Shades of Gray
Good leaders delay making decisions. Good leaders think indecisively. Good leaders do not keep up with popular trends. That's according to Steve B. Sample. He wants us to question conventional wisdom about leadership. Sample, an electrical engineer, musician, and inventor, is also president of the University of Southern California and author of The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2002). His book has been widely praised by leaders in politics, business, and now the church.
A committed Christian, Sample was interviewed about his provocative leadership principles by Bill Hybels at Willow Creek's recent Leadership Summit. Hybels told the audience when he read the first few pages of the book, Sample's concepts "knocked me out of my airplane seat." The pastor made The Contrarian's Guide mandatory reading for leaders at Willow Creek Community Church and the subject of a two-day staff retreat. "That's how strongly I feel about these principles," he said.
Hybels: You start the book by saying we have to learn how to "think gray." I'm like, wait a minute. Every leader has to think decisive thoughts. People look to us to be clear and to take all the gray out of it. But you say, no, leaders should think gray. What do you mean by that?
Sample: Human beings have this tremendous tendency built in to make up our minds right away. Good or bad. True or false. Up or down. That works for most people most of the time. It may work very well for managers, but it's a terrible way to act if you're a leader. The idea of thinking gray is this: don't make judgments until you have to.
You also talk about "thinking free." What does that mean?
This is probably one of the most controversial parts of the book, one of the parts that's the hardest for people to understand. Thinking free goes several steps beyond thinking out of the box. It means forcing yourself to consider possibilities, situations, answers, resolutions that are absolutely outrageous, absolutely untenable from the beginning. That's hard to do.
When was a time you practiced that?
In one particular case in 1967, I had a client who built dishwashers, and I was hired to come up with a new way to control a dishwasher, replacing the troublesome clock-motor timer.
I was making very little progress until finally I lay down on the family room floor and for ten minutes forced myself to think of ladybugs controlling a dishwasher. Then French horns controlling a dishwasher. The planet Jupiter controlling a dishwasher. Newspapers controlling a dishwasher. All of these things that have no way to be held in the average person's mind. It was difficult for me.
But after the second session, I suddenly saw an almost complete circuit diagram for a totally different way to control a dishwasher or any home appliance. And some four or five hundred million appliances worldwide have been built using this invention.
This forced contemplation of the outrageous is the most effective way to get us out of our ruts. And, believe me, all of ...