51: Make Room for Mavericks

Is there room for a maverick in your organization?
Is there room for a maverick in your organization?

This episode is based on chapter 4 of Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make.

In this episode I cover:

  • A Pain Point from a 20 something aged leader
  • Mavericks can save us from the slide toward institutionalism.
  • Large organizations usually kill off mavericks before they can take root.
  • Mavericks make messes by their very nature?the good messes institutions need.
  • Learn to recognize truly useful mavericks.

Bill and Mary sat on the couch in my office and spilled their wounded emotions for more than an hour. Here were two extremely gifted individuals who had helped grow their local church very aggressively through their entrepreneurial zeal. Of the entire team of five families, of which they were a part, Bill and Mary had the greatest giftedness in the areas of growing, expanding, and building. Yet they are mavericks, and after just two years their team rejected them for not ?playing by the rules.? They became outcasts. The word that was relayed to me from the team was, ?Don?t send them back. We don?t want them.?

And what are those rules that Bill and Mary broke? As I pried for their offense, all I found was a lack of boring institutional conformity. Like many others who live on the radical fringes of organizations, Bill and Mary have a hard time fitting into a rigid bureaucracy. They are mavericks and need freedom to fly. Recently I led my senior staff through a discussion at one of our planning retreats on the topic of making room for creative people. I challenged them with this question: ?Have we made it impossible for ??bright rising stars and maverick go-getters to live within our organization?? When we become too preoccupied with policy, procedure, and the fine-tuning of conformity to organizational standards, in effect, we squeeze out some of our most gifted people.

?I?m looking for a lot of men with an infinite capacity for not knowing what can?t be done.? ?Henry Ford

Organizations have this nasty habit of becoming institutions. And institutions have this great tendency to fade into irrelevance. Movements become monuments. Inspiration becomes nostalgic. The tragedy of this often-repeated story is that the older an organization gets, the less room there is for the entrepreneurially gifted. Mavericks are messy by nature, and calcified organizations chew them up and spit them out with their rigidity. Mavericks are necessary for us to be creative. The dictionary defines maverick as ?an independent individual who does not go along with a group or party.? The word comes from the 1870s when a famous?pioneer in the wild western United States refused to brand his cattle. His name was Samuel A. Maverick. Mavericks are free spirits that have always been misunderstood.

This is as true in the church as it is in the business world. Organizations follow a pattern as they move from passion to paralysis, from the apostolic to the mechanistic! This pattern seems to follow the very pattern of the human life cycle, from birth to adolescence to the most productive adult years, and eventually to death. Even organizations that don?t die often look and act dead.

When I became president and CEO of WorldVenture fifteen years ago, the company was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. There were a lot of very proud moments in that history, but to me?any fifty-year-old is going to have issues! It has been my obsession these years to reinvent the organization from inside out and from top to bottom. There is very little I have left unchanged, because the world today is so different than the world that existed when we were founded in 1943. We were in a death spiral in our life cycle and I was determined to turn it around.

Let me illustrate this cycle of life. The time when mavericks are most crucial is during the entrepreneur years of expansion in childhood and adolescence and right after the crest during the graying years, when organizations need to be ?born again.? One reason the?story of Bill and Mary crushed me so deeply was that their church really needed their help but didn?t know it. The organization was dying and needed them desperately at that stage in its life cycle. But I am amazed at how many people live in denial during these days of sad decline. They reject the very people that can bring them new life.

Birth. One or two individuals or families decide to try something new. They start a new business, plant a new church, or embark on some new enterprise that will create the new life of an organization.

Infancy. The fragile new organization needs loads of tender loving care and constant feeding and pampering in these trying days of survival. And as new parents discover, there are many costs and few paybacks beyond the joy of seeing the new life you have created.

Childhood. The early, unsure days of floundering youth. First steps are taken amid the bruises and bumps that come with childhood. Great strides in learning are taking place.

Adolescence. The identity crisis comes once the organization is up and running, usually between five and ten years out, when the original founding principles are questioned by the growing number of new members who were not there at the beginning. Great growth pains happen during this rite of passage to adulthood.

Adulthood. The organization is now in its prime, fully staffed, and functioning the way it was intended to from the beginning. These are great productive years, as things are going right and goals are being accomplished in grand style.

Middle age. As in human midlife, things begin to slow down, and some of the zest and zeal of the peak years starts to wane. Settling for limited objectives is a large part of the pattern here.

Graying years. In these years, institutionalization, or even fossilization, is taking place. The preservation of the organization becomes the chief?end, and new ideas are discouraged because they upset the established routines of the decades. ?We?ve always done it that way? is the theme song of the graying years.

Old age. If the organization is still around, it is probably maintaining a bare existence with a tiny market share of whatever it does. Nothing is happening, no one notices it, and things are quiet in the orderly hallways and boardrooms. Many churches in our land are in this condition, and can go on for years with the reserves of a few generous estates.

Death. I wish more organizations would take this bold step and declare themselves finished when they have fulfilled their usefulness. Every organization sooner or later must cease to have life?at least life as they once understood it?and we should allow each generation the privilege of creating its own vehicles to accomplish its ideals.

