Leadership: The myth of the maverick

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

Michael Austin illustration
This is the cover story in the Nov. 28 weekly edition of The Christian Science Monitor.

It's that time again: stump speeches and town-hall meetings, policy debates, and primaries about to kick off.

It's presidential election time – which means Americans are, yet again, in the season of mavericks.

It has become a ritual of American elections for politicians to pretend as if they're anything but politicians, and polls suggest voters like them better when they believe that. But this isn't simply a political phenomenon. From business to medicine to technology, America loves a visionary outsider willing to follow a dream – and break a few rules, maybe even make a few sacrifices, on the way.

"There are some people who are wired differently to say, 'Hey, I've got this thing in my heart, this opportunity in my profession, and I'm going to shake things up,' " says Jason Atkinson, an entrepreneur-turned-Republican state senator in Oregon. "That leadership style is quintessentially American."

It's why, for example, the country collectively mourned Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, who died Oct. 5. By many reports Mr. Jobs was a difficult man with a penchant for unorthodox ways of doing things, but his technological innovations changed the world – and won global loyalty. It's also why a B-movie star with strong political convictions and communication skills – Ronald Reagan – could rise to the presidency and drive an economic and foreign-policy revolution.

There are other mavericks, equally beloved if among smaller constituencies. Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard professor, earned a devoted enough following – even amid strong criticism – in pushing a national consumer protection agenda under President Obama that she's now a viable candidate for the US Senate. Howard Schultz may not claim a cultlike following among the masses, but his Starbucks institution does. And if John Fetterman is not a household name, his mayoral mission to revitalize his adopted community of Braddock, Pa., a notch on the American Rust Belt, is such a fundamentally American story of rebirth that the town appears in a Levi's commercial.

But does our love affair with mavericks make sense? Are outsiders, or the unorthodox, really better at leading institutions made up of, well, insiders? Is it possible that one person alone can keep us on track, or chart the best path into the future?

"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."

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."

That works, Sinek says, as long as they hire a good details guy – a competent chief operating officer – to handle everything else.

Mr. Palus of the CCL, on the other hand, has a less celebratory view of mavericks. Organizations need leadership across the company, he says, and mavericks aren't so good at working so broadly. They may do well in a limited part of a company or organization, he says, "but unfortunately in the rest of the organization, there's a lot of disconnection.... A maverick is highly functional in his own [section], but in the long run ... [he's] not very good for the organization."

Palus points to Carly Fiorina's tenure as the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, a maverick appointment later almost universally regarded as a disaster for the company.

Palus prefers what he calls a "new school of leadership," one that places less emphasis on a heroic individual and instead favors something more group-based and relationship-driven. He calls it "connected leadership," and it's about letting even people without positions of authority assert themselves as leaders when their skills or networks are called for. That's more difficult than cultivating individuals – and their biographies – as symbols of a brand or a mission. It's also, alas, more boring: Palus and his team build connected leadership in trainings and consultations, neither of which makes a very interesting story when retold outside.

Ironically, CCL's research suggests that businesses still lean toward the myth of the maverick. In simulations, CCL found that business executives replacing top leadership choose outsiders if they feel the company is in trouble and hire insiders if they feel the company is stable. The instinct plays out consistently in simulations – but doesn't always work in the real world, according to Palus.

"It's too disruptive" to bring an outsider into top management at a turbulent time, he says. "It breaks [down] already weak ties ... in the organization even further."

A maverick moment's effect

Though you probably haven't heard of him, Senator Atkinson is something of a local maverick in Oregon – or at the very least not a stereotypical Republican. Earlier this year, for example, he cosponsored bills to ban plastic bags in Oregon stores. But his most personally meaningful maverick moment came last January, when his friend Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic congresswoman from Arizona, was shot at a public meeting in Tucson.

The shooting came just months after the 2010 elections – marked nationally, as well as in Oregon, by militant rhetoric and bitter fighting, Atkinson remembers.

"We had just come off of very, very dirty campaigns, and there was a lot of really raw emotion," he says. "You had a lot of very upset and wounded people serving in the Oregon Senate."

The Giffords shooting resonated with Atkinson, who had himself been accidentally shot nearly three years before. Atkinson weighed whether to speak out against the extremity of political rhetoric, locally and nationally.

"Nobody wanted to say anything because everybody understands the anger" that was in the air after fierce campaigns on both sides, he says. "If you say something, you know you're going to get beat up on talk radio, and by the critics.... But in my mind, something had to be said."

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."

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."

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."

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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