Leadership: The myth of the maverick
Does our love affair with mavericks – from Ronald Reagan to Steve Jobs – make sense?
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"When you say the word 'maverick,' what probably gets conjured up for people ... is the cowboy, the John Wayne riding in on a horse and saving things," says Charles Palus, a manager at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in Greensboro, N.C. "That is a myth. That is a fantasy."Skip to next paragraph
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Judging from the chattering classes and media memes, though, there is little interest in giving up the fantasy. We fall for the charismatic outsider who wants to rejuvenate wearied insiders, bringing charisma with fresh ideas and bold visions, whether in Silicon Valley or on Capitol Hill.
"We make sense of the world through the stories we tell. The way we construct individual narratives, and the national narrative allows us to see just one person, rather than the huge complexity that makes action happen. That's the biggest driver of the hagiography of individual leaders," says Cheryl Dorsey, president of Echoing Green, which funds budding social entrepreneurs with creative solutions to entrenched social problems.
We like swashbuckling confidence and rogue-going independence. We love the myth of the maverick. But should we follow it?
Vision vs. detail
There are at least two ways of thinking about mavericks. In one school of thought, they're visionaries, their minds too preoccupied with imagining the future to be bothered with things like budgets or memos, says Simon Sinek, a leadership consultant and author of "Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action." In his view, mavericks aren't just out-siders. They are free or courageous or creative – or perhaps downright naive – enough to behave in unexpected ways. They "look to the future, to a world that does not exist yet, and put it into words so clearly that we can see that world as if it were our own vision," he says.
Vision, says Mr. Sinek, is what allows maverick leaders, eventually, to succeed – when we have the patience to let them. He points to Jobs, who founded Apple in 1976, left the company, and came back to revolutionize pocket electronics. Or to Scott Harrison, who in three years has built a multimillion-dollar nonprofit called "charity:water," which brings sustainable supplies of clean water to communities in developing countries. Or, reaching back in time, to John F. Kennedy and his commitment to land a man on the moon, announced in a 1961 address. "The moon landing was in 1969," Sinek says. "That is not a quarterly result."
Quarterly results, or business plans or daily memos, says Sinek, are for the details guys – in business terms, the competent CEOs implementing the vision of chief executives. The key to good leadership, he says, is understanding the difference between the visionary maverick and the details guy. "One says, 'I want to get to California'; the other figures out which road to take."