Birth, life, aging, and death: the natural order of creation. What do these life cycles have to do with mavericks? It should be obvious by now that the older an organization, the less room for truly creative people. In the early years of a growing new organization, entrepreneurial vision and zeal is the very lifeblood that gets the group going. Whether a local church is trying to attract new members or a business is going after a new market share, it takes creative vision and go-getters to get things moving.

One of my students asked me the obvious question about the life- cycle chart: ?Can the decline down the other side of the curve be avoided, or is it inevitable?? I have grown more skeptical as years have gone by. I have viewed the comings and goings of organizations, which I call the ebb and flow of organizational life. There can be a rebirth, but it takes a strong dose of new blood?young, maverick blood?to arrest the slide down the far side of the life-cycle curve.

Most people who get to know me find that under the reserved German facade is a zealous maverick. So why would a fifty-year-old?organization hire a forty-year-old zealot like me to run things? I applaud the board of directors of our organization, not for selecting me, but for taking a gamble on putting a maverick in charge. We needed it at that time of our life cycle. We had been in middle age, and many of the warning signs of the approaching graying years of institutional life were appearing in our midst. When the board of directors was interviewing me, they asked me for my greatest fear for our organization, my gravest concern as we looked into the future. That was an easy question to answer for an organization like ours: ?My greatest fear is that our best days are behind us. I loathe the thought that we should fade into irrelevance.?

One of the men who had a profound role of mentorship in my life in the 1980s was a fine gentleman by the name of Arno Enns. He has a prominent place on my hero wall. Most ????people won?t recognize his name, but the top ranks of our organization today are filled with men and women he mentored.

For ten years Arno was my boss and immediate supervisor. But he was?more than that. After my own father died in 1984, he became like another dad for me. Now Arno is by his very nature cautious and process oriented: Risk taking is not natural for him. But he believed in me, and though I was a maverick in the organization, he cultivated me and harnessed that zeal. He gave me the opportunity to open doors in Eastern Europe in the early 1980s.

An incident in 1982 stands out as an example of how Arno was flexi-ble enough to make room for me. We were living in Vienna, Austria, and making forays into Eastern Europe as part of an underground leadership development network. In the early months of 1982 I relayed a request back to him that I wanted to spend $3,900 for a personal computer. Remember, that was 1982. Most people had never heard of Steve Jobs, and the IBM PC had yet to be released. I was going to purchase a Tandy Radio Shack TRS Model III personal computer to use for writing and database chores. I was, perhaps, the first person in our overseas organization to make such a request. ?Why would anyone need a personal computer?? was the general notion back then.

But Arno was different. He believed in me and thought that perhaps this was the way of the future. He listened to my arguments and authorized the purchase as a sound one. It is partly because of that kind of visionary thinking that I have stuck with Arno and our organization all these years. And now, at the helm myself, I have a passion to make room for the next generation of mavericks. Arno is now in his eighties and long retired, but he still sends me articles to read that refresh my spirit and challenge me to lead outside the box! He is a living reminder that you can be eighty years old (that?s eighty years young to you, Arno!) and still be a maverick!


Webster?s Dictionary defines a maverick as, ?a pioneer, an independent individual who does not go along with a group.? Synonyms for?maverick include ?nonconformist,? ?heretic,? ?dissident,? ?dissenter,? and ?separatist.? If you think about it, Jesus was a maverick and was eventually destroyed by the institutional religious body he came to redeem. And you thought you had it tough getting your ideas through!

One reason I love reading the Bible is that it is filled with the stories of men and women who were nonconformists, who didn?t meet the norms of society. I relate to them! The Bible is filled with mavericks and revolutionaries that changed the world. Moses was an outsider whom God chose to bring renewal to his people. Joseph was left for dead by his brothers. Peter was a maverick from the start, but Jesus never cast him aside for his raw edge, instead he cultivated it and harnessed it. Then, of course, there was that great Pharisee of Pharisees, Paul, who, like Martin Luther, began in the bosom of the institution but was soon coloring outside the lines. Isn?t it just like God to?make one of the chief supporters of the ?old? into one of the strongest advocates for the ?new??

A few years ago I read a fascinating book that traces the expansion of Christianity from the perspective of those who made it happen, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, by Ruth Tucker. It records the simple truth that the greatest strides in the advancement of Christianity have come from the radical fringe, not the institutional core of the church. Likewise, strange inventors such as Thomas Edison and George Washington Carver have brought the business and industrial worlds from one major era to another. Chester Carlson, who invented the Xerox process, was laughed out of town before he finally patented his idea. The 3M company encourages mavericks; the man who invented Post-it notes did it on company time even though it was a personal project. A Swiss watchmaker invented the quartz watch. Unfortunately, his superiors rejected the idea, so the Japanese and Americans patented it, and Switzerland went from an 85 percent global market share of watches to less than 15 percent.

I fear what mavericks are going to do next in my own organization? but not as much as what I fear will happen if we lose them and they end up doing it for someone else!


