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/ Winter 2019/Issue 97

How to manage mavericks

The best soccer coaches are able to produce elite performances from hard-to-manage players. Businesses should take note.

A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of strategy+business.

The maverick needs a rebrand. The term, usually defined as someone who is independent or unorthodox, can carry negative connotations that imply complication, contrariness, and chaos. In a society in which echo chambers create siloed workforces, where algorithms and the march of artificial intelligence could threaten to inhibit human creativity, talented freethinkers need to be cherished, or they will walk away.

The more managers can get along with mavericks, and the more their coworkers can understand their contributions, the better the results for all. The world of soccer, in which the most talented players are often the hardest to manage, has wrestled with this issue for a long time. So how do soccer coaches cope, and what can we learn from them?

First, let’s explain the type of maverick we are talking about: These are the brilliant original thinkers not yet at the top of the corporate ladder, rather than entitled executives who believe boundaries can be crossed to accommodate them. The latter group is a liability; it’s the former who need nurturing and acceptance, lest they become like the latter.

The ultimate soccer maverick is arguably Diego Maradona, a genius who led Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986 but has been plagued by inner demons. (A new documentary about his difficult life was released last month.) Jorge Valdano, a columnist and business consultant, was both a teammate of Maradona’s in the 1986 World Cup squad and a manager of Spanish team Real Madrid. He likes to tell this story about a famous goal Maradona scored against England in the World Cup quarterfinal, one that was later voted FIFA’s Goal of the Century.

As Valdano tells it, Maradona dribbled from inside his own half through lunging England defenders and shot past the goalkeeper to secure victory. All the while, Valdano was running alongside him. “Why didn’t you pass to me?” Valdano asked him after the game. Maradona said he was watching Valdano, but before he knew it, he’d beaten all the defenders and scored. He didn’t need his teammate.

Getting team buy-in

It was this kind of independent magic that led Maradona to inspire a nation to World Cup glory, despite his episodes of violence and paranoia, and his long-term problems with drug abuse. Valdano uses this extreme example to make the point that it is not easy to work alongside people who are more talented than you are. That’s not to say that a maverick in the working world who crosses the line into bad or even criminal behavior, such as harassment or bullying, should be accepted and tolerated. What Valdano is talking about is how to get buy-in from team members to accommodate sparkling individuality on the job.

While researching my book Edge: Leadership Secrets from Football’s Top Thinkers, I asked Valdano how difficult it is to work with mavericks like Maradona. “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,” Valdano explained. “There is a transaction between the genius and the team.”

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.’

Valdano and his teammates asked themselves if they were willing to accept someone so special, including his caprices, eccentricities, and, in this case, addictions. The answer, for Valdano, was yes. His reasoning: “This genius will make me better and help me win a World Cup.” To be clear, he is not condoning the addictions or violence. In the workplace, colleagues should always advise a troubled coworker to seek professional help.

Many businesses confront a similar if less extreme problem: getting the best out of star talents while ensuring that the rest of the team remains on board and thrives. Achieving success with both requires that management devote time to coping with the individual, but also to managing the attitude of others toward the maverick. These coworkers may be frustrated and could need help seeing that what the mavericks bring makes them worth the pain and aggravation — and in some cases, the extra remuneration they receive.

Valdano urges discipline, professionalism, and above all humility from those around the maverick. He notes that there is no shame in not being the exceptional talent in a group. Many people don’t even get to be part of a team with one. “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,” he told me.

Getting the right balance requires precise communication skills. When mavericks are handled well, it can create a virtuous circle, developing managers into more effective leaders who are even better prepared to work with outsized personalities and talents. So if you are lucky enough to work alongside potential genius, Valdano added, be pleased: “Ego interferes in the pursuit of collective success. You always need other people to succeed.”

Nurturing a personal brand

The growth of individuality in society is causing its own set of problems for leaders, a development recognized by former New Zealand national soccer team coach Fritz Schmid. “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,” he said.

Schmid elaborated on this new relationship between coach and team: “Some players would rather establish their personal brand before they think of the team or the collective. [But] they don’t fall out with their coaches, because their coaches have found the right approach with that type of player. It’s not so much about giving orders but knowing players’ triggers and what motivates them to sacrifice their qualities for the team. This is where interaction and communication become so important: persuading a player not for football reasons but using their own self-awareness and social competence to buy into the project.”

Germany’s national team general manager Oliver Bierhoff refers to the talents like this in his squad as “independent entrepreneurs,” with each player wanting to follow his own path. “A football team works like a business unit,” said Bierhoff. “You’re all working towards a common goal, but everyone also has their own plan.”

Bierhoff sees his role as facilitating opportunities for players to leverage their platforms, and he likes to connect his players to other young entrepreneurs: “The new generation does not just want to execute; they want to shape things themselves, understand them, and tackle challenges,” he added. One such player, defender Mats Hummels, for example, pledges part of his salary to Common Goal, a charitable movement that promotes education, health, and peace around the world. 

A good manager needs to convince the maverick or the entrepreneur and the wider team that “collective intelligence” can produce outcomes that please everyone. As Valdano puts it, humility is vital, vanity is corrosive, and the true leader is the one who “finds a seductive idea and spreads it.”

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