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Lessons in Leadership From a Great University President

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — April 08, 2016 5 min read

I’ve lost a great friend in Steven Sample. The president emeritus of the University of Southern California died last week and I’ll miss him dearly. While there are many things I could write about Steve and our nearly six decades of comradeship, most of those recollections don’t belong in this space. Yet, he left all of us some lessons about leadership, which need to be passed on.

Sample liked doing president, not just being a university president. He wrote about the distinction in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, a short book written in his second decade leading USC. In it, he invoked his 70/30 formula: ideally up to 30 percent of a leader’s time can be spent on substantive matters, the rest needs to be spent on the routines that help other people be successful in doing their jobs.

“Many people aren’t aware of the fact that leaders must frequently subordinate the things which they’re most interested in or which they feel are most important, to the urgent (but often ephemeral) and sometimes trivial demands of others,” he wrote. More bluntly, “a university president must also kiss a lot of frogs.”

Leaders who forget this rule allow little problems to grow into big ones that are often their undoing.

He Did President a Lot

Sample did president a lot: long days, weeks, and years. He hit the phones in the morning on his way to work, and by his own reckoning made 3,000 calls a year followed by 2,000 individually composed notes. He had a home office for paper work, but the big presidential suite at the university was for people, he told me many times. He loved being a Trojan and could talk about the Trojan Family without a hint of insincerity and at the same time remind an audience that USC was the largest private employer in Los Angeles.

He was also fiercely loyal and protective both of the Trojan Family and of his own: his wife, Kathryn, and his daughters. They reciprocated. He bonded strongly with a small band of fraternity brothers from the University of Illinois. We reciprocated.

Oh, did I mention that he was good at asking for money? He led what was at the time the single most lucrative university fund drive in history. His skill in fund raising was not just about boldness in what development officers call “the ask.” He so genuinely believed in USC and its grand mission that it was easy for donors to trust that their gifts would be placed in good hands.

Family and Football

And he liked a good party. Football games were family celebrations, where the family included Steven Spielberg, Helen Mirren, George Lucas, a mayor, an archbishop or two, and chairs of Olympic committees. Steve delighted in using his all-access sideline pass to take visitors down to the field where the concussive power of football could actually be felt. Even as Parkinson’s disease began to take its toll, he walked down flights of steps, across the field, and into the locker room after every home game win-or-lose, just to spend some time with the players.

He believed in the power of the spoken word and became a consummate storyteller. Every speech started with a well-crafted and polished story, often humorous and delivered with the timing and drollness that Jack Benny would have lauded. He’d call me sometimes to ask my opinion of a new story (“not too risqué?”), and then call back after he had tweaked it. He had a Creation story about USC rising from humble roots that he probably told hundreds of times.

At the same time, he was an amazing listener. He even listened to me. We had taken different forks in the political road, and we had wildly divergent ideas about education reform. (He thought unabashed competition would fix schooling and that teacher unions approximated evil.) We vacationed with him and Kathryn several years ago, and Sample and I spent several long afternoons in Italian bars pleasantly engaged in fighting about politics.

Contrarian Perspective

His contrarian perspective was unabashedly blunt. He knew that leadership wasn’t roseate, and he could talk about God and Machiavelli in the same paragraph. (A close reading of The Prince was one of his teaching tools.)

He didn’t advocate dismissing the conventional wisdom but believed that one can’t be an effective leader by mimicking some famous leader from the past. As he wrote, “The key is to break free, if only fleetingly, from the bonds of conventional thinking so as to bring your natural creative and intellectual independence to the fore.”

One of my favorite parts of the book comes at the beginning, where Sample writes about “thinking gray,” avoiding forming an opinion until all the facts were in, or circumstances required a decision. Where the conventional wisdom holds that managers need to grasp the situation and form an opinion quickly, Sample argued that “the truth or falsity of information or the merits of new ideas should be arrived at as slowly and subtly as possible— and in many cases not at all.”

Learning not to jump to conclusions was also linked to what he called “thinking free.” Real out-of-the-box thinking requires setting aside preconceptions about what is possible, desirable, and sometimes about what is true.

He delighted in telling (and the story is in the book) about a brainstorming technique he used to release the constraints on his thinking. He’d lie on his back, look at a blank spot in the ceiling, and consider the most outlandish ways to solve the problem he was working on.

Horizontal Brainstorming

When he was a young assistant professor of electrical engineering at Purdue University, he was struggling to find a new way to control a dishwasher, to supplant the mechanical clock timer that often failed. “At one point I lay on the floor and forced myself to imagine hay bales, elephants, planets, ladybugs, sofas, microbes, newspapers, hydroelectric dams, French horns, electrons, and trees, each in turn and in various combinations controlling a dishwasher.”

After several sessions, he reported that an almost complete electronic circuit diagram appeared in his mind. The controller is used in millions of appliances, including, it is said, virtually every microwave oven in the world.

I have to say that I’ve tried this technique several times with undistinguished results. Unfortunately, my mind often wanders from the original problem, and I find the new problem more fascinating, which is probably why I was better suited to be a professor and Steve became what his teaching colleague and leadership author Warren Bennis called, one of the two or three most effective university presidents of the past half-century.

Today, I’ll escort Sample’s mortal remains to the altar of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. I’ll say good-bye, and I will keep him in ever-honored memory.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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