One of the best ways to take the wind out of the sails of visionaries is to send their ideas to a committee. Here are some comments about committees:

  • An elephant is a horse designed by a committee.
  • A committee keeps minutes and wastes hours.
  • The best committee has three members?if two of them are out of town.
  • A committee is made up of the unfit trying to lead the unwilling to do the unnecessary.
  • A committee is a collection of individuals who separately do nothing and together decide that nothing can be done.

It is a big mistake to stifle your brightest stars with the harnesses of endless committees, procedures, and paperwork. As I mentioned in chapter 1 on the top-down attitude, our understanding of leadership has been going through a paradigm revolution these past couple of decades. The old?way, exemplified by Henry Ford?s production line, called for top managers to analyze the work that needed to be done, then devise detailed rules anyone could follow. Managers, divorced from the actual work, became bureaucrats while their frustrated subordinates tightened the bolts.

Those methods worked well during most of the past century, but they won?t help us much in this one. But many organizations and churches hang on to those past attitudes and values for one simple reason: The revolutionary process of change is agonizing. And working with mavericks involves risk taking of major proportions.

I have been amazed at the transformation of one of America?s oldest and most stiffly bureaucratic institutions: General Electric. The maverick who led the charge was Jack Welch, who brought about?admittedly with much pain?the ?new way? at GE. Jack Welch?s goal was to transcend the old concepts of management itself. Instead of seeking better ways to control workers, Welch says he aimed to liberate them. As he explains, that goal is based on healthy self-interest:

The old organization was built on control, but the world has changed. The world is moving at such a pace that control has become a limitation. It slows you down. You?ve got to balance freedom with some control, but you?ve got to have more freedom than you ever dreamed of. (Tichy and Sherman, Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will, 20?21)


We were living in Southern California in 1987 during one of the region?s biggest earthquakes. It occurred early in the morning and literally knocked me out of bed. That one morning shook loose most of my paradigms of safety. If anything is certain, it should be the ground beneath us, right??Needless to say, I don?t believe that anymore. We are living in times with earthquake-proportion change all around us. Sometimes it really scares me how fast the world is changing.

Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation. Within a few short decades, society rearranges itself…. Fifty years later, there is a new world. And the people born then cannot even imagine the world in which their grandparents lived and into which their parents were born. We are currently living through just such a transition. (Peter Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society)

I especially plead with all of you who are in older institutions to aim for a flexible response to policies and procedures. If you?re in senior management or on the board and in control, take some risk and bring some fresh young blood into the equation. You will be amazed what a few new faces can bring to a stagnant group of people. Give them room to succeed.

We must avoid the danger that past communist regimes have made? they tried to make everyone equal, with no chance for true personal initiative. On my first trip to Russia in 1982, I was amazed when the tour guide pointed out that there was no unemployment in the land. I soon realized, as I studied the faces and learned the facts, that everyone had a job … but no one worked. The system killed all possibility for personal initiative, and the results were?well, we know what happened to that approach.

Don?t allow your policies and procedures to stifle your brightest stars. Be flexible. Bend the rules if you believe that someone needs more space. Never be in bondage to your policy manual. Rules are made to be broken,?principles are not. The best fighter pilot can change the rules of engagement, but he dare not violate the principles of gravity!

Don?t allow nonessential pettiness to drive away the most promising young turks. Take risks and let people soar. Take this advice seriously: Goals should never arise out of corporate policy, company loyalty, or religious tradition alone.

Unless we?re careful, we?ll follow these four stages in the devolution of a fresh movement:

  1. Men and women?every movement begins in the mind of one person.
  2. Movement?when a new idea grows beyond the passion of just one person.
  3. Machines?when a new idea becomes mechanistic/bureaucratic and begins to lose its original luster.
  4. Monuments?when the passion for an idea dies, only monuments built to the original vision remain.

The key to arresting or reversing this trend is to allow for flexibility and constantly bring in fresh blood.


Not all troublemakers and malcontents are true mavericks. Some are just a pain to have around and don?t do anyone much good. So it is important that we learn to recognize and reward properly the mavericks in our midst.

Legitimate mavericks who can bring you into the future:

  • care not just for their own ideas but for the goals of the organization;
  • are making a difference in their present position;
  • are willing to earn the right to be heard;
  • are influencing others and producing good results.

How to encourage the true mavericks who can help you:

  • Give them a long tether?they need space to soar.
  • Put them in charge of something they can really own.
  • Listen to their ideas and give them time to grow.
  • Let them work on their own if they wish.
  • Leave them alone and give them time to blossom.

How to stifle the mavericks in your midst:

  • Create as many layers of management as possible for decision making.
  • Keep looking over their shoulders.
  • Make your policy manual as thick as possible.
  • Send everything to committees for deliberation.
  • Make them wait.

Let me state this one last time: Go for the mavericks. Recruit them. Nurture them. Mentor them. For they bring us the future.

?Organizations change of necessity and for a variety of reasons. But the single biggest impetus for change in an organization tends to be a new leader in a key job … someone with a fresh perspective who sees that the status quo is unacceptable. (John Kotter, What Leaders Really Do)