Is The Maverick At Your Company A Genius Or A Jerk?

...And what if he's both? Bob and Gregg Vanourek explain how to work with talented people who are, shall we say, idiosyncratic.

Would Tim Cook hire Steve Jobs?

Think about it. If he did, how long would Jobs last at today's Apple? Would Cook fire Jobs for his famous rants and bullying ways? Would Jobs bail out, frustrated with the lack of total control, and go start another universe-denting company?

These are telling questions because they address a critical but poorly understood aspect of innovative companies: how to deal with mavericks?

Jobs was many things, as we saw in his remarkable career trajectory. People can debate his leadership style and personal characteristics, including sometimes-outrageous behavior, but there is no doubt that Jobs was a quintessential maverick.

Mavericks Are Essential to Innovation

Mavericks are the independent innovators or performers--often quirky--who do not run well with others. They think and act differently. Many mavericks take mischievous delight in shaking things up.

Mavericks can be exceptional innovators, critical in our ultracompetitive world. Besides Jobs, think of other product and business model innovators like Jeff Bezos, Tony Hsieh, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Richard Branson, and Daniel Ek of Spotify. Think also of social innovation mavericks like Bill Drayton of Ashoka and Billy Shore of Share Our Strength. Don't forget cultural mavericks like Lady Gaga, E. L. James, and Stephen Colbert.

Of course, mavericks can be found beyond the ranks of entrepreneurs and celebrities. Many are found within organizations, fighting to bring innovation into corporate cultures that are not always receptive.

And there's the rub: mavericks don't always get along well with others. With their quirky ways, strong wills, and high standards, they often create friction and conflict. They make others uncomfortable. They bristle at systems and routines. As a result, mavericks are often marginalized, rejected by the corporate immune system or by colleagues who want harmony or simplicity. Meanwhile, innovation fizzles.

In such cases, senior executives play a critical role: leaders must protect the mavericks in their organizations. They must step up and give mavericks space to operate, providing organizational cover for mavericks to work their magic and keep the flame of innovation alight.

Look to a surprising example we discovered in our research and interviews for our new book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations: Mayo Clinic, founded in 1889. The Mayo network serves more than a million patients annually. It is a global leader in health care delivery, research, and education, with a sterling brand in health care. Patients from all corners of the globe journey to Mayo for treatment. For over 20 straight years, Mayo hospitals have earned top U.S. News & World Report rankings. Mayo has compiled a stunning record of impacts, from to establish medical residency education to performing the first FDA-approved hip replacement opening their Center for Innovation in 2008.

Mayo's approach is both high-tech and high-touch--combining smart use of technology with old-fashioned customer service and attentive care. On the tech side, Mayo created one of the largest electronic medical record systems in the world and developed a "Virtual Mayo Clinic" presence on Second Life.

Its rich history and sense of tradition notwithstanding, Mayo is not looking for homogeneous candidates when it comes to recruiting. Mayo values what it calls "jarring individuals," employees who question the status quo and shake things up. These Mayo mavericks--and the Clinic's ability to protect them and leverage their talents--are essential to Mayo's enduring success.

Here, Mayo Clinic is not alone. At DaVita (a leading kidney care provider), COO Emeritus Joe Mello told us, "You need mavericks. You should embrace them. They test the assumptions that you're managing with."

How can leaders protect mavericks in their organizations? Here is a punch list:

  • create and empower autonomous "rapid action teams" (or "skunk works")--small cross-functional groups, trained and empowered with the resources and authority to launch path-breaking new products ("insanely great products," as Steve Jobs would say)
  • recognize mavericks and their contributions in meetings, conferences, retreats, and other communications
  • provide mentoring and coaching for mavericks, listening and helping them when they encounter roadblocks
  • intervene when dust-ups occur between mavericks and others, reframing to focus on the goal instead of the dispute
  • create a culture that celebrates piloting, experimentation, and pivots, and that allows or even welcomes failure (as an investment in learning and discovery)
  • personally engage in innovation projects to show top-level commitment

But Take Heed

There are, however, important exceptions to the "protect the mavericks" mantra. There are cases when leaders should not protect the mavericks because their behavior has gone too far. [b]When mavericks do not operate by the shared values of the organization, and support its mission, they must become casualties. Leaders must remove them from the organization, "helping them succeed elsewhere."

