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Be Known for Something, but Not for Being a Maverick

By Thomas Walsh


Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the danger of controversy. Speak your minds and fear less the label of “crackpot” than the stigma of conformity. — Thomas J. Watson


Even in death, Steve Jobs, the uber nonconformist, is one of the most sought-after people in the business world. Just ask Walter Isaacson, his biographer, who is still packing lecture halls — nonconformance = singular success.

While innovators like Jobs get a lot of attention, there are many ways to stand out in the business world. Without a doubt, if one wants to be known for something, the contrarian view is the most effective. Warren Buffet is a famously successful investor for sticking with value stocks while everyone else is chasing high-growth returns. One can also be super good at what he/she does. Thomas J. Watson was known as the one-time traveling salesman who became a great diplomat and the world’s greatest salesman. Let’s not leave out China’s Li Ka-Shing, known as “superman” due to his prowess in business; he is known for achieving whatever he sets his mind on accomplishing. 

Then there is the prevalent and growing trend of being known for doing good. Many business people want to be recognized for their values. These do-gooders see themselves as mission-driven. Servant leadership and social entrepreneurship are part of this school committed to promoting social objectives while making money. The servant-leadership trend is an important one to take note of; it is about promoting people, work, and community spirit. No matter how you distinguish yourself from the pack, mavericks are out, and a collaborative spirit is in. 

The annals of business lore are full of high flyers that tumbled from their perch. Steve Jobs famously flamed out at Apple as a maverick when he went ego-to-ego with his handpicked CEO Steve Scully. But then there are his comebacks — the plastic, neon-colored boxes that put Apple back in the PC game. And of course, the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. 

So how do you play the nonconformist, but also play it safe? Collaboration.

Build a strong, loyal network. Successful mavericks are seldom truly alone. They have a strong foundation of support built on trust and respect. 

Play with the team, cowboy! If you stand out, there will be those who will try and clip you before you can grow and prosper. Sabotage is less likely if the team members knows that they are part of your next big idea and they are going to benefit from the success. 

Gain upper management buy-in. This is critical. The greatest ideas in the world will flop if the organization is not behind you. And of course, never, never undercut your higher-ups. Ensure your success makes them shine. 

Surround yourself with risk managers. If your idea is so good that you are going to truly stand out above everyone else, then you likely cannot cast a safety net wide enough to cover your, uh, risks. Make sure everyone understands the risks related to their responsibilities and how to best handle that risk in the aggregate. 

Be a visionary. The world’s most successful leaders are visionaries. Spreading the vision is key to gaining support for your goals.

Avoid the maverick personality. If you try to steamroll your ideas through the team meeting, you will likely not gain any personality contests. Businesses want and seek independent, out-of-the-box thinkers, but no one wants to deal with an egocentric thinker in a team meeting. 

Do not live for the thrill. Those who seek to stand out in the business world are often extroverts with short attention spans who get high on risk. Once they become bored with their current projects, they seek the next challenge and thus take on more risk. 

Diversify and grow. A few star accomplishments or traits are not your entire platform. Your competitors are already imitating you, so there is no time to rest on your laurels. Focus on how you can make a positive impact in your organization today. 

Making the vision happen, achieving a superior level of mastery, innovating at a new level, or slam-dunking the competition will no doubt help you stand out and be recognized above your peers in the business world. But it is important to keep in mind that Steve Jobs broke the mold. Even Bill Gates regrets the bad reputation he acquired asking potential hires to justify their existence, “I was trying to be Steve Jobs,” he laments. 

One last word on the maverick. Not only are his ideas less likely to take flight in today’s collaborative organization, but he also is no longer a candidate on the leadership track. The lack of coordinated risk management was the culprit behind the 2007 financial crisis. Management did not buy in to the ideas of top sales people; it just signed off. Avoid conformity but embrace collaborative work, especially for big, bold out-of-the box ideas.                     


Thomas Walsh, Ph.D. is president of Grenell Consulting Group, a regional firm specializing in maximizing the performance of organizations and their key contributors. Email Walsh at


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