“Thinking Gray” and “Listening Gray”

This one is going to rattle some folk’s cages. And that is OK with me. Part of the purpose of LeadershipVoices is to spur us to think in ways that we don’t always naturally think.

Thinking Gray - 1In 2001, Steven B. Sample wrote a book entitled, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. I must confess I liked it just based upon the title. I mean, who doesn’t have a little “contrarian” in them? Steven Sample was the president of the State University of New York at Buffalo. And he is an accomplished leader in many ways. He was the president of the University of Southern California up until he resigned to pursue other interests in 2010.

In The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Sample posits several things. He posits first of all that contrarian leaders are great leaders. While others see black and white, contrarian leaders maintain their intellectual independence and see many different shades between the extremes of stark black and stark white. He further states that contrarian leaders are those who can conceptualize a wide range of ideas, thus, making them more creative and intellectually open to solutions to the problems that plague them.

But here is the thing that challenges me about Sample’s assertions. Sample says that the leader who “thinks gray” must also learn to “listen gray”. In other words, we must learn to listen for nuance and we should avoid the fad ideas and also avoid jumping to conclusions before we have all of the input.

So what is the leadership principle here? And how do we benefit from Sample’s work?

  • You need to stay open-minded – Once you form your opinion your mind tends to close to other possibilities.
  • You need to be decisive – This seems at odds against the first principle. However, the leader who forms an opinion yet remains open-minded will tend to flip-flop and be attracted to whatever potential solution was offered the most recently or the most persuasively.
  • You need to think for yourself – People tend to reflect the beliefs held most strongly by those around them. “Thinking gray” is the best defense against a herd mentality.

So what does this mean to those of us who believe in moral truths and moral absolutes? I think it means that as leaders we need to accept that not all decisions have a right or a wrong implication from a moral perspective. Many times in life, or in business, we find ourselves deciding between “good, better or best.”

And here is one more principle that contrarian leadership would embody. Contrarian leadership takes its time to exert itself. When someone takes over an organization’s leadership, conventional wisdom may say to seize the reigns, strike while the iron is hot and begin to leave your imprint on the organization. (Wow! Three clichés in one sentence!) And while this may be necessary in a crisis situation, a contrarian leader would take his/her time and get to know the organization well. Observe the inner workings. Understand the culture of the organization. Then, and only then, would they begin to turn the organizational rudder and guide the ship in new directions.

So what do you think of “Contrarian Leaders”? What kind of leader are you?


Photo credit: DeeAshley / Foter / CC BY
Photo credit: Dave McLear / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

5 Replies to ““Thinking Gray” and “Listening Gray””

  1. Kevin, do you think it is possible for a successful leader to have characteristics of a contrarian and a totalitarian leader? I find that gathering input before making a decision is a great idea and usually leads to success, however I expect a leader to have enough “exposure” to their team, that they would understand the positions of all of their team members so they base their decision on their teams strengths. Additionally it seems to me from your description here, contrarian leaders are not very decisive. Should we not prepare ourselves to make quick, while educated decisions in the heat of battle? I also wonder if a contratian leader would look “wishy washy” and risk losing respect because of his lack of immediate decision making.

    1. Billy, there was a lot more to the book than I can boil down to 500 words or less. And I think a “totalitarian” is the more common model.. So, my point was to rattle the cage and press the boundary.

      Your points are well taken. And I think there is always a need for the quick and decisive leader. Especially in a battlefield setting. However, most decisions that I make are not life or death.

      Let’s see what some others have to say about the article and your coments.

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