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Leadership: The myth of the maverick

Does our love affair with mavericks – from Ronald Reagan to Steve Jobs – make sense?

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Without consulting party leadership, Atkinson gave an impromptu, impassioned speech on the Senate floor asking for greater civility in politics. He wanted to see a conversation between politicians about ideas, rather than reducing debates, as he said in his speech, to "the idea that I am right, and you are evil."

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If his fellow politicians were listening, they missed his point. "The blowback for that decision was nothing I had ever experienced," he says. He received hate mail and threatening telephone calls. "For weeks I had the sheriff's office parked outside my house," he says.

Some of that backlash, he thinks, was simply because some politicians thought they could score points by disagreeing with Atkinson. But he thinks there may also have been something else: guilt.

"The big bullies in politics don't make up 50 percent of one side and 50 percent of the other, so why is that driving everything?" he says. "I think there was a pretty big chunk of guilt."

Nearly one year later, though, he also thinks that speech made a difference. For starters, the sheriff's cars are gone and people are being a lot nicer to him. "People who talk to me now want me to think they're being civil. It's kind of like, you don't swear in front of the pastor," he says with a laugh.

He's also received dozens of invitations to speak about civility to groups across the state. He's been sought out for conversations about meaningful bipartisanship. The local conversation, he says, has begun to change.

Is it time to move past the maverick?

Some say the visionary maverick is only the beginning of the story. "There are people who seem to go it alone in the world and make significant changes in the world," says Kelly Hamm, senior research scientist at CCL. "But I think underneath that ... there are untold stories of people who are around that person that contributed to their success."

Large enterprises may maintain that kind of division of labor, but the landscape is shifting – and rapidly in smaller ventures like social enterprise start-ups. Jodi Sandfort is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs and chair of its leadership studies program, and she says two things are happening simultaneously. The traditional demands made of leaders are changing, even as more varied leadership is emerging in an increasing number of places.

Under the old model – think Jack Welch at General Electric or Lee Iacocca at Chrysler – "a heroic leader would come in with the vision and then run off into the sunset, and other people would figure out how to do it. That's another part of the myth that's deteriorating: If you have the vision, you need to be able to mobilize the resources, implement the vision, and understand the policy of it."

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