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Scott Cowen


How to Be an Effective Organizational Maverick

The best know how to balance passion with patience and conviction with calmness

Published: Tuesday, October 15, 2019 - 12:03

It was a year ago that our country lost one of its most well-known and respected mavericks in recent political history. After John McCain passed away, many felt that his death left a void that would be hard to fill and wondered whether nonconformist leaders like him, who usually worry more about what’s right than about what’s popular, still exist. The McCain Institute for International Leadership even launched a nonpartisan campaign called #MavericksNeeded, reminding us all of the need to uphold principles of freedom and democracy, encourage moral reasoning, and bring progress.

One year later, we get our pick of politicians on the national stage who are willing to go it alone and ruffle some feathers. The four freshman Congresswomen known as the “squad” come to mind, and so might the four Republicans who crossed party lines when they voted with all Democrats in the House to condemn President Trump’s recent “go home” comments. Texas Democratic Representative Al Green has been called a maverick for trying to get Trump impeached three times without the necessary support from his party.

Speaking of our president, Trump himself could be considered a maverick, given his unorthodox or, as some may put it, deviant ways. Sometimes we applaud mavericks for their guts and principled actions; sometimes mavericks come in the form of a loose cannon or a thorn in the side. Dysfunction, division, and derailment can be byproducts of maverick behavior. This is true in both politics and the business world.

Mavericks are known to shake things up. Many companies and organizations benefit from people who do things differently from everyone else because these individuals see what no one else has seen, take risks that no one else has been willing to take, and ask questions that no one else has dared to ask. It can be incredibly powerful to have a maverick in the room who says, “Let’s think about why this may not be a good idea,” or, “Why don’t we do it this way?” If all goes well, mavericks promote innovation, due diligence, and productivity. However, there is a difference between being an independent-minded, rule-defying lone ranger and an effective maverick.

More than two decades ago when I was a business school dean, I wrote an article on how organizations can harness the out-of-the-box thinking and unconventional spirit of productive mavericks, and I still believe in the power of organizational mavericks. However, a maverick’s effectiveness doesn’t just hinge upon an organization’s ability to create an environment in which the maverick can flourish. Mavericks need to do their part to demonstrate that they are operating in the interest of the organization and that their ideas have merit.

There are several ways in which effective organizational mavericks can be distinguished from wannabe and dysfunctional mavericks:
• Ego and self-interest are not what motivate effective mavericks to think differently and go against the tide. At the end of the day, their main concern is their organization’s success and well-being.
• Effective mavericks’ contributions are based on sound principles, a moral compass, and facts. Their ideas didn’t come about on a whim. They neither suddenly emerge when an opportunity presents itself, nor are they driven by cravings for a place in the spotlight—although the maverick may welcome the attention. A constructive maverick feels a sense of purpose and has developed strong beliefs that are grounded in experience that she can express and defend logically and comprehensibly.
• When met with opposition—which is often the case because mavericks tend to be perceived as disruptive or irritating—they stay civil and respectful without compromising the substance of their message. They understand that their ideas, no matter how defensible, may not be readily embraced. They don’t demonize those who oppose the change they seek. In an ideal scenario, the maverick manages to balance passion with patience and conviction with calmness.
• If frustration sets in despite all good intentions, and conflict spins out of control, effective mavericks know better than to air their dirty laundry externally. Whatever needs to be ironed out is kept within the organization because the maverick respects internal codes of conduct and sees the bigger picture. Hurting the organization is not part of the maverick’s playbook.

What’s most important for mavericks to understand is that the ends don’t justify the means, and that being right doesn’t automatically produce success. Whether it’s in a team meeting or the board room, organizational mavericks won’t get very far if they fail to build human relationships and articulate their divergent views in ways that invite others to listen.

Unless the maverick happens to be the person in charge—which naturally gives him much more leeway to behave wildly or unusually (think Elon Musk or Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue U.S. )—the decision-making power lies with others, and any proposal is best offered in the spirit of a suggestion. In the end, a maverick who contributes in productive and meaningful ways isn’t someone on the outside; an effective maverick views himself as a team member and consequently cares most about what’s best for the group.

Capable of putting their feelings of personal defeat aside, effective mavericks brush themselves off and continue to roam freely in search of better solutions. Perhaps most tellingly, they never lose their passion for making their ideas heard, and because of that passion, they are invaluable in any organizational setting.

First published Sept. 12, 2019, on the Knowledge@Wharton blog.


About The Author

Scott Cowen’s picture

Scott Cowen

Scott Cowen is president emeritus and distinguished university chair at Tulane University and an author, most recently of  Winnebagos on Wednesdays: How Visionary Leadership Can Transform Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2019).


on Mavericks

Great post. I guess using your own words a Maverick "shakes things" up because its appropriate and necessary, not just for the sake of.

Calling one-self a Maverick and being the productive kind you talk about might be exclusive. What do you think?