Mello told us about one high-performing maverick at DaVita who "did not live by the core values. He thought they were a joke. We terminated him. We made it known the reason he was gone was that he didn't manage by the mission and values. Once you do that, the message gets around."

In our years of experience, from Fortune 500 firms to startups and turnarounds, we have worked with all sorts of mavericks, from brilliant academicians to software engineers, temperamental artists, and entrepreneurial founders. We have seen ball hogs, bad apples, bullies, unguided missiles (who launch a disruptive rocket at a colleague in a meeting and then sit back to watch the fallout), naysayers, malicious compliers (who acquiesce to a request knowing negative consequences will result), saboteurs, destructive, toxic personalities, and more. What to do with them when they are beyond fixing? Xerox CEO Ursula Burns told us succinctly: "We fire them." Harvard Business School professor Bill George told us his approach when he was CEO of Medtronic: "We don't tolerate jerks."

Too many leaders either fail to take the necessary casualties or fail to do it soon enough. They ignore inappropriate behavior that undermines the organization's values, often because the individual in question is a star performer. When leaders fail to take decisive action with these malcontents, they damage the organization's culture--and their own moral authority.

Of course, not all cases are clear-cut. Leaders must make judgment calls about when coaching, second chances, and creative interventions are appropriate. Leading organizations with mavericks is a challenge and not for the faint of heart.

Back to our hypothetical (and slightly heretical) questions about Apple: Would Cook hire Jobs? Fire him? Of course, Apple would be who-knows-where without the contributions of Jobs (and cofounder Steve Wozniak). Jobs brought a bruised Apple back to life, restoring its maverick magic and propelling it to historic heights. Steve Jobs demonstrated genius, but his leadership style had profound flaws--and his behavior was sometimes atrocious.

Leaders should protect the mavericks who support the organization's mission and values--and part ways with those who don't.

Bob and Gregg Vanourek are the authors of Triple Crown Leadership, available now from McGraw-Hill. Follow them @TripleCrownLead.

[Image: Flickr user Jon Rawlinson]

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9 Comments

  • Graham Leicester 雷思达

    The bigger question for me is how 'mavericks' get hired in the first place.  Any advice on that - either for the maverick or the potential employer?

  • Happy Guy

    Employer hires the Maverick out of desperation due to the shortage of qualified coders. For employers, it's better to hire a mediocre team player that plays nice with the current staff; does management have time to constantly step in to settle disputes caused by a Maverick? What a distraction.

    The Maverick has no hope of employment if he expects his shenanigans to be tolerated unless he is a co-founder. As an employee, by this role's very nature, he is expected to be a cooperative team player. Any self-avowed Maverick must be patient, work his way up the corporate ladder, then unleash the Maverick once his achievements are recognized and reputation secure.Would Steve Jobs' personality be tolerated as an entry level programmer? He wasn't that good of an engineer!

  • Guest

    Corporations, institutions, and any organization founded on authority, obedience, and command/control punishment/reward systems are the problem, not the solution. At the very core of these organizations is the belief system perpetuated by them that without them, without obedience to their system, of course, there would be total chaos, anarchy, and the demise of man as we know it. That is milarky. What it's about, is perpetuation of THEIR command and control. They share, in an illusion, that you have some of that, and everyone mentally masturbates on that until you cross the line, their line, and become, as this article put it, a jerk, and then you are gone. If it was really about what's good for mankind, good for sustainability, good for the planet, we would not be stuck in this medieval destruction of the planet, slowly bleeding the last of our fossil fuel resources from third world nations, we would have "fixed" that dependence 50 years ago, and learned from the mistakes of WW I and WW II. That does not mean we don't have a great country, and great potential, it means we are willing to live in kind of a half-life, not really realizing our full potential, while the politicians and pundits tell us, "keep looking forward, someday we might get there, and those people over there telling you about solutions, why they are just jerks"..... 

