Few people would doubt Richard Branson’s ability to lead. Like many entrepreneurs he has passion, energy and an instinctive flair for business. This article from the Toolkit for Managers looks at how his authentic leadership style has helped to make him the successful business leader he is.
Richard Branson has never courted convention. He left school at 16 with few qualifications, and no interest in traditional further education. He started his first business venture, a student magazine, just after leaving school. Three years later he opened Virgin Records in Oxford Street, London. By the age of 24, he had made his first million. Since then the serial entrepreneur has started up around 200 new businesses, including train and airline travel, investments, mobile phones and cosmetics.
Typical of many entrepreneurs, Branson doesn’t shy away from failure. His attempt to take on Coca Cola and Pepsi, two of the worlds’ biggest brands, met with initial success – capturing a 50% share of the UK market. But despite rolling into New York on a tank to herald the start of ‘Cola Wars’, Branson failed to make a dent in the US market. The ability to take risks and to learn from trial and error, however, has helped Branson become the unique entrepreneur and leader he is today.
Being the brand
Richard Branson uses his casual appearance to communicate his personal identity, and to send out clear messages about his informal, and non-conformist business style. The Virgin name too says much about his cheeky approach to business – it was even considered too risqué to be registered as a company name in the early years. His company mission statement at one time reportedly openly claimed to ‘stick two fingers up to the establishment’, and Branson says that 'Screw it, let's do it!' would aptly sum up his misson.
Branson’s appetite for excitement and adventure has seen him tackle incredible challenges both inside and outside of work. Whether taking on British Airways, or circumnavigating the globe in a balloon, Branson uses his infectious enthusiasm and charm to persuade others to join him for the ride. This is perhaps Branson’s greatest skill as a leader.
It will come as no surprise that Virgin HQ has never been, and never will be, based in some faceless tower block. In the early days, business was conducted on his houseboat on the Thames or round the table at his local pub. Today the premises are more upmarket but still not conventional – Branson HQ is based in several converted houses in Holland Park, London.
Being himself with more skill
‘You can’t be a good leader unless you generally like people. That is how you bring out the best in them.’
According to Goffee and Jones the secret to authentic leadership is ‘being yourself with more skill.' Branson is highly adept at this. He is famously affable and self-effacing. But don’t let his geniality fool you – when it comes to negotiation, for example, few do it better. Those who know him well prefer to do business through their lawyers, which says much about his powers of persuasion.
When he was a young man, Branson lived in a commune where any food, money and possessions he and his fellow lodgers could muster would be shared equally between them. With few rules in place and everyone living in close proximity, this period of Branson’s life doubtless helped him to learn a lot about what makes people tick – an invaluable skill for any leader. Branson plays up his personal differences to attract and excite followers who want to be around someone who is the antithesis of the archetypal pinstripe-suited business leader.
He makes the most out of life and believes that work should be enjoyable. By making work a fun place to be, Branson manages to recreate his own infectious enthusiasm for life, which gives employees a buzz, encourages them to work hard and to feel they are contributing to something worthwhile. Particularly in the early years of Virgin, his employees were expected to work hard without being very well paid. But Branson compensated by throwing parties that got employees together, and which helped blur the edges between work and social life. Importantly, he is said to treat employees throughout the organisation with the same levels of respect. And he doesn’t ask anyone to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.
Social networking technology suits Branson’s approachable leadership style. He blogs and posts regular updates via Twitter, and likes to keep in touch with the zeitgeist – a key skill of the authentic leader is to be tuned in to their strategic environment, which is exactly what Branson does.
Another important aspect of authentic leadership is a willingness to expose weaknesses. Branson is no exception. He openly admits that his top management team not only complements his strengths but also compensates for his shortcomings. Branson failed maths three times at school and makes no secret of the fact. He has a team of financiers to do all the calculations while he uses his gut instinct to know if a deal is a good one or not.
He is also not averse to showing his weaknesses to others on occasion. For example, he has been known to take his staff out and to let his hair down with them. Allowing people see your human side, Branson believes, can earn rather than lose respect.
Being the catalyst
Branson knows that his strength lies in being able to spot and nurture new business ideas. His childlike enthusiasm can be short-lived, however, so he spends the first three months of any new venture being heavily involved, before handing over the reins to a capable management team. He gives the chief executive of each company a stake in the business because he knows that this investment will ensure their commitment to making the business work.
When deciding which new projects to pursue, Branson adopts a straightforward approach. He simply asks the questions:
Will it offer good value for money?
Will it enhance the Virgin brand?
Can we make it profitable?
Will we have fun doing it?
If employees fail to perform in one area of the business, Branson will give them a second chance elsewhere, believing that if people find their niche, they will be happy and work hard. This trust in others has helped him to build a loyal employee base that is prepared to go more than the extra mile to please their boss and to achieve Virgin’s challenging goals. There is little question that Richard Branson is a one-off. There is no other business leader quite like him. His quirky style, his affable approach, and his seeming ability to be all things to all people mean that he is rightly admired as a credible and highly effective leader. His leadership approach provides an excellent study in how authentic leadership can produce impressive results.
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Taken from the Toolkit for Managers, from The Corporate eLearning Consortium, with additional reporting by Susie Finch. Like this and want more? Download a free Leadership assessment questionnaire from the Corporate eLearning Consortium website, to help you identify your leadership style
About Susie Finch
I'm a writer and editor - and a former Editor of TrainingZone! - specialising in L&D.
I also write for the Charity Learning Consortium.