Guest Blog - Ian Brookes - How to manage mavericks... Mario Balotelli


Red and yellow cards, the sky blue City shirt, the deep blue of the Azzurri, moody blues of Mad Mario - Balotelli's alter ego. Flashes of brilliance, madcap moments of tomfoolery, red mists of self-destructive anger and a grin that made you immediately smile back. Life with Mario was always colourful.

Mario Balotelli is a mix of talent and turbulence, contradictions that eventually saw his manager lose patience with him. Manchester is a quieter place and Milan a lot noisier, as Mario was transferred back to Italy. There's a chant City supporters took up when Balotelli came out to play: He does what he wants, he does what he wants. Balotelli, he does what he wants – which sums him up.

Founded in the C19th by the daughter of a vicar aiming to lure blue collar Mancunians out of pubs and into a healthier form of social activity, City’s C21st terrace hordes now need to find another favourite, as the fans had genuine affection for Mario despite his troubles on and off the pitch.

He was a Peter Pan, a boy who never grew up and whose quirky antics and scrapes were daft and endearing, but over time, became a hindrance to his own performance, his contribution to the team, and ultimately, the team’s results.

Roberto Mancini insisted his patience with Balotelli was ‘limitless’ but the goodwill has, after all, finally been exhausted. City's manager could not have tried harder to disprove Jose Mourinho's theory that Balotelli's volatile and unpredictable temperament was beyond management, as ‘The Special One’ failed to control him at Inter Milan.

Mancini’s notoriously hard-line stance on discipline often slackened when it came to the 22-year-old he signed in August 2010, on the basis that Mancini knew an outstanding talent, requiring careful and sympathetic handling, lay beneath the troublesome exterior.

Of course there were moments, such as the recent clash at City's training ground, when Mancini boiled over at Balotelli's attitude, but in other moments it was clear he shared an almost father-and-son bond with the striker. When Balotelli erred, Mancini's demeanour was often not rage but almost sadness.

It’s a far cry from last May when Balotelli delivered a crucial touch that led to Agueros injury-time last-kick-of-the-season winning goal versus QPR and gave City their first title in 44 years - something that was lost amid the euphoric ­pandemonium.

There was the hope Mancini's patient approach would result in all the right buttons being pressed and the full scale of his undoubtedly extravagant ability being brought to bear. But his City career is over: 54 League, 9 domestic cup and 17 European appearances; 30 goals in all competitions; 4 red cards, 23 yellow cards. He is part of City folklore – Balotelli lifting his shirt to display the message Why Always Me? will prove to be one of the enduring images of English football after scoring during City's 6-1 win over their Manchester rivals.

Whatever the manager's sentiments, the ultimate decision has to be based on performances on the pitch and, quite simply, Balotelli has not produced enough to make him worth the trouble. There comes a time when indulgence must end, the temperament looks too flawed, the moments of quality too rare – and the adverse impact on the team visible.  Balotelli’s time is up, the talent undermined by a lack of focus.  

So what can we learn from Super Mario about managing a maverick in business, a flawed genius?

Mavericks are rare in business but without them many great companies would not exist. Certainly most entrepreneurs are mavericks, rule-breakers who follow their own hunches and heart. None of these makers and shakers could ever be described as conformist.

The maverick traits explain their success in one obvious way: disregard the herd, look for the gaps. Contrarian originality is a rich source of fresh, shatter-the-mould strategies, creating a continuous stream of new, idiosyncratic and very often disruptive thinking.

Maverick qualities of nonconformity, imagination and dissatisfaction with the status quo are a novelty, so instead of looking for the first opportunity to push a maverick out the door, you need to initiate a special management plan, as tolerance of mavericks is an underlying attribute of innovation.

But there's a rub: mavericks don't always get along well with others. With their idiosyncratic, quirky ways, strong wills, and high standards, they often create friction and conflict. They make others uncomfortable. They bristle at systems and routines.

As a result, mavericks are often marginalised, rejected by the corporate system or by colleagues who want harmony or simplicity. Meanwhile, innovation fizzles. In such cases, how they are managed is critical. Leaders must protect the mavericks, give them space to operate, to work their magic and keep the flame of innovation alight.

Steve Jobs said he wanted Apple to be full of Jarring individuals; weed out the dullards and nurture the nuts – but whilst Jobs realised a maverick image can be an essential part of a brand, a company has to be run on more conventional lines. Jobs represents the out-of-the box thinking and vision that was vital to keep Apple as a market leader, but he was supported by a framework of astute business brains who executed the strategy.

There are exceptions to the ‘protect the mavericks’ mantra, when leaders should not protect them because their behaviour has gone too far. When mavericks do not operate by the shared values of the organisation, they must become casualties. Leaders must remove them from the organisation –nurture flawed genius, but don't tolerate jerks.

