Managing difficult employees is tricky. And yet, some notable sporting leaders have done just that, benefitting the whole team as a result. What lessons can we take from them to help us do the same.

We live in a star culture, moving more and more towards the cult of the individual. See how when football player Cristiano Ronaldo changes teams, millions of fans move with him. Celebrities no longer need to partner with brands, they create their own and reap the rewards themselves. In the corporate world CEO pay is at its highest relative level ever. A reality tv star is the most powerful person in the world.

The growth of individuality in society is causing its own set of problems for leaders:

“We are seeing a shift in coaching and leadership styles: away from the traditional, transactional model — ‘I give you something, you give me something back’ — to a transformational model of leadership, where coaches present players with a vision and convince them to join the project” says former New Zealand national soccer team coach, Fritz Schmid.

If you judge by what we do rather than what we say, we love stars. We can’t get enough of them. We love to glorify individual success, particularly if that person bends the system to achieve it. They change reality. They don’t exist by the normal rules. They are a maverick. And they need to be convinced, not controlled.

What’s the Meaning of the Word Maverick?

Dictionary definitions include, “A person who thinks and acts in an independent way, often behaving differently from the expected or usual way” and “an unorthodox or independent-minded person.”

Think of mavericks and how they stand out; they’re often exceptional people with exceptional qualities. Quite often they’re identifiable by just one name; Zlatan, Serena, Kanye, Elon, Trump. There are some great examples from rugby in Quade Cooper and Danny Cipriani while, in business, individuals like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson stand out for their refusal to accept things as they are. Mark Cuban became a billionaire and even bought an NBA team called the Dallas Mavericks.

What are Some Maverick Personality Traits?

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” George Bernard Shaw

  • Authenticity
  • Self-belief
  • Willingness to challenge the status quo
  • Intuition
  • Strong convictions

…they are important for innovation; not necessarily in having more ideas but in having the force of personality to push something through. One of the best sporting examples is surely Diego Maradona, the troubled genius widely considered to have dragged Argentina to 1986 World Cup glory with a supporting cast of teammates, one of whom was Jorge Valdano.

In Ben Lyttleton’s book, ‘Edge: Leadership Secrets from Football’s Top Thinkers’, Valdano was quoted as saying, “Geniuses aren’t always easy people to live with but their contributions produce such a jump in quality that they deserve the collective hard work and support. There is a transaction between the genius and the team.”

The way Maradona turbo-charged the team’s performance convinced his teammates that he was worth the distractions he provided and that they would pick up some of his slack in areas where he was less inclined to pull his weight.

Sure, in an organizational context, mavericks can be unpopular. They can be disruptive, stop work in its tracks, question leadership and previously agreed upon processes and be a hindrance to others. It seems like quite an unpalatable mix but as there are proven benefits to harnessing their talents, mitigating their downsides is key.

It’s been proven that mavericks add value to a group. In this study, those who had a maverick in their group were able to take others’ perspectives and integrate them to solve problems. Crucially, when participants interacted in groups with a positive mood, groups with a maverick outperformed those that didn’t.

How to Harness a Maverick within a Team Environment

Two-way Emotional Intelligence

A successful maverick needs to know when to back down. Meanwhile, to manage the maverick, you need to let them know where the line is and when they can push back at you.

Research has shown that emotional intelligence is a key component of being a successful maverick as this enables one to pick their battles and appreciate when it’s wise to force your ideas through and when it’s more sensible to step back.

Humility is a key weapon here, again from both sides. If you’re a maverick, occasionally deferring to a teammate or admitting fallibility can get others onside. If you’re a manager, showing the maverick that you don’t have all the answers and that their opinions are welcome within an agreed-upon context makes them feel valued and more likely to contribute in a positive manner.

Just as it’s beholden on mavericks to understand how best to operate in a world that may not share their unique perspective, so too is it beholden on managers to adapt their style to get the best out of these free-thinkers.

Valdano also notes that teammates require humility and that there is no shame in not being the exceptional talent in a group. Many people never get to work with one truly exceptional individual. This also goes for managers – sometimes if there is an amazing talent available, go and get them. He summarises the importance of improving the ceiling of a group:

“A true team is one that strives for excellence starting from collective intelligence. Some environments, like the world of technology, tolerate genius types much better than others. They perfectly understand that you cannot have adventure without risk.”

Practical Steps for Managing Difficult Employees

The Importance of Purpose

Mavericks are not good at obeying orders they do not fully understand. Explain the big goal, why you’re pursuing it in this manner, the way you’ve set your team up and what you expect of them.

Involve Them in Team Goal Setting and Strategy

Mavericks need to buy into the team’s goals and a great way of ensuring they do is involving them at the outset. If this is impossible, perhaps they’ve recently joined a project or you don’t have total authority over direction, involve them in agreeing the deliverables and strategy.

Establish Clear Roles

Divide tasks clearly. Ensure that mavericks know where their responsibilities lie so they don’t stray off brief and into someone else’s domain.

Encourage Creativity

Mavericks tend to be good at finding solutions, or at least eliciting them from others. Give them a clear problem or a creative task and let them run with it.

Delegating – Give Them Responsibility

A leader should involve a maverick in the direction of a team and then use a light touch by leaving them to get on with their work.

This approach is used at cycling team EF Pro Cycling, known for their strict anti-doping stance.

“It’s one of the big reasons why I’m on the team. I’m 32 and love being treated like an adult, as it’s very unlike on other teams where you’re treated like an automaton and you have no say in your schedule” says cyclist Mike Woods. “Teams don’t place trust in you to be professional, but on this team they do, and for me it’s invaluable in ensuring I’m in the right place mentally to train effectively and I really enjoy being here.”

Manager and former rider Jonathan Vaughters gives people responsibility for their own decisions and while they have biomarkers that must remain consistent to prove their anti-doping profile, riders are left to get on with their work. It attracts certain personality types to the team commonly found at tech companies.

Mavericks Need Leading

Mavericks can give your team a sense of belief, drive, hunger and sometimes, they can uncover something or think of a solution that no one else can. They can be a leader but sometimes they’re better to be a leader rather than the leader.

This is partly because they’re happy to challenge the status quo rather than enforce it. This tendency can make them an awkward, challenging and combative employee, particularly if things are going wrong. They require strong leadership, otherwise they could highlight flaws in your processes and culture. Leading difficult employees requires relishing the opportunity to involve an exceptional person with exceptional qualities, while keeping clear delineations of what is and isn’t acceptable.

Mavericks can be poor at questioning or asserting their views and here is where your emotional intelligence comes in. A poor reaction to a challenge can lead to the situation degenerating to the cost of your relationship with the individual and theirs with the team. Even worse, if they’re right and you handle it badly, you may lose the rest of the group as well.

A good manager needs to convince the maverick and the wider team that a rising tide lifts all boats; that individual and collective success are both possible and even preferable to everyone. To go back to Valdano, the true leader is the one who “finds a seductive idea and spreads it.”


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