Robert W. Service, the popular poet in the 1900s whose work elicits sneers from today's English professors, once wrote about "the men that don't fit in":
If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they're always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
Most of us have seen mavericks in the workplace. Some are so dysfunctional that it is a relief when they leave. But there are many who have perspectives and ideas that can be of real benefit. How they are treated can be an important test for an organization.
The temptation to hire and foster clones of some approved corporate personality (ACP) is great. The ACP clones will get along and play by the rules and never make anyone feel stupid. They'll look good at community events, not challenge the boss, and they can usually be counted on to say the right thing; i.e., the safe thing.
Unfortunately, just as the mavericks may lack personal and political skills, the clones will seldom bring in a big idea or spot a lurking disaster because they are not wired to do so. Some of the greatest leaders in history would not make it pass the first corporate headhunter:
Winston Churchill? Drinks too much. Overweight. Uses antiquated rhetoric. Regarded as an extremist by many highly respected people in his specialty.
Charles de Gaulle? An egomaniac. Speaks of himself in the third person. Has a messianic complex.
Mahatma Gandhi? Sleeps in poor sections of town. Passive. Talks to secretaries about colonic cleansing.
Margaret Thatcher? Has difficulties working with men. Bossy. Thinks her way is the only way.
Abraham Lincoln? Prone to gloomy spells. Often too folksy. Humor may be inappropriate.
The safe choices may in fact be the dangerous ones who will drive you, in a very amiable way, into the ditch. You may not want an entire staff of Thatchers or de Gaulles but it can help to have one or two around to ensure that other approaches are considered. One maverick in the executive conference room can be a powerful antidote for smugness and complacency.
At lower levels, teams should recognize that not everyone wants to be on the company softball team or take part in the off-duty activities. Everyone should be invited to participate, but it should be accepted that the person who prefers to sit under a tree and reads novels is not anti-team but simply different.
This doesn't mean that rudeness or cruelty needs to be tolerated. Mavericks will need to be reined in on occasion. Like wild horses, however, they can be trained in a way that does not break their spirit and which preserves the benefits that they bring from being different.