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An excerpt from The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership


You’ve heard it many times; perhaps you’ve even said it yourself: “What this country needs is a really great leader like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln?someone with real integrity and vision who can bring us together and get us back on the right track!”

I hear that lament frequently, and sometimes I’m even one of the people who give voice to it. But deep down I wonder how much truth lies behind this fine sentiment. If we are to raise up great leaders for our own age, we probably don’t want to clone the leaders of the past. Washington was an extraordinary leader for the extraordinary times in which he lived, but he probably wouldn’t be a particularly effective president or military leader today.

Washington and Lincoln are both personal heroes of mine, and this book will provide some perspective on what helped make them great. But one of the most important and contrarian points we can make about leadership is that it is highly situational and contingent; the leader who succeeds in one context at one point in time won’t necessarily succeed in a different context at the same time, or in the same context at a different time.

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.

Moreover, sometimes whole societies lose their ability to produce great leaders. As Americans, we tend to believe that the larger society of which we are a part is steadily improving with each passing decade. But the fact is, the twentieth century was far more barbaric than the preceding four centuries, and as such represented a severe backsliding in terms of man’s inhumanity to man. Part of this backsliding was attributable to a dramatic improvement in the technologies of death and coercion, but much of it was the result of our inability to produce leaders who could persuasively articulate a humane moral philosophy in an age dominated by technological change.

There are numerous cases of societies which lost their earlier highly developed culture, and retrogressed to a more primitive way of life. In some of these cases external factors, such as invasion or drought, clearly played a role, but in many cases it would seem that the retrogression was due to a failure of will and a lack of leadership.

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.

The purpose of this book 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 this book 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 both stimulating and beneficial.

I’ve based this book on my twenty?seven years of experience as a senior leader at three major research universities, including nine years as president of the State University of New York at Buffalo and ten years as president of the University of Southern California. I’ve also served over the years on fourteen corporate boards in a wide variety of industries, which has allowed me to observe and interact closely with scores of business leaders. Then too, as a university president I’ve had a chance to work with hundreds of political leaders and government officials both here and abroad, and with numerous leaders of synagogues and churches, labor unions, eleemosynary organizations and cultural institutions.

Finally, I’ve had the rare privilege of working with over two hundred of USC’s brightest and most ambitious young leaders through a course I’ve taught each spring semester over the past six years with my friend and colleague Warren Bennis, who is one of the world’s most noted experts on leadership. This course, entitled “The Art and Adventure of Leadership,” draws students from departments and schools across the university. Each year we select 40 outstanding juniors and seniors out of a pool of more than 160 who apply. In seminar settings, in small groups, and through individual study, these students examine the lives and careers of twenty historical and contemporary leaders, from King David to Washington to Napoleon to Gandhi to Martin Luther King to Margaret Thatcher. They read over one thousand pages of text, interact with nearly a dozen guest speakers representing a variety of leadership roles, write a dozen four?page papers, and complete a major group project.

Even though my professorship is in electrical engineering, teaching this course has been one of the most satisfying academic experiences of my career. The no?holds?barred discussions we have had with our students about leaders and leadership have given both Warren and me numerous new insights into this fascinating and important area of human behavior.

This book is divided into chapters which can, for the most part, be read out of sequence. The good news is that it has no pretensions of being an all?of?a?piece philosophical treatise which requires the reader to buy the whole thing or nothing at all. On the contrary, feel free to keep what appeals to you and simply forget the rest.

You’ll find that each contrarian point in the text is illustrated with examples both ancient and modern from politics, business, the military, religion and academe. The book ends with a case study of contrarian leadership at USC which synthesizes many of the points made in earlier chapters.

The art of leadership, as well as individual practitioners of that art, are always works in progress. They are never finished and complete; rather, they are always evolving, always changing, never static. Let me invite you to participate in this process of artistic evolution, and to do so from a contrarian point of view. If this book provides you with fresh insight about this most noble and necessary art, it will have served its purpose well.