Richard Branson has proved to be a strong and successful leader. He has built his company into a global empire that brings in over $20 billion a year. Although he has made some very public business mistakes, his successes have far outweighed his business failures. One of his many successes has been creating a company where employees at all levels feel valued within the company. He has eliminated the need for unions by providing for his employees and keeping them happy. This has also enabled him to successfully promote from within and build the business leaders he needs to run a globally successful company. Branson’s methods and philosophies have been widely criticized because they are quite different from many of his counterparts. However, it cannot be disputed that Branson has built a highly successful business. Although he runs things differently than many others, he clearly demonstrates that different can produce great results.
Branson can be described as both a visionary leader and a coaching leader. A visionary leader is one that can motivate others to work towards a shared goal. According to Daniel Goleman, author of Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (2004), “Visionary leaders articulate where a group is going, but not how it will get there – setting people free to innovate, experiment, take calculated risks.” Branson has proven himself to be a visionary leader by consistently projecting his dreams for the company and providing it with the resources to work toward those dreams. He encourages his employees to think outside the box and to come up with their own ideas and solutions. This is demonstrated by his consistent practice of reading and responding to employee emails each day (“Sir Richard Branson, Chairman, Virgin Group, Ltd.”). Branson has been described as a man who enjoys being confronted by challenges in business. He finds fulfillment in being able to accomplish the seemingly impossible. It is a part of who he is, and it shows through his leadership of others.
This form of leadership has been highly effective in the US which traditionally rewards entrepreneurs. Being able to differentiate a product or service while solving problems will gain high customer loyalty in the US. However, many are accustomed to the status quo and often times people who present a different way of doing things are rejected. Branson has nevertheless elicited a cult-like following which has helped propel him into success (“Sir Richard Branson, Chairman, Virgin Group, Ltd.”). This following was gained through his seemingly unconventional methods. Overall, Branson has found success in the US with his own leadership style, despite his critics.
Branson can also be described as a coaching leader. A coaching leader is one who “focuses on developing individuals, showing them how to improve their performance, and helping to connect their goals to the goals of the organization” (Murray). He appreciates the fact he needs solid leaders in order to maintain a successful company. Virgin is simply too large for him to micromanage. Janice Caplan, author of Coaching for the Future: How Smart Companies Use Coaching and Mentoring (2003), “coaching as a leadership style can be applied to almost all the functions of management: day-to-day issues that need attention, persuading individuals to take on added responsibilities, dealing with problems, addressing improvement of an organization’s services, etc.” As mentioned earlier, Branson responds to all employee emails directly. He uses these emails as a method of proposing solutions, encouraging new ideas, and challenging employees to solve problems. In addition to reading and responding to employee emails, he strongly supports promoting from within (“Sir Richard Branson, Chairman, Virgin Group, Ltd.”). As a leader, he believes that great leaders are developed. He looks for people who have the natural ability and drive to lead others, and then he encourages those individuals to work their way up through the company. He supports those he sees strong potential in. More importantly, he sees potential as individuals that are able to lead and inspire others, opposed to dictate and “manage” (“Sir Richard Branson, Chairman, Virgin Group, Ltd.”). This has proven to be a successful form of leadership.
In the US, many people are accustomed to feeling unappreciated and micromanaged within the work environment. Branson offers an alternate form of leadership that makes employees feel appreciated and valued. This is an effective approach to leadership within the US. In some cases, coaching leadership can feel like micromanagement, which is how it may be interpreted in the US. However, the difference between coaching and micromanagement is that coaching is intended to improve employees, while micromanagement is simply micromanagement. Additionally, employees who respond well to the coaching and improve as employees are rewarded with promotions. When being micromanaged, even the best employees may be overlooked when promotions are available. Being recognized and rewarded for hard work is well accepted in the US.
