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A Contrarian for the Ages

- By David C. Brindley   

University of University of Southern California president Steven Sample is not your regular college president. Nor is he your regular engineer. He's made his way in both fields by thinking unconventionally.Southern California president Steven Sample is not your regular college president. Nor is he your regular engineer. He's made his way in both fields by thinking unconventionally.

If it were up to Steven Sample, you wouldn't be reading this article. In fact, if you are a leader at the top of your game, you shouldn't read anything less than 50 years old, including, presumably, the new book in which Sample offers this unconventional advice. Then again, that advice isn't so surprising coming from a book entitled "The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership." So what does the sexagenarian university president recommend for reading? What Sample calls supertexts, books that offer "timeless truth about human nature": Plato's "Republic," Machiavelli's "The Prince," Dante's "Divine Comedy," Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and "Othello." And what exactly do centuries-old books have to offer modern-day leaders? A lot, it turns out. Need to know what happens when those working for you turn against you? You can't beat Othello's tell-all account. Facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles? Turn to Ulysses; he knows best.

But that shouldn't dissuade you from picking up Steven Sample's creative, informative, practical, and even entertaining book on being an effective leader. And Sample has the credentials and experience to back up his advice. In addition to reading nearly 400 books over the course of three decades ("Along the way I've gotten a pretty good liberal education, especially for an engineer," Sample says), he's gone from whiz kid associate professor of electrical engineering at Purdue to turning around two major universities, first the State University of New York-Buffalo and then the University of Southern California, where he has been president since 1991. Once derided as the "University of Second Choice," USC now attracts top-notch scholars and students from around the country. It also bags big money: It's the only university in the nation to receive three separate $100 million-plus gifts, boosting the school's endowment from $440 million in 1990 to nearly $2.2 billion in 2000—and justifying Sample's roughly $400,000 yearly salary. As for accolades, Time magazine named USC its "School of the Year" in 2000.

For a self-described contrarian, Sample is obviously doing something right that others just might want to emulate. If so, they might want to take up engineering, a course of study that has served Sample well, providing unique advantages and lessons in leading. "My education as an engineer, and my experience in engineering practice and engineering teaching have been very, very helpful because they gave me stronger analytical skills than most people have in leadership positions," Sample says from the back seat of his chauffeured sedan that sits snarled in rush-hour traffic one impossibly beautiful Los Angeles morning. "And I have a little better ability to pick out the facts from the fiction," he continues. "It's also given me a better appreciation than most leaders have for science and technology, generally. Science and technology play an increasingly important role in our society, and many leaders haven't learned anything substantive about any branch in science or technology. I think in the modern world, those folks are somewhat at a disadvantage."

That's not to say that there aren't challenges for engineers in leadership positions, however. And even if a guiding principle in Sample's life and career could easily be "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative," he doesn't sidestep the potential drawbacks facing analytically trained leaders like himself. Quoting Einstein, Sample points out that "many of the things you can count don't count. Many of the things you can't count, really count." That is, "an awful amount of life is not subject to logical analysis," Sample explains. "So it's very important for a leader to be able to distinguish between those cases or occurrences that are really amenable to rational, quantifiable analysis and those cases that aren't, where intuition and judgment have to hold sway. Intuition and judgment oftentimes are more important than rational analysis simply because most human situations are not amenable to a highly analytical approach." This has implications for the classroom as well. "Sometimes we mislead our students unintentionally by implying that everything in life can be approached through rational analysis. And that just plain isn't true," Sample insists, displaying his unmistakably straightforward Midwestern heritage.

Born in St. Louis, Sample and his family moved to a farm on the outskirts of the city when he was six. But with his budding musical interests, keeping the boy on the farm proved impossible. As a teenager, Sample played timpani for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and managed and played in several rock bands. Even today he keeps a Blue Pearl drum set in his basement, although when he announced last year that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, he admitted that a tremor in his left hand "occasionally affects my drumming during Latin numbers." Even with the announcement, Sample says that he has "no intention of letting Parkinson's stand in the way," of his work at USC.

By his side during the past 40 years has been his wife, Kathryn, whose privacy, along with that of his two grown daughters, he guardedly protects. Nevertheless, Sample counts Kathryn as his "closest and longest-term adviser," mentioning her in every speech and interview. "One should never underestimate the value of a stable, long-term marriage to the success of a leader," he says.

Basic Instinct

Aside from a stable marriage, what advice would Sample most recommend for budding leaders? His concept of thinking free, which takes pride of place as chapter 1 in his book. "I was thinking of using ‘thinking free' as a subtitle for the book," he says, as the car lurches forward, gaining speed. "It's a matter of being your own person, not trying to copy your way to excellence." Now cruising down the freeway, Sample is on a roll. "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."

Practically speaking, it means occasionally lying on your back in the middle of your office floor and free-associating. Such a strategy led to Sample's first career breakthrough: a patent on the digital electronic control system for home appliances. His invention can be found in virtually every home in America today.

Also appealing is Sample's ever pragmatic, practical approach, including his "70/30 Formula for Leadership." In this formula, Sample acknowledges that the majority of a leader's time is spent on minutiae: reacting to or presiding over trivial, mundane, ephemeral matters of the job. But an effective leader must carve out time for "big-picture thinking," that is, "the vision thing." To that end, he advises leaders to spend no more than 70 percent of their time on little things and set aside 30 percent of their time for substantive issues and important matters. That's easier said than done, of course, but useful advice regardless.

Such big-picture thinking actually led to Sample's book, which grew out of an undergraduate course that Sample co-teaches each spring with management guru Warren Bennis. For Nick Burger, who graduated from USC in June, "The Art and Adventure of Leadership" seminar was "amazingly helpful" and even changed his life. The former business major was so inspired by the course that he spent a semester abroad in Ghana and is now pursuing a career in the nonprofit sector. "Analyzing and understanding how different people have led throughout history and then looking at Steve and Warren and contrasting their leadership styles was really beneficial for me. Steve's a good leader. He's got his own style and he really puts that forth in his book. I don't think that works for everybody, but the principles he describes are certainly ones that he embodies."

Sample also doesn't shy away from strongly held opinions, such as when he writes that "Henry VIII was a morally depraved pig," and that he has "always regarded Mao TseTung as the all-time champion mass murderer." And he infuses his text with humorous observations. "The average person suffers from three delusions," he notes. "That he is a good driver. That he has a good sense of humor. And that he is a good listener." But they aren't just for laughs; The observations lead the reader into a deeper discussion on a particular topic, for instance, the importance of actively listening to ones colleagues.

Skillful weaving and writing contribute greatly to the book, which, Sample concedes, was not an easy task. "When engineers write books or chapters or papers or make presentations, it's almost always based around the formulas, the equations, the graphs, the charts, the photographs, and the drawings. The text is sort of a matrix that holds all the technical stuff together. So for an engineer to sit down and write 60,000 words of pure text without a single equation is a very tough job. But it was a good experience because it was so different from what I'm used to."

Fortunately, his hard work and dedication has paid off—both as a university president and book author. Earlier this year, the book spent a month on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list, beating out perennial favorite "Guinness World Records," which prompted some good-natured ribbing from colleagues. "The joke on campus," Sample says with a chuckle, "is that it's the first time in history that an engineer made the L.A. Times bestseller list for anything." And that's one for the record books that Sample is especially proud of.


David C. Brindley is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at