'Mavericks' are rare beasts in business management and most walks of life. The behaviour of the human maverick can be some way short of honourable and may even cut the corners of legality. But in reality, the best maverick managers make the world go round. Without them many great companies and industries could not exist.
You could easily maintain that all great managers, certainly all important entrepreneurs, are mavericks, rule-breakers who disregard the herd and obey their own hunches and heart. None of these makers and shakers could ever be described as conformist.
A good example of the maverick is Philip Knight of Nike, who has just retired as the shoe company's chief executive for the third time. That in itself is highly unconventional; but when his replacements for the first two retirements didn't work out, Knight stepped up to the plate again. Remarkable recovery and revitalised growth soon followed.
Using the Nike story as a management model is tricky, however. As Fortune magazine noted, "What Knight actually does every day in his role managing Nike, in fact, is mostly a mystery". He confesses that the company "has grown round my idiosyncrasies. They don't even know that they're idiosyncrasies any more, and of course neither do I".
Knight is not alone in practising Management by Idiosyncrasy (MBI). John D. Rockefeller I became the world's most wealthy manager, not in spite of his eccentricities, but because of them. The maverick traits of magnates explains their success in one obvious way: by not following the herd, they follow the money.
Contrarian originality is not only a rich source of mould-shattering strategies like those, but of a continuous stream of new, idiosyncratic and very often much better ways of managing and executing.
At Nike, Knight's maverick approach hinged around letting people make decisions, rather than rely on him. One simple method was not to answer their questions; or, if he did give an opinion, to reserve the right to change his mind, the next day if he wanted. By hiring the best people (including other mavericks) and shifting them about the business, Knight was able to optimise the impact of his doubtless ability to inspire.
You will not achieve the 'value-added stratosphere' by conventional means. The maverick qualities of nonconformity, imagination, independence, belligerence and divine dissatisfaction with the status quo are required.
If you require transformation - and these days every organisation requires precisely that - you must accept that the conformist corporation man (or woman) is out, and 'individuals are in': to quote a contribution by Bill Fischer and Andy Boynton to a Harvard Business Review special issue on The High- Performance Organisation (July-August 2005).
For example, does your business...
1. Celebrate individual egos and elicit the best from each
2. Encourage members to compete?
3. Create opportunities for solo performances?
4. Choose solutions based only on merit?
5. Place creativity above efficiency?
The five-YES company plainly has big advantages in a hotly competitive world in which mavericks hold the winning hand. Also there's an evident fit with the characteristics which another HBR writer, Robert E. Quinn, sees as the 'fundamental' state of leadership, in which top management acts from its 'deepest values and instincts'.
That means being results-centred ('I venture beyond familiar territory to pursue ambitious new outcomes'): internally directed ('I behave according to my values'): other-focused ('I put the collective good first'): externally open ('I learn from my environment and see when there's a need to change').
There's something of the maverick in every manager, but it's usually repressed by the dead weight of the organisation and a plethora of other heavy pressures that emphasise reason and caution and militate against emotion and experiment.
Knight has encouraged the latter, positive pair without needing to sacrifice the essential virtues of the first - and all by that simple sounding means of letting well-chosen people get on with what they are good at.