How are Maverick Leaders making the world better?

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How are Maverick Leaders making the world a better place? Imagine a world without e-commerce giant Amazon. Your first reaction might be: “Wow, that would be a good thing. My town’s rather sad-looking high street might snap back into life. My credit card bill would be lower. And there would be a lot less packaging to recycle.”

Certainly, the stratospheric success of Amazon, currently one of the world’s five most valuable companies, is not without its downsides. But would a world without Amazon really be such a good thing? Let’s take a second to imagine what that world would be like.

If there were no Amazon, there would probably be no Kindle and no Alexa. If there were no Amazon, we wouldn’t have the ability to shop from a catalogue of millions of products without leaving the convenience of our homes. Meanwhile, thousands of self-published authors would have no market for their work, denying them the opportunity to delight and entertain their fans. And if there were no Amazon, the Covid-19 pandemic would have been a lot harder for most people than it already was. Basically, if there were no Amazon, the world we know today would be … well, worse.

Despite the negatives of Amazon, most people – when pushed – would probably not choose to turn back the clock. They would agree that, on balance, Amazon makes a positive difference to our world.

Business as a force for good

Amazon was founded by revolutionary business thinker Jeff Bezos back in 1994. From the outset, Bezos chose to pursue long-term growth above short-term profits and his company focused on pursuing bold inventions while delivering high levels of customer satisfaction. Bezos proved to be a Maverick Leader who so prized agility that he believed every internal team should be small enough that it could be fed by two pizzas. Famed for his exacting standards, he once admitted that it wasn’t easy to work at Amazon, but he believed his employees were striving towards something “we can all tell our grandchildren about”.

Bezos stood down as CEO of Amazon in 2021, although he remains the company’s executive chair. His focus now appears to be on his spaceship company Blue Origin and he has apparently invested in a biotechnology start-up called Altos Labs, which is trying to reverse the ageing process. So, the business journey for this Maverick Leader is by no means over yet.

Alongside Bezos, there are other Maverick Leaders who are making a huge positive impact on the world. An obvious example is Elon Musk. Love him, or hate him, it’s hard to overstate his significance. His Starlink satellite service provides internet access to war-torn Ukraine. Through Tesla, he has galvanised the electric car market. Right now, no one knows exactly what is going on with X (formerly known as Twitter), but given Musk’s track record, it’s likely that once the turmoil has subsided, something world-changing will emerge.

Another leader who has left an indelible mark on our planet is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Try imagining a world without Facebook. Or the other social media businesses that Facebook (now Meta) later bought: Instagram and WhatsApp. Again, you might be able to see the advantages had Facebook never existed in the first place. But would you really go back if you thought about what you could lose? All your connections with long-lost friends and acquaintances. A window into the lives of your favourite celebrities. A handy app that allows you to quickly and easily get a group together for a night out.

Bezos, Musk and Zuckerberg are just three of the 21 inspiring leaders I profiled in my book, 21st Century Business Icons. Many, but not all, of those leaders – just like Bezos, Musk and Zuckerberg – fit the definition of a Maverick Leader coined by The Maverick Paradox founder Judith Germain: a wilfully independent person. But what they all have in common is a belief that through what they do, they are building a better world.

Earth is our only shareholder

Perhaps the best example of a Maverick Leader who is also a force for good is Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoor clothing brand Patagonia. Read his autobiography Let My People Go Surfing and you will quickly form a picture of a slightly reluctant business leader who sees himself as a rock climber and environmentalist, first and foremost. Yet he built a hugely successful company, based on his environmental principles and love of the outdoor life.

In 2022, Chouinard committed the ultimate maverick act when he announced that he and his family had transferred their ownership of Patagonia (by then valued at about $3 billion) to a specially designed trust and non-profit organisation. This would enable Patagonia to continue to act as a for-profit company while channelling its future profits towards protecting nature, supporting the community, and fighting the environmental crisis. “Earth is now our only shareholder,” Patagonia declared in a statement.

Despite more companies professing to be purpose-led, we tend to assume that businesses are still largely focused on making profits while ‘doing good’ is the preserve of governments and non-profits. But the stories of the world’s most successful businesspeople show that the greatest financial rewards come when we do the most social good for others. These people are where they are today not because they relentlessly pursued money, but because they had a vision for making the world a better place – and they acted on it.