If you ask people what’s wrong with their organisation, within minutes sheets of flipchart paper are completed and Blu-Tacked all over the walls. And if you return to these questions a year later, or two years later, people are equally quick to respond. Have you noticed that if you compare what’s written on the flip charts from one year to the next, it is hard to know which list came from which year — nothing or very little, seems to have changed.
This observation led us to ask the question, why when people clearly have ideas about what is wrong and how things could be better is so little progress made? Is it because organisations lack the methods and frameworks for executing change? As consultants, we work with many organisations most of which have for years been adhering to a range of change management and execution methodologies, PRINCE, agile working, etc. And yet this phenomenon persists.
So, we asked ourselves a different question. Are there some people who take their frustrations with how things are and make the change they seek a reality? We interviewed a number of Brookings Scholars — people who through their life’s work have brought about positive change. We interviewed several others from our wider network, who had also made significant positive change. We came to call these people Maverick leaders — Maverick because of their independent thinking and leader because they were able to engage others to make positive change happen. Through the interviews we identify eight characteristics that they all seemed to share. This led us to ask the question, to what extent does the general organisational leadership community share these characteristics?
What we found was, while one of the characteristics was true of our Maverick leader group and the general leadership community — the belief that things could be and should be better — there were four characteristics that significantly differentiated our Maverick leaders from the rest:
- Resourcefulness — the ability to make the most of resources and to create more resource through repurposing and creating allies
- Experimentation — the ability to navigate uncharted territory through experimentation and learning
- Nonconformity — the willingness to challenge convention in the search of a better way of doing things
- Persistence — the ability to persist despite opposition, and sometimes outright hostility
Non-conformist, Resourceful, Experimental and Persistent
Samar Osama spent her youth between Saudi Arabia & Egypt and now lives in Dubai. She is an ordinary woman who takes pleasure in ordinary things. But Samar has never conformed to the expectations of others. With a passion for the application of science to providing quality solutions to health and well-being, Samar found herself at the age of 22 working in a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant responsible for quality control. Her colleagues were almost entirely men and were not about to take instructions from a woman on how they should operate ‘their’ machines. They refused to give her any space in the office area such that she conducted her report writing sitting on the factory stairs.
One evening she cleared a corner in the office, found herself a desk and set up her equipment and notebooks. The men laughed at her, but she stayed put. Six months later, through determination, focusing not on the barriers and the hostility, but by connecting with her colleagues as people, showing an interest in them, and showing them that what she wanted and what they wanted was mutually supportive, she achieved a mindset shift in her colleagues. She also learnt an important lesson. If you want to break the status quo you have to find a way of connecting with and earning the respect of those who are comfortable in the status quo.
No methodology brought about this change, Samar made it happen through trial and error. And why was it so important? Because Samar was breaking the mould in establishing the acceptance for women to work in what was a male preserve in the factory in which she worked. It was not just about the desk, it was about getting the respect and acceptance of her male colleagues, and that meant changing their mindset. Samar is a Maverick leader.
Khadim Hussein was born in a remote village in northern Pakistan. As a child he contracted polio and lost the use of his legs. His friends took him to school in a wheelbarrow. Khadim took it upon himself and with the help of his friends, knocked on the doors of the houses in the village to persuade parents to send their young girls to school. The village elders were against him, his own father was against him.
On the face of it, Khadim had far fewer resources at his disposal than many of those around him. But he had friends, he had a wheelbarrow, and he had a mindset which was, I will find out what it takes, and I will do what it takes. Today the schools Khadim has created have educated thousands of girls. Khadim is a Maverick leader.
The Maverick leader within
It’s not a failure of change methodologies that leads to the inertia in so many organisations; is not a failure of ambition from individuals; it is a lack of Maverick leadership. Is this inevitable, or can anyone become a Maverick leader? In the research for our book, Mavericks: How Bold Leadership Changes the World, our conclusion is we are born with a Maverick spirit which can be reignited at any point in our lives. Any of us can develop and practice the mindset and skill set of a Maverick leader.