Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Mavericks, they’re everywhere

MAVERICKS: I am currently nonplussed by the frequency with which I read in the press that description of people, organisations and even whole countries. UKIP leader Nigel Farage is a “maverick politician”, his party, well, a “maverick party”.

Britain is becoming a “maverick state” in Europe; Quentin Tarantino is a “maverick film director”; Dave Fishwick, star of TV series Bank of Dave, is “maverick” for claiming that High Street banks are “shit”, and this morning I read that Lonrho, the once mighty British conglomerate that is about to go private, was run by the colourful and “maverick” businessman Tiny Rowland, notorious for his battle with Mohamed Al-Fayed over control of Harrods.

Mavericks are everywhere. Intriguingly though, the term is used in both a negative and positive sense, applied as it is to people the press seem to favour and dislike. Sometimes it seems to reflect misty-eyed adulation. But most often it appears to have a negative connotation and I wonder whether that is the right way to see mavericks – as threatening, unpredictable, slightly dangerously bonkers.

As ever it depends on your point of view but “maverick”, as a category, has not escaped the attention of academics. In 2011 psychologists Elliroma Gardiner, of the London School of Economics, and Chris J Jackson of the University of New South Wales, decided to look at workplace mavericks to figure out if personality and an appetite for risk taking were indicative of maverick qualities.

The pair defined maverickism as “a behavioural tendency to engage in creative, dynamic, risk-taking, disruptive and bold goal-directed behaviours.” They then tested a set of hypotheses in an experiment with 458 men and women which sought to categorise their personality types and correlate them with maverick traits such as a willingness to take risks and “lateral preference”.

Now, lateral preference is interesting because this proposition, taken seriously by academics, essentially says that if someone has a preference for their left ear, they are more likely to be maverick. Why? Because the left ear is closely associated with the right hemisphere of the brain and that in turn is associated with “visionary” or creative elements of work. So what did the boffins find? Well, the results are detailed and complex so here’s a summary.

The outcomes, they say, suggest a combination of creativity and little fear of negative consequences “are at least partial drivers” behind mavericks’ appetite for undertaking “unconventional” actions.

Ear preference points to a “biological” predisposition for risky behaviour, and mavericks are more likely to be “antagonistic’ rather than altruistic, poor team players, extroverts and possessing “low levels of agreeableness”. In short mavericks like to take their chances, don’t really care what happens to other people along the way, and will keep taking the same risk in the face of strong opposition. Moreover, if their venture really does fall on its face they brush themselves off with ease and move on to the next venture with very little self-doubt.

The interesting thing is that we all know how valuable mavericks can be. In business they push ahead with their vision in spite of staggering opposition, losing friends, making enemies, and frequently win out generating vast sums of money along the way. They are the ones who will come up with the disruptive, outlier idea that nobody believes and yet against the odds turns out to be a winner.

So simply dumping, or avoiding, mavericks because they give you and your organisation the willies is not necessarily good business policy. All organisations need people who are willing to challenge, take risks, go against the tide. Gardiner and Jackson believe their work, identifying the left ear preference, may just give organisations a tool for identifying mavericks in their midst.

I can’t help feeling though that this isn’t the biggest psychological challenge. The big issue is persuading managers to discard their fear and apprehension of the mavericks in their midst and learn how to harness their natural dispositions, rather than viewing them all as problematic individuals who need to be controlled (though it should be noted that not all difficult people are maverick creative geniuses).

I once took part in a graduate recruitment drive. At the end of the day, in a selection committee, I was asked who my favoured candidate was. I picked a young woman who was bold, combative and strikingly intelligent. She questioned my questions and we had a tough back-and-forth debate which I enjoyed enormously. The committee unanimously rejected her as too difficult to manage.

She probably was difficult, but she probably would have brought “maverick” qualities that would have been invaluable. It was their loss, but another recruiter’s gain.

Gavin Hinks is a freelance journalist and writes the Profits and Loss blog at