Marvellous mavericks

Aug 16 2005 by Robert Heller Print This Article

'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".

By not following the herd, they follow the money

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 team member?
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.

more articles

About The Author

Robert Heller
Robert Heller

Robert Heller, who died aged 80 in August 2012, was Britain's most renowned and best-selling author on business management. Author of more than 50 books, he was the founding editor of Management Today and the Global Future Forum. About his latest title, The Fusion Manager, Sir John Harvey-Jones wrote: "The future lies with the thinking manager, and the thinking manager must read this book".

Older Comments

I'd have to agree that the maverick or individual if you prefer stands the best chance of being exceptional. By following convention you might take a few steps up the ladder but you will only get as high as the soles of the person above you and it's always someone else's ladder.

By adopting the maverick stance that Robert speaks of here you can create your own ladder to a destination known only to you and that only stops when you do. Better still, the real marvellous maverick will create the first lime-green anti-gravity boots with MP3 player that will be a great success even if initially decried as complete madness!

Come on, go mad I need the lift. I'm keen to hear what other mavericks think? Where will your genius take us?

René Da Costa, Renecents Solutions

I could not agree more with Mr Heller's words. But I think the Anglo-American culture has the most respect for individuality, so becoming a maverick manager (or a maverick becoming a manager) seems to be a real possibility in the U.S. or the UK.

Unfortunately, Germany did not have a maverick manager since the great enrepreneurial activity of the late 19th century (my estimate). Conformitiy is valued above everything else and it is choking the country as everybody can see at the dismal performance of the economy. Germany is only good at producing machinery, where process and efficiency is important. Media, advertising, software, retailing, all other services are second rate at best. Other institutions, most prominently higher education, are even worse.

The reason: no hiring of unconventional people who could challenge established but outdated assumptions, rigid hierarchies, punishment of initiative and creativity, no tolerance for experimentation or risk-taking, no venture capital culture, no means of self-expression, all those things are STRENG VERBOTEN (stricitly prohibited). It is no wonder that many of Germany's best and brightest have already left the country or are considering to leave. Working in Germany is a frustrating experience if you are young, hungry and different.

The idea of maverick managers has huge implications beyond one single organization striving for success. Germany desperately needs a culture of tolerance for so-called maverick managers (or politicians and professors, for that matter). Progress depends on the maverick, not the timid conformist.

Georg Blaha Germany

Understanding the term Maverick, let alone understanding the psyche of these rare talents is almost an enigma to most senior corporate leaders unfortunately.

My personal experience is based around my exposure in corporate life to leaders who are more concerned about 'power of position' as opposed to understanding 'power of presence'

My military background, to include five years spent serviving with the British Special forces' alowed me to become exposed to many maverick termed, leaders. Men who actually every day used their gut in life threatening situations to make the right call or to inspire as required those around them.

If only we could encourage more corporate entities to value such leadership traits and guide them to the top of organisations where their talent could inspire, guide and leverage the doubtless talent that is there in abundance but is never sought as it is perceived as a threat instead.

Not many corporate leaders believe everyone is talented. I have personally always employed a mantra around 'talent developing in quite places and our challenge as leaders is to go find it', my view, not shared by many.

So yes I would like to find the CEO, leadership team and organisation who understand and value Mavericks.

As I move forward with my own journe through life will seek them out and always employ them.

Andrew Powell London