Book Review: The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership

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As you can tell from the title, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership is about leadership. It’s more like a collection of meditations than an exhaustive treatise on leadership.

Steven Sample says, early in the book, that you can read the chapters out of order. If you do that, be sure to read chapter 1 first. Chapter 1 includes concepts the author refers to in most other chapters.

The meditations (chapters) are thoughtful and experience based. There’s plenty of good advice. But if you’re in business or if you’re under 50, you might find things that irritate you. They might be a reason to avoid this book altogether.

Let’s start with the issues for business readers. The primary background for this book is Sample’s tenure as president of the University of Southern California. Before that, he was the president of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Before that, he was a dean. And before that, he taught electrical engineering as a member of a college faculty.

There’s nothing dishonorable about that, but it’s not business experience. And if you’re looking for specific business insights, you won’t find them here.

Sample also is writing for people in a similar situation to his. He assumes that you can hire and fire your lieutenants. There are long passages about things that may not be in your purview, such as how to maintain good relations with reporters and editors.

If you’re a business leader, you can get a lot from The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. But you may have to work for some of it and you will probably skip large portions of it

If you’re under 50, you may have trouble with many of Sample’s references. Sample was in his 60s when he wrote this book and at the end of his career. His leadership examples outside academia are mostly before 1950. Even some later ones may cause you to run to the internet to see who he’s talking about. You can be forgiven if you are not sure who Lord Halifax is or why he’s relevant to a discussion of leadership. Ditto for Gary Hart. And you can be forgiven if “Tito” makes you think of something Mexican and not the dictator of Yugoslavia who died in 1980.

If you like to read history and biography, you may not have any problem with the references. Otherwise, either skip this book or plan to look a lot of things up.

In A Nutshell

The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership is a book of thoughtful and insightful meditations on leadership by a man whose entire work experience was in academia. Business readers may not want to read a book with no business examples. Readers under 50 may not be familiar with many of the historical references.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on GoodReads.


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