is dangerous for leaders. (63)  “When I read the papers, I do so primarily for entertainment.” (65)


Don’t read the trade publications.  Let your lieutenants stay up with them.  They’ll keep you appraised.  You are likely to get your best original ideas from outside your established field.  Sample reads 30 minutes a day, 10 minutes with newspapers and 20 minutes with the supertexts.  (68)


“When a new book appears, read an old one.” (quoting Winston Churchill, 69)


“Decision making is a major element of leadership.  Two general rules:

1.     Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant.

2.     Never make a decision today that can reasonable be put off to tomorrow. (71-72)


The essence of major league leadership is allowing subordinates to make decisions for which you will be ultimately responsible.  (72)


Making decisions is hard, time-consuming work, so reserve for yourself only the most important decisions and cheerfully delegate the rest.  It helps develop strong lieutenants.  And it builds a stronger, more coherent organization.  (73-4)


“Talking with those constituents who will be most affected by a decision prior to actually making it can be very good business.”  “It is almost always advantageous, when making a major decision, for the leader to consult with her principal advisers and chief lieutenants.”  (84)


Much of the outcome of any bold undertaking is due to luck.  Judgment is a close cousin to chance.  (86)


Once in awhile it’s a good idea to go to the stockroom and count the widgets yourself.  “It’s amazing how often you’ll find that the allegedly factual information you’ve been receiving for years about a particular matter is completely erroneous….” (87)


Ignore sunk costs, i.e. costs or mistakes in the past.  What’s done can’t be undone so make decisions by looking only forward.  Don’t commit more effort on a lost cause because you’re trying to justify or recover past losses and earlier errors in judgment.  (88)


Listen carefully to your conscience.  Listen carefully to that voice for 20 minutes or so.  (89)


Machiavelli is the father of modern political science and still a powerful force. (92) His primary contribution is “his painfully honest observations about human nature.” (96) His advice is to “believe in the reality of human nature as opposed to what they wished it were.”  He says, “A leader can impose a wide range of harsh strictures on his followers and not be hated by them, even when those whom he is leading are not his followers by choice.  But if he humiliates them in addition to dealing harshly with them, they and their successors will never forgive him.” (102)


The challenge is not to overestimate or underestimate his followers but to bring out the best in them and himself.  (105)


Good leadership is different from effective leadership.  Assessing good leadership requires moral values.  (107) Leaders must face up to moral choices.  One is “which hill you’re willing to die on.” The leader must balance moral and practical considerations.  (108-9) 


“A leader must ask himself: How much ground can I yield and still be true to my moral core?  How far can I be pushed before I will need to walk away from my duties?  Are there some battles that I should be willing to lose in order to try to win other more important victories for the organization or cause or group that I am leading?  What is the particular hill (if any) from which I will never retreat, and in defense of which I am willing, if necessary, to sacrifice everything?”  “Once you know which hill you’re really willing to die on, keep it to yourself.” (112)


One has to discover and confront his feelings about God to locate his moral center and become a better leader.  (116)


“Develop and hold your own moral convictions, while being as open as possible to the strongly held moral beliefs of others.” (118)


“Ethical leadership requires that the leader choose one set of moral values over all others, and then take full responsibility for his actions based on those values.” (119)


Spend 90 percent of your time doing everything you can to help your direct reports succeed.  “You should be the first assistant to the people who work for you.”  “Work for those who work for you!  If you’re not in the process of getting rid of a lieutenant, bend over backward to help him get his job done.  That means returning his phone calls promptly, listening carefully to his plans and problems, calling on others at his request, and helping him formulate his goals and develop strategies for achieving those goals.  It’s not simply that you should be your lieutenant’s staff person, you should be his best staff person.” (121-22)


“A primary challenge for any leader is to surround himself with people whose skills make up for his own shortcomings.” (125)


“Whenever a staff person is empowered to act as a buffer between a leader and his line officers, the results can be truly disastrous.  …the staff person can exercise the power of the leader while being shielded from the heat….” (129)


“A leader should never convey direct orders to senior officers through staff.” (132)


“The world is full of squeamish leaders when it comes to getting rid of people.” (136)


“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.” (136)


“What the average leader doesn’t do is sit down and devote several hours of her own time each year to really thinking through a particular lieutenant’s achievements and shortcomings, and then communicating those thoughts face to face to the lieutenant.” (137)


A leader is someone who has identifiable followers.  One of the tests of a leader is whether anyone is really affected by, or cares about, the decisions he makes. (141)


“When an effective leader turns in a new direction his followers turn with him; that’s the test of real leadership.”  (142)


“An effective leader must sell himself first and his vision or policies second.” (143)


“Effective leaders manage people’s attention, and that requires some degree of entertainment skill.”  “Compelling stories is one of the most powerful tools there is for establishing a close bond with his followers and for inculcating his vision among them.  The most effective leader in history in this regard was Jesus.” (144)


“An important asset for any leader to have as he works to inspire and motivate his followers is a credible creation story or myth for the organization or movement he’s leading.” (145)  “Such stories must appeal strongly to the leader’s followers and to those whom he is trying to recruit.” The story should be widely read, heard and internalized by a broad spectrum of constituents.   It engenders pride.  (147) 


The great majority of effective leaders have an excellent command of language.  The spoken word is by far the most powerful form of communication between a leader and his followers.  Nothing comes close to offering as wide a range of opportunities for a leader to inspire his followers, or to learn what is on their minds, as does direct oral communication.” (149)


“A leader’s vision is important, but finding the right words with which to express that vision and instill it in his followers’ hearts is just as important.” (150)


“Effective leadership almost always involves a symbiotic relationship between leader and led.  If the goals and directions which the leader chooses to emphasize don’t resonate with his followers, he won’t be their leader for long.  So to some extent the leader must first discern the range of possibilities buried in his followers’ hearts and psyches, and then choose within that range the particular goals he wishes to incorporate in his vision for the organization.” (151)


“In the final analysis, even the strongest leaders are led to some extent by their followers.” (151)


“Real inspiration of followers is often brought about more by praise and exhortation from the leader than by monetary rewards alone.” (154)


“Each [follower] is a unique human being who must be recognized and treated as such if the organization or movement you’re leading is to flourish over the long haul.” (157)