Leadership: The myth of the maverick
Does our love affair with mavericks – from Ronald Reagan to Steve Jobs – make sense?
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Professor Sandfort says those demands have brought new innovations to leadership. But the bigger innovation, she says, is in how – and whether – we recognize leadership in all the places it exists. Before taking her university post, Sandfort spent five years at a community foundation, investing in various local nonprofit initiatives. "I was humbled by the everyday leadership people were showing," she says, remembering grandmothers who kept their blocks organized around a community goal, or church members in rural Minnesota whose support propelled local initiatives. "At the same time, I think most of those stories are not told, and they certainly are not told as leadership stories."Skip to next paragraph
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Indeed, mavericks need myths. An individual leader – whether called heroic, visionary, or maverick – is nothing without a gripping story, whether it's how she built a billion-dollar company from nothing, or how he transformed a rural health-care system. In some cases, we love the rags-to-riches aspect. In others, we rely on a personal story to help understand the complicated, impersonal system a leader is trying to change.
This need for heroic stories, though, is a double-edged sword, says Ms. Dorsey of Echoing Green. On one hand is the start-up culture of social entrepreneurship that values collaboration, teamwork, and shared leadership. On the other is the idea that start-up social endeavors need cash. "When you're trying to raise resources, you're pigeonholed into telling the story in a way that privileges the individual," she says.
Mark Hanis, an Echoing Green grantee and founder of the Genocide Intervention Network, says the competition for resources among organizations with similar missions creates inefficiencies in larger social movements. "It's really rare, for example, if someone calls and says, 'Hey, can you tell us more about Congo ... we want you to be on Tom Brokaw.' [Or] for people to say, 'No, you should talk to this other organization; they're more informed ... and can give you the most up-to-date picture," Mr. Hanis says. "You need to put your organization's self-interest behind your sector's interest."
That wouldn't work so well outside the nonprofit sphere, of course. But the shift away from maverick-style leadership is happening in the private sector, too, Palus, of the CCL, says. "The idea is that there really are not pure leaders and pure followers anymore," he says. "Even followers take their turns at the process of leading" – and even at some major private enterprises.
'Hero leader' myth may explain voter anger
If there's a growing interest in shifting away from the heroic frame of leadership, it is not simply because the stories obscure the collective effort that success requires, in both private and public ventures. These days, the myth of a hero-leader may be doing more harm than good.
"I believe that's part of why people are so angry at our politicians," says Sandfort. "They're angry that [people in office] are no longer being effective, heroic leaders."
But don't try telling that to Atkinson. Even if today's leaders are underperforming, he believes heroes – and the tantalizing possibilities held out by great maverick leaders – are here to stay.
" 'Profiles in Courage' was not written about a committee," Atkinson says, referring to John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book about admirable politicians. "It was [stories] about the person who did it right, for the right reasons, and paid a huge price.... This is a time for people to go read that book – and start living it."
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