Too many leaders either fail to take the necessary tough calls or fail to do it soon enough. They ignore inappropriate behaviour, often because the individual in question is a star performer. When leaders fail to take decisive action with these malcontents, they damage the organisation's culture, and their own moral authority.

I guess there is The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of mavericks in an organisation.

The good part is that the maverick encourages creativity and change. Most companies are generally averse to non-conformity. Mavericks serve to counteract this inertia. They maybe disruptive, but good mavericks offer new ideas and solutions.

Because mavericks tend to be a disruptive influence, particularly in organisations that have a low tolerance for conflict. They are difficult to manage, and may even ignore their bosses instructions. More problematic is that mavericks don't make particularly good team-players. That's the bad.

The ugly is really ugly. When mavericks are skilled and knowledgeable, they can provide a positive contribution. If not, their impact will almost always be negative, creating frustration by not making a contribution. These people are loose cannons – a description frequently attributed to Balotelli.

The second ugly situation occurs when the organisation does not recognise the contributions of the wild maverick. Over a period of time, the maverick moves from maverick to scapegoat to rebel to martyr. At each stage the organisation becomes less tolerant of his seemingly uncontrollable behaviour and the maverick becomes more uncontrollable. A vicious spiral of disruption, almost chaos – again, sometimes evident with Balotelli.

Managers can do a great deal to harness the energy of the maverick, while working to minimize the negative effects of their social style. In large part, the manager's approach is going to determine whether there is a lot of good, a lot of bad or a lot of ugly.

So, how to manage a maverick? Below are some suggestions.

  • Get your signals straight You may not be able to cage a maverick, but you can guide them. The key is to be clear about how you see the maverick contributing to the organisation, recognising that their input and impact may be different from other employees. The maverick needs to know what you expect, and what you need.
  • Work for respect, not authority Your formal authority may not have much impact on the maverick. What will have an effect is developing rapport and mutual respect. This means dialogue, and a willingness to listen to what the maverick has to say, and showing you value their opinion.
  • Feedback Mavericks don't usually intend to be obstructive, they simply don't think about how they may be affecting everyone else. For this reason, it is important that they receive feedback to focus them on how they are doing.
  • Dealing with ugly If your maverick is ‘ugly’, you have a performance problem to address. It this person is allowed to run roughshod over everyone without contributing anything positive, the entire organisation can be disrupted and the maverick should be removed.
  • Champion and protect Remember that the maverick tends not to receive a lot of peer-group support. They rely on their own mental strength rather than social sympathy. If you value your maverick, you will need to signpost them and their contributions to the wider organisation.
  • Set limits (or try!) The maverick is going to need reminding that there ARE organisational goals and boundaries that are important. Stress the need for the maverick to focus on these. Don't appear arbitrary, be clear and set high expectations.
  • Coach and engage them. Draw out their ideas, listen to their questions, and provide them with the time and space they need to fully understand themselves, rather than brushing them off. Help mavericks learn to navigate politics and the company’s culture.
  • Work with their strengths. Get out of their way, give mavericks their own space and a role where their restlessness and unconformity can be channelled to good use. Mavericks need challenges and the leeway to meet them.
  • Pick your battles Does it matter if their output is fantastic? Keep a keen eye around every aspect of their performance and impact. Stay close, set the boundaries, then give them their head, and then equally expect the fireworks –but chose the right issue and the timing of any intervention to pull them back into line.

Balotelli the maverick contributed positively and negatively to his organisation, and you can see Mancini was a good man-manager, tolerant and patient, nurturing and disciplinarian in equal measures. Much of what determines what you will get is how the organisation and the manager tolerate the quirks and bumps along the way. Balotelli did make some telling contributions. If you can harness the maverick's energy and commitment, they can play a catalytic role in helping the organisation move forward.

There was a poignant interview with Mancini, when he admitted Balotelli’s exit was a loss, and he was genuinely sad to lose Balotelli’s talent. There was a father-like air around Mancini’s demeanour, no sign of ‘good riddance, what a relief he’s gone’.

He’s only 22, will he mature and fulfill his potential? Time will tell, but here's a quote from The Shawshank Redemption which I think sums up Balotelli's move to AC Milan:

Some birds are not meant to be caged. Their feathers are too bright, their songs too sweet and wild. So you let them go, or when you open the cage to feed them they somehow fly out past you. And the part of you that knows it was wrong to imprison them in the first place rejoices, but still, the place where you live is that much more drab and empty for their departure.


Ian Brookes.

Ian is the former MD of Lorien Plc,  non-executive director of several companies and above all a man who makes stuff happen.