7 Maverick Leaders and their Management Lessons
From Steve Jobs to Florence Nightingale, these maverick leaders have got management lessons to teach us all
From Forbes to The Daily Mail, the media love maverick leaders. Their colourful antics, innovative products, unusual techniques – disruptors in the business space are celebrated like pop stars on social media as well. However, maverick leaders have been with us far longer than WhatsApp and Twitter, and there’s a lot we can learn from them – particularly the ones that have lasted the course.
Across business, politics, environmentalism, medicine and sport – here we’ve picked out seven leaders whose maverick styles still have plenty of worthwhile substance.
Although Steve Jobs is credited with turning Apple from a brand into a religion, not all of his ideas were a success. Not many have heard of the Lisa home computer, or his NeXT workstations. However, Jobs’ passion and determination led to the monumental success of Pixar and Apple becoming the world’s first trillion-dollar company. The iMac, iTunes, iPhone – Jobs set the bar in terms of innovation and quality.
Quality was something he insisted on throughout his organisation. He addressed the topic with brutal honesty. On his return to the company in 1997, he told Apple employees that their products sucked, and he carried that honesty through to a decisive management style. People often talk about his fiery character, but his decisiveness meant that everyone who worked for him understood the direction of travel. When he noticed something was wrong, Jobs’ overwhelming instinct was to fix it straight away. As a result, Apple never carried endemic problems with it – not while Jobs was in command.
Be honest, be decisive and do it now – a valuable mantra that helped build one of the world’s most valuable brands.
The Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) was far ahead of his time in how he managed time, people and conflict. He practised yoga, meditated and understood the importance of wellness 150 years before it became fashionable in the world of business. And, he never complained that he was too busy.
Self-knowledge – and the control required to achieve it – gave Gandhi a tremendous ability to relate to others and their challenges. He learned to avert conflict by understanding his opponents and what his relationship was to them. An approach centred on peace and love completely wrongfooted both the British government and many of his supporters in the independence movement, but his strikes, sit-ins and boycotts won the day, influencing the likes of Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela.
What can today’s business leaders learn from Gandhi? Many things, but perhaps the main one is that conflict and confrontation are usually counterproductive. Changing the relationships between the groups involved is more sustainable and mutually beneficial.
Opening the first Body Shop in 1976, Anita Roddick was one of the first to prove that it is possible to be mission-driven in business and hugely successful at the same time. In the 1980s, Roddick did something the cosmetics industry told us wasn’t possible – to build a global company without using animal testing while ethically sourcing all its ingredients. A huge swathe of consumers loved the idea of battering the big brands with body butter from Bhutan.
Not only did she break the rules of the market she launched into, Anita Roddick also carried this way of thinking in her leadership style too. A style best summed up as: ‘You can do good, you can feel good about doing good, and you can allow these things to shape your organisation.’ Alongside ethically made products, she encouraged a horizontal business structure with a strong central brand but where each of her 2,000 outlets had plenty of autonomy. She championed a feminine management style based on care, intuition, equality, loving your job and putting the bottom line at the bottom of the list.
It was corporate social responsibility before the phrase had been coined.
Winston Churchill certainly had a reputation for being angry, cantankerous and impatient. He made decisions that cost lives across the British Empire and crushed working-class communities in the UK. On top of which, he was a functioning alcoholic. Yet Churchill’s leadership is still described as transformative, and it saved the country from the Nazis.
Churchill was an excellent communicator. Most politicians are, but his gift went beyond making speeches in the House of Commons or on the radio. He met everyday Brits throughout the War, engaged with them, listened to them, shared his message and inspired them to feel that Britain would prevail.
The message he had was clear and singular. Up to and during the War, people identified Churchill as the one politician who stood against Hitler and tyranny. Once the War began, total victory became his message. There would be no treaty until the Nazis had been utterly defeated. He had the courage to stand by this vision, even in Britain’s darkest hour.
Inspiring communication, a clear message, absolute conviction – three attributes every business leader can take from Winston Churchill’s example.
Like Steve Jobs and Winston Churchill, England Rugby head coach Eddie Jones has a reputation for being difficult. He was a mouthy player, can be hard work for journalists and still uses the media to conduct psyops against his opponents.
But rugby players see a different side to Jones, who uses his teaching background and rugby experience to get the best out of his players.
Becoming a top athlete is a mental feat as much as a physical one, which means it requires focus. Rather than bamboozling players with feedback, Jones keeps meetings short and focuses on clear and simple messages. He’s a big believer in getting people to think for themselves – taking ownership, in management-speak. From first team players to prospects, he talks to players individually, takes an interest in their lives and lets them know they matter. “What do you think you did well?” he’ll ask. “And where do you need to improve?”
Jones will knock the player back if they try and be humble, saying they need to improve everywhere. He’ll zero-in on one key area of their game. As a result, the player has something to focus on and his performance can be reviewed in a clear and meaningful way, again avoiding multiple vectors of feedback.
Ecotricity founder Dale Vince has taken the concept of mission-driven business goals and turned the dial to eleven. In the early 1990s, he was a new age traveller living in a truck generating power using a small wind turbine. It struck him that if he could live a low-carbon lifestyle, then with more and bigger wind turbines, everyone else could too. He set up Ecotricity, started building wind farms, and revolutionised the supply and distribution of energy by introducing green electricity to the market.
For Vince, everything revolves around cutting carbon emissions – it’s the starting point for all his decision-making. From engineering through to customer service, he understands all the key areas of his businesses and often works one-on-one with the people he manages. He never thinks of himself as a leader, per se. The new age traveller style and attitude have become part of the brand, with his business interests spreading to include Forest Green Rovers Football Club, a wind turbine manufacturer, a mobile phone network, an EV charging network and a vegan food company. All 100% green.
Dale Vince’s enthusiasm and success help attract finance, media interest and customers, bringing about a green revolution.
When Florence Nightingale died in 1910, octogenarian veterans she treated during the Crimean War in the 1850s turned out to carry her coffin. This incredible show of loyalty and respect came as a result of her lifelong commitment to establishing the nursing profession and improving the quality of care for patients. In Crimea she transformed a barrack full of wounded soldiers from a hellhole into the first modern hospital and established a principle of triage based not on the rank or status of the patient but on their medical need.
Nightingale saw the challenges she encountered as opportunities for change. Although she was a compassionate carer, she let neither emotion nor prejudice prevent her from getting things done. Facts were crucial, and she introduced an evidence-based approach in a world where hierarchy and deference often stifled innovation. Personally, and as the leader she became, Nightingale saw the value of continual improvement. After Crimea she went on to set up training for nurses changed how hospitals were organised, and in the 1870s and 1880s helped shape a series of public health and sanitation acts.
A positive attitude, a reliance on fact over opinion and a focus on improvement are what made Florence Nightingale one of history’s great leaders.
There is much we can learn by exploring the behaviours of maverick leaders from the past, so if you’re not planning to already, then may we suggest using the longer autumnal nights to settle in with a good biography or two? Failing that, a good Google around the subject will also prove beneficial.