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Is This Really The Time For Maverick Leadership?


I am one of those undecided Independent voters that become so popular every four years in October. In order to fulfill my duty as a Patriotic American casting a semi-informed vote in November, I try to watch the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates. I definitely recognize them for what they – he said, he said, she said, he said rhetorical posturing and political theater. But they are really one of the few opportunities to see the candidates speaking directly to voters, unfiltered by the media.

Last night my wife and I watched Governor Sarah Palin duke it out with Senator Joe Biden. It was actually a pretty tame affair which I think favored the Governor. The Senator, known for eating sole on many occasions, showed a remarkable amount of restraint which while gentlemanly may have cost him a few debating points. From my perspective the Senator still outperformed the Governor because his answers provided more meat for us to consider. The Governor clearly was a good student at the President George W. Bush School of Political Communication; keep the message simple and repeat it over and over again. Different strokes for different folks but in the end the margin was about as close as the recent Presidential polls suggest the race is.

Governor Palin loves the camera and it loves her back. Not a surprise in that earlier in her career she was a sports broadcaster. Her comfort with this medium helped overcome her lack of substance on many of the issues. On the other hand, the Senator also has a comfortable style although for the first quarter of the debate he addressed the moderator Gwen Ifill when he might have benefited from looking into the lens for American voters.

A couple things struck me; the first like a Mack truck. According to CNN, the Governor used the term “maverick” sixteen (16) times in the debate. Add that to the number of times John McCain referred to himself as a “maverick” in the first Presidential Debate and your head will start to hurt. We get it! Future moderators should put a limit of five (5) as the number of times the “maverick” can be used in the debate. More than that and points will be deducted.

Maybe it’s just me but I was also a little taken aback by the Governor’s casual style during a debate for an office that is a heartbeat away from the most powerful job in the world. According to the transcript, her first words to her fellow debater were:

PALIN: Nice to meet you.

BIDEN: It’s a pleasure.

PALIN: Hey, can I call you Joe?

“Hey can I call you Joe?” might be appropriate in a bar, but in this time and place to me it seemed a little disrespectful.

Then in an exchange late in the debate she says:

PALIN: Say it ain’t so, Joe, there you go again pointing backwards again.

On the other hand the Senator always respectfully referred to the Governor as “Governor” or “Governor Palin.” Even high school debaters avoid the type of familiarity demonstrated by the Governor. I might just be old fashioned but shouldn’t there be at least a modicum of respect demonstrated by both sides in a debate of this proportion. This combined with the numerous winks and nods made the Governor a little too cute.

Finally I was really struck by the Governor’s answer to this question late in the debate:

IFILL: Final question tonight, before your closing statements, starting with you, Sen. Biden. Can you think of a single issue — and this is to cast light for people who are just trying to get to know you in your final debate, your only debate of this year — can you think of a single issue, policy issue, in which you were forced to change a long-held view in order to accommodate changed circumstances?

PALIN: But on the major principle things, no, there hasn’t been something that I’ve had to compromise on, because we’ve always seemed to find a way to work together. Up there in Alaska, what we have done is, with bipartisan efforts, is work together and, again, not caring who gets the credit for what, as we accomplish things up there.

Now I may have misunderstood her but what I heard last night and read above is that she has never “change(d) a long-held view in order to accommodate changed circumstances?” She says that up in Alaska they all just get together and figure things out and get things done. That’s amazing. Until now, I have never known of a leader who at one point or another didn’t have to “change a long held view in order to accommodate changed circumstances.” Either the Governor is incredibly lucky that she’s never encountered a situation where circumstances changed, or she’s incredibly smart in anticipating those changes and cutting them off at the pass.

And that brings me to that overused term “maverick.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as:



1. An unbranded range animal, especially a calf that has become separated from its mother, traditionally considered the property of the first person who brands it.

2. One that refuses to abide by the dictates of or resists adherence to a group; a dissenter.


Being independent in thought and action or exhibiting such independence: maverick politicians; a maverick decision.

Our country is at a critical point where the future hangs in the balance. We are still recovering from the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we are fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our financial system is on the verge of crisis, if not already there, and our power and influence around the world has been lessened by all of these things. On top of that, our international reputation has been damaged significantly.

We’ve had one MBA “maverick” in the White House for the past eight (8) years; the thought of two for the next four (4) years is daunting. The world has changed over the past decade and the effectiveness of autocratic,  hierarchal styles of leadership are waning and being replaced by those more collaborative and team-based. The “go-it alone” maverick mentality just won’t solve today’s major adaptive challenges. It might work in Alaska, though I doubt for long, and it might work in the Senate where authority and leadership are distributed amongst 100 men and women, but in the highest office in the land and most powerful position in the world, it’s as dangerous as a duel at high noon.

About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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