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How to be a maverick… and win


‘Mavericks’ are by definition rare beasts in business management or any other organised activity.

The dictionary definition of itself explains the rarity. The word is taken from American ranching. Nothing is more conformist than a herd of cattle; the maverick, a stray, unbranded animal, is the exception that proves the rule. The word has become a metaphor for the human stray, the non-conformist who is ‘a determined individualist’ – and, perhaps, none too trustworthy.


The behaviour of the human maverick can be well short of honourable and may even cut the corners of legality. But whether sharp practice was typical of the eponymous Samuel Maverick, a Texan cattle-raiser, is beside the management point. The reality is that the best maverick managers make the world go round. Without them many great companies and industries would not exist. Indeed, far from being the exceptions that prove the rule, the mavericks disprove it.

You could easily maintain that all great managers, certainly all important entrepreneurs, are mavericks, rule-breakers who disregard the herd and obey their own instincts and intellects. None of these makers and shakers can ever be described as conformist. One fine example of the breed is Philip Knight of Nike, who has now 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 back in. Remarkable recovery and revitalised growth duly followed.


The Knight encores saw Nike surge to almost $14billion in sales and a market value of $23 billion – over three times that of its nearest rival, Adidas. Using the Nike story as a management text is tricky, however. According to Fortune magazine, ‘What Knight actually does every day in his role managing Nike, in fact, is mostly a mystery’. Hardly anybody has even seen inside Knight’s Japanese-style office. He switches off when matters like market data are being discussed. 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’.


Knight is by no means alone in practising Management by Idiosyncrasy (MBI). As Thinking Managers has previously noted, John D. Rockefeller I became the world’s richest manager, not in spite of his eccentricities, but because of them. The maverick behaviour of magnates explains their success in one obvious way: by not following the herd, they follow the money. Rockefeller’s petroleum rivals mostly concentrated on oil production in the new industry’s turbulent early days. JDR almost alone saw that the stability and the big bucks lay in refining and distribution. His riches duly flowed (not without, in true maverick management style, cutting more than a few legal corners).

Obviously, if everybody else in oil had come to the same correct conclusion, the great man would never have become the first business billionaire. You can see the same pattern of unconventional behaviour wherever you turn in business history. Fortune magazine, for its 75th anniversary, looked at great decisions and their makers: most were natural contrarians.

King C. Gillette’s disposable blades were a maverick breakthrough. A.P. Giannini alone refused to join a proposed six-month banking moratorium after the disastrous San Francisco earthquake, and set his Bank of America off and running to market leadership. In 1914, Henry Ford more than doubled basic wages and cut the working day by one hour. This ‘economic blunder if not crime’ (Wall Street Journal) revolutionised Ford’s economics.


In 1985, Andy Grove and Gordon Moore, losing money heavily on Intel’s core business, memory chips, ‘symbolically fired and rehired themselves, traded memories for microprocessors, and turned Intel into a technology power-house’. Two years previously, Sam Walton of WalMart agreed to invest $24 million in the world’s largest private satellite network: the chain’s consequent advantages in information and speed of response lifted Sales from $8.4 billion to a most wondrous $288 billion in the two decades from 1985.


Contrarian originality is not only a great 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. WalMart’s famed Saturday morning meetings, for example, are a brilliant means of communication and inspiration that has remained effective throughout the amazing drive from Arkansas to world retail leadership.

At Nike, Knight’s unconventional 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 wished. By hiring the best people (including other mavericks) and shifting them about the business, Knight was able to optimise the impact of his unquestioned ability to inspire.

There’s a catch, of course. Having maverick opinions and non-conformist ideas doesn’t guarantee successful decision making. Fortune cites the case of Gerald Levin, who in 2000 took Time Warner into a horrible merger with the top internet provider, America OnLine. Levin compounded his strategic gaffe by failing to impose a ‘collar’ on the deal (this allows the purchaser to renegotiate if the seller’s stock falls below a certain level). Levin wanted to demonstrate his confidence in the deal. His shareholders lost half their wealth.

But this case in no way lessens the case for mavericks. Levin was no entrepreneur, but an expert corporate infighter. The AOL deal did not fly in the face of the conventional wisdom, but swallowed the internet frenzy whole. Ignoring the collar was less unconventional than unintelligent. The moral is that corporate managers shouldn’t try to behave like freestyle mavericks – they don’t possess the instincts or experience to make the right decisions. They are safer in the crowd – but only up to a point.


