What can we learn from those ‘Mavericks’ who have long been transforming society and business by going against the grain? The RSA’s Head of Innovation and Change, Ian Burbidge talks to Billie Carn FRSA about her recent research.
As we turn our minds to the work that will be needed following the global pandemic of Covid-19, the challenges that confront society remain significant: from preventing the climate crisis to tackling racial justice, improving mental health to ending poverty. We need new ways of thinking and acting in the world.
For those of us of a certain age ’Maverick’ will evoke images of an uber-confident fighter pilot buzzing control towers and generally flouting the rules of the navy in the 1980s Top Gun movie. A common feature of those at the top of their game, who are seemingly untouchable in their work, or who simply see things differently, is that the unusual perspective and skillset from which they operate enables them to push the boundaries of what’s common or acceptable practice.
Without someone stretching the realms of what’s possible in the first place there isn’t room for the rest of us to experiment or play with the new possibilities that open up as a result.
Sometimes this can stretch a limiting mindset, just as the 4 minute mile was once thought to be beyond the possibility of the human body. Sometimes it simply breaks new ground, as Kevin Peterson’s switch hit in cricket did. Sometimes it confounds social expectations, as Emilia Earhart being the first woman to make a solo non-stop transatlantic flight. Some are well known, others less so. Wynne Fletcher, my Nan, trained during the second world war as a wireless mechanic yet on arrival at a Lincolnshire airbase was sent to the typing pool. She soon found a way to overcome the assumptions of the base commander and do the job she was really there for, ensuring the equipment on board the aircraft was operating effectively, on occasion accompanying the crew on bombing sorties.
Conformists don’t tend to push boundaries or challenge convention because the very act of operating within the rules suggests a mindset or approach that is not going to be comfortable outside of them.
Of course, we need people like this; they provide the stable foundation that creates the order without which everything falls apart. Dynamic change happens from a place of stability. But it can’t happen without those who catalyse such change. To do that, they have to see and do things differently, and that’s a core characteristic of those we call mavericks.
Samuel Maverick was a Texas lawyer, politician and land baron who refused to brand his calves. His logic was if all the other cattle owners branded theirs then any unbranded animals would be recognised as his. This created a new kind of unbranded brand, and inadvertently increased his stock as a result. Samuel went against the grain. It’s from him that we draw the Oxford English dictionary definition of a maverick as someone who “thinks and acts in an independent way, often behaving differently from the expected or usual way”.
Understanding the value that such people bring to the world is therefore an important contribution to our account of what it takes to create change and bring value to the world, especially if we care about pushing humanity forward.
There is this fallacy that these people who think differently don't work very well with others. The evidence doesn’t bear this out.
Billie Carn used to be a children’s nurse, so she knows about caring. She cared enough to make understanding mavericks the focus of her research, and can offer some valuable insights. Let’s start by dispelling the myth that these are heroic individuals along the lines of some of the more visible entrepreneurs we know of.
“Some of the people I interviewed said that entrepreneurs can be Mavericks. But it doesn't mean that all entrepreneurs are Mavericks. Some entrepreneurs are just in it to make money whilst for others their life’s work is tied to their purpose or mission.
Another interesting thing that came out of my research is how many people by the end of the interview realised they were always a bit different. They shared stories from their childhood, where they did things in their own particular way, that they were often the weird kid in the playground.
Sure they have certain traits such as questioning things, trusting their inner core, making connect that other people don't see. I spoke with chefs and chocolate makers, artists who draw in the sand for a living, and Mavericks who were surviving on a bag of rice. Humans who were still being brave enough to do it their way regardless of the circumstances, regardless of whether they were working alone or with a team.
There is this fallacy that these people who think differently don't work very well with others. The evidence doesn’t bear this out. They're very aware of the fact that they might have this idea, but they need the support of other people to help make it happen, and in the process they might even make it better.
Of course, it wasn't a surprise that they didn't mind failure, that they liked risks. The surprise was actually how many of them cared. Many were social entrepreneurs on a mission. But the mission wasn't for themselves. The mission was a cause they wanted to address. For example, making India a 100% sanitary napkin using country, or trying to address climate change by creating forests, or changing the perception of how girls and women are portrayed in the world.
These illustrate the emergent movement around business as a force for good that I think is going to become the mainstay in society. Mavericks are ahead of the curve and a driving force within that movement.
Another unanticipated insight is that for many there was a real spiritual element to their work. They trusted their inner core, some of them actually felt there was something else guiding them; they trusted the road less travelled and found that things turned up. It’s this whole philosophy that when you start seeing serendipity playing out, that's usually a sign that you're on the right path.
Finally, Mavericks are voracious consumers of information. Very much in the mould of the Leonardo da Vinci's and Tesla's of this world, they were multi-dimensional, interested in a lot of things. One of the Mavericks I interviewed actually taught me a word, he said, ‘we’re infovores, constantly consuming information’. This is never just on one topic as they never know when they’re going to connect some obtuse thing to something else. It’s the debate about the need for both generalists and specialists.”
Which is something after my own heart as a self-confessed curious generalist. From education to employment we push every child and every adult onto the treadmill of social expectations. The heroes of this world are usually the ones who jumped off this treadmill yet they are the exception not the norm. Isn’t this just stopping everybody from being the hero they're supposed to be in their own way? Whatever the next few decades hold in store, I think we can be pretty certain that we’ll need people who see the world in a slightly different way and act upon those insights and intuitions in order to help make it a better place for generations to come.
‘Maverick Wisdom - Insights and Stories from Enterprising Mavericks who Challenge the Status Quo’, by Billie Carn FRSA, is published on 5th October 2021, the 10th anniversary of the passing of that iconic maverick of the tech age, Steve Jobs.