  • Bob

    We agree C+C alone is a big part of the problem, not a solution. Triple crown organizations want to build an organization that is "excellent, ethical, and enduring." We agree this country and many organizations have huge and latent potential lying fallow. We also reveal in our "steel and velvet" chapter why triple crown leadership does involve using power and authority at times, not often, but at critical times. One can't always lead with consensus and collaboration. At times the leader must decide, especially, as we wrote in the FC article, when a maverick becomes toxic. The key is to always explain one's steel (command, not control) decision in terms of the shared values.

  • gbacoder

    Yes, too much is about if a corporation creates a profit and jobs, it is seen as doing good. It is not. There are many other impacts positive and negative, many other choices. People are becoming more conscious of this and making more of the right choices in who they buy products from and work for. It's a small movement but growing. 

  • gbacoder

    There is another option. Before sacking the maverick for differing in values you can always question your corporation's values. Apple could do more with its profits to help people in need. Then they would be a truly blessed phone to work with/on, not just polished in the UI, but having something special and caring. A feeling that would make people love the brand more and be win/win for all concerned. As it stands they risk losing their underdog innovative spiritual, not corporate status that we all loved them for. I would not mind the very high profit margins so much then. How long before other OS systems on phones catch up and become as slick / user oriented? Then why should people choose Apple? Many innovators want to make a difference. I think they would rather work for a company that gives back, that helps the small man. As the small man is how many mavericks see themselves. Apple is going far, far away from the small man. They sell the most expensive phones for the most well off people in the world. They are all rich themselves. They milk workers in Asia as much as anybody. As much as we hate to say it, this is Apple now, this is what they have become. Just another shareholder oriented firm, now run by corporate oriented people who worked hard to rise through the ranks, believe they deserve massive pay checks and bonuses in the billions, concerned with targets, but always relied on Jobs for the vision. Just food for thought.. Feedback welcome, but I can spot a diehard Apple fan a mile off, so be reasonable.

  • Bob

    Cotic, 2 good posts. Thanks for responding to what we wrote. Yes, organizational values should be shared values and are always subject to being upgraded collaboratively, especially if key values such as integrity are missing. Indeed, triple crown organizations want to be excellent, ethical, and enduring, as we detail in "Triple Crown Leadership." I am an Apple user but see deep flaws in the leadership style of Steve Jobs, even acknowledging his consummate skill as an innovator. By our criteria, Apple was not on the triple crown quest under Jobs but perhaps there is hope under Cook? We believe the movement to build excellent, ethical, and enduring will prevail. The question is how long will it take?

  • Happy Guy

    I disagree. Apple has never catered to the "small man". Apple products have always been more expensive than equivalent offerings from HP/Dell. There was an arrogance at Apple under Jobs - its superior design ethic justifies the price premium. Steve Jobs has always disdained the "small man", remember he does not believe that consumers know what they want. He created the iPod and iTunes without first engaging in consumer sentiment and market research.

    If you read a typical Steve Jobs biography/anecdote, the themes are pretty consistent:
    1. Selfish, egotistical and arrogant
    2. Competitive to a fault
    3. Ruthless
    4. Detail oriented

    Today, without Steve Jobs, Apple is more likely to be a kinder gentler company. With Steve Jobs at the helm, Apple was a ruthless business juggernaut (forget design for a second) that was ready to go "thermonuclear" on any competitor that posed a threat to its dominance.

    The Maverick can not co-exist with managers as he will always believe he is superior to those who supervise him. This conundrum is irreconcilable - the article fails to understand that the typical manager does not have the time or patience to deal with a Maverick personality at the expense of his better behaving direct reports.  

  • BobVanourek

    Happy Guy, thanks for responding to what we wrote in the FC article. One cannot read Isaacson's bio of Jobs without agreeing with your assessments. But I do disagree with your idea that a manager cannot coexist with a maverick who buys into the (assumed good) shared values of the organization. Good leaders, in spite of the time pressures of our frenetic world, should take the time and have the patience to deal with mavericks who abide by the values of the organization. Indeed, we believe they should provide cover for and protect values-based mavericks because they will stimulate the innovation and new approaches the organization needs to be excellent, ethical, and enduring. It takes work but is worth it in our experience.