The maverick is a mainstream success story
Whether in popular media, business, or politics, the term conjures up the idea of a leader whose very success is in their fearless convictions and their readiness to go it alone – convention and cooperation be damned. We credit the successes of high-status and highly influential leaders like the late Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos (of Apple, Virgin Group, and Amazon respectively) to how far they stepped away from the mainstream. Even in the US political sphere, the late Arizona Republican Senator John McCain was repeatedly praised and labeled as a maverick. But is it the way of the maverick that translates to success in organizations?
For research forthcoming in Organization Studies, my fellow researchers Francois Collet (ESADE), Gokhan Ertug (Singapore Management University), Tengjian Zou (Zhejiang University), and I sought to better understand the relationship between status, influence, ideology, and outcomes. While organizational scholarship widely accepts that high-status persons are more influential than low-status ones, we believed that the data would reveal the nuance – specifically, the conditions that translate status into success. We already knew that a leader’s higher status garners more attention, enjoys higher-quality evaluations, and sets the stage for stronger collaborations on the leader’s initiatives. But we posited that the success or failure of these high-status leaders depends on the degree to which they conform to the mainstream ideology of their organizations. Or more simply stated: In wielding influence, ideology trumps mere status.
Because ideology is often associated with politics, we decided to test our hypothesis in the political realm of government. For our dataset, we tracked the status, ideology, and influence of 873 legislators of the US House of Representatives over eight consecutive congresses, from the 105th Congress to the 112th. This was an ideal testing ground: Decision making is driven by deliberations, and – as earlier research has proven – securing the attention, approval, and endorsement of other system actors is important to having influence. Moreover, the process of influence in the House is highly formalized: While a single legislator introduces legislation, this sponsor must seek out co-sponsors to gain an audience with the relevant legislative committee that, in turn, assigns it to a subcommittee, before it has a chance of going through further stages, such as a vote in the House.
Drawing from the scientific literature, we mapped legislative effectiveness (i.e., the degree to which a sponsor’s initiatives made progress on the way to becoming law) and status (i.e., the number of times their bills were co-sponsored by other legislators during a congress) against their ideological distance from the median (i.e., their current and relatively stable position along the liberal-conservative dimension) as well as other variables.
What we learned of this analysis is as relevant to business leadership as it is to political leadership. In corporate committees, boards, and working groups, the organizational status of the person making a proposal – high-status or low-status sponsors – is highly significant to outcomes:
- The proposal of a high-status sponsor will draw more attention of potential high-status cosponsors than one put forward by a low-status sponsor.
- The proposal of a high-status sponsor is thus more likely to gain high-status cosponsors, committee support, and favorable votes.
- Low-status persons are thus incentivized to support high-status persons in the hope that their own proposals will be favored in the future.
However, rather than favoring ideological mavericks, our deep-dive into the data of those eight congresses showed that those for whom status was indeed linked to greater influence were also those whose ideological positions conformed with the body’s mainstream ideological position. That is, as we wrote in the research, “status enhances influence only for ideologically mainstream actors, but not for actors who are far from the mainstream.”
In the final analysis, what this research provides is a more culturally rooted understanding of status and influence. Whether they are high-status actors on the political stage or in the corporate boardroom, the mavericks are as powerful as the culture and ideology of their surroundings allow. While continuing research in this area will enrich our understanding of how our leaders can lead, there’s little doubt that strategic leadership must openly embrace organizational ideology as a source of their power rather than as the constraint holding the mavericks back.
This article was originally published by Forbes on October 21, 2020, and republished with permission.