The safety of the crowd can be illusory. Whole industries can be destroyed by slavishly following time-honoured policies that have been made obsolete by changes in markets and technology; as when personal computers laid the mainframe makers low. The crowd, as with AOL and the other dot.com leaders, can be massively wrong about the strength and prospects of a business. These and allied risks, moreover, have become much greater and faster-acting in the 21st century.

In these conditions, the maverick manager is far more likely to thrive than the conformist. Tom Peters, in his book Re-Imagine!, argued that all extant ideas on leadership were gravely and dangerously outdated. Leaders and led alike, Peters believes, ‘don’t have a clue’ about what the ‘new mandate’ entails. So he offers leaders 50 heretical ideas. The heresy, though, would have looked far more daring at the turn of the century than it does now.

In fact, ideas like admitting ‘I don’t know’, honouring rebels, and encouraging freaks no longer sound that heretical. Peters’ demand that leaders push their organisations into ‘the Value-Added Stratosphere’, while also creating new markets, sounds remarkably like the policy which Jeff Immelt, the successor to Jack Welch at the head of GE, is urging on his managers – as Thinking Managers previously. Where GE leads other big-time managements tend to follow – not least because the company is a fertile breeding ground for other corporations’ CEOs.

You won’t achieve the ‘value-added stratosphere’ by conventional means. The maverick qualities of nonconformity, imagination, independence, pugnacity and divine dissatisfaction with the status quo are required. Welch possessed and applied these attributes in abundance – and Fortune counts his appointment as one of the great key decisions. The chooser, Reginald Jones, deliberately picked a man very different from himself, in the belief that GE, despite its apparent success, needed a top-to-bottom shake-up.

It may seem strange to list a personnel move, however lofty, amidst huge business decisions like IBM’s $5billion gamble on the 360 series of mainframes. But the rationale is impeccable. If you need 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).


The issue is dominated by the necessity and means of getting higher returns from human resources. Fischer and Boynton, both academics, concentrate on teams and on the self-evident fact that, if you want all-star results, you must have all-star, ‘virtuoso’ teams. That means maverick casts which will often ‘play by their own rules – and fight like cats and dogs’. The all-star contrast with traditional teams could hardly be more complete. The attributes (trad teams first) conflict at every point:

  • Choose members for availability v Choose members for skills
  • Focus on tasks v Focus on ideas
  • Work individually and remotely v Work together and intensively
  • Address the average customer v Address the sophisticated customer
  • Emphasise the collective v Emphasise the individual

The last point is fundamental. To take the individual/collective issue deeper, ask, does your organisation….

  • Repress individual egos?
  • Encourage team members to get along with each other?
  • Choose solutions based on consensus?
  • Place efficiency above creativity?

Four YES answers mean that the organisation is no place for mavericks, high performance, stratospheric value added – or anything else that will confront the challenges of today’s business world and profit from the amazing variety of opportunities which are on offer. On the other, positive hand which of these questions earns a YES?

Does your organisation….

  • Celebrate individual egos and elicit the best from each team member?
  • Encourage members to compete?
  • Create opportunities for solo performances?
  • Choose solutions based only on merit?
  • Place creativity above efficiency?

The five-YES company plainly has great advantages in a hotly competitive world in which mavericks hold the winning hand. There’s an evident fit, moreover, 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 recognise when there’s a need to change’).


Quinn’s list is more consensual by far than the Fischer-Boynton picture. His ‘fundamental’ manager has the essential maverick assets, but (to change the animal metaphors) is no gorilla. The cat-and-dog fights that the pair of authors welcome are not a necessary part of good virtuoso teams. True, Nike’s early management meetings ‘were rowdy, drunken affairs’, and known internally as ‘butt faces’. Phil Knight would rarely interrupt the fights: ‘he liked to see the passion’. But Nike grew up and channelled the passion into more adult, social and sociable behaviour.

There’s something of the maverick in every manager, but it’s usually repressed by the dead weight of the organisation and a host 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 do well.

The human choice is vital, as guru Jim Collins stressed when talking to Fortune on great decisions: they were not about ‘what’, but ‘who’; people decisions. In an uncertain world, he argues, hiring the right people is your greatest hedge against the unknown. Develop their maverick sides by using your own, like Knight, and you, too, may win maverick, marvellous results.

Robert Heller