Branson could be an even more effective leader by adopting a democratic leadership style. Although he has shown he is capable of this style of leadership in some situations, overall, he has relied on his own intuition to make business decisions. According to Lawrence Gitman and Carl McDaniel, authors of The Future of Business Essentials (2008), “democratic leaders solicit input from all members of the group and then allow the group members to make the final decision trough a voting process.” There have been clear situations where Branson could have and should have relied on the knowledge and skill of others, but instead decided to do his own thing. For example, Branson was advised to close his Virgin Megastore by his top management, which he decided to ignore (“Sir Richard Branson, Chairman, Virgin Group, Ltd.”). As a result of his decision, the company lost a great deal of money. His top management is comprised of businesspeople with years of experience. They have been raised up through the company and have gained trusted positions within Branson’s operation. He should have trusted their opinion and followed their advice. Instead, he lost an unnamed amount of money. The disadvantage to a democratic leadership style is that you risk losing control of decision making. However, recruiting and developing team members that are committed to the shared vision will ensure that all votes are made in the best interest of the company, opposed to individual interests. In the situation of the megastores, the management team was looking out for what was best for the company.
If Branson were to take on a major project, such as space tourism, he would likely approach it as he would any other major project. First, he would assemble his team. Branson’s leadership and business philosophy relies heavily on recruiting and retaining quality people. Branson looks for people who “get charged up when told that something cannot be done, someone who is unafraid of industry barriers and will not take no for an answer” (“Sir Richard Branson, Chairman, Virgin Group, Ltd.”). Branson acknowledges that surrounding himself by a strong support team is the key to his success as a business leader. Once he has his dream team assembled, he will work on brainstorming ways to accomplish his new business goal. Branson is known for his attention to detail and list making (“Sir Richard Branson, Chairman, Virgin Group, Ltd.”). He accomplishes a great deal simply by listening to others. He, along with his team, will create an actionable plan. Once the plan is created, his team will start working through the plan to accomplish the overall goal.
In regard to my own work, I can utilize a number of Branson’s leadership qualities to better accomplish my goals. First, I can learn from his role as a visionary. When Branson is confronted with a seemingly impossible task, he accepts the challenge. He does not back down from challenges or struggles. I can learn from this and get motivated by challenges, opposed to deflated. I can choose to work harder to accomplish harder goals instead of working to finding an easier way. Additionally, as a visionary, Branson thinks outside the box. He does not feel confined by the status quo. I can learn from this by working to look beyond what I already know and find new and more innovative ways to accomplish new goals. Branson does not wait for life to happen; he makes it happen. It is a completely different approach than most people take in life, but it is one that has clearly worked for him, and it can work for me.
I understand Branson’s lack of democratic leadership. Although having an experienced team is a key to success, he is a natural leader and businessman. He has learned to rely on his own intuition and decision making. Moving to a purely democratic leadership style would take away from his decision-making power. I agree with not wanted to relinquish that power. Although he lost money on decisions related to not listening to the advice of others, trusting his intuition has served him well throughout his career. I think it is better to listen to the advice of others, but to ultimately make independent decisions. Branson has proved it is better to take risks than to always play it safe.
I can also learn from Branson’s role as a coaching leader. Although I’m not currently on the position to build others up to benefit my role, it is a valuable form of leadership that will suit me well in future endeavors. Working to develop current workers is almost always more desirable than recruiting and training new workers. Additionally, recruiting new workers will not guarantee loyalty or passion for a shared vision. The best approach to gain these valuable assets is by working with your current employees to help them become great leaders. If I have the opportunity to own my own business, I will need to be able to recruit and develop a strong team. Branson admits that one of the keys to his success has been surrounding himself with good people. This same sentiment has been made by other great business leaders, such as Donald Trump and Robert Kiyosaki in their book, Midas Touch (2012). Having a solid team will help propel my forward in my own success, and it will simultaneously help my team gain their own success.
Branson is an ideal case study to look at when examining leadership skills and styles. His years of success are clearly documented. Additionally, he offers a slightly different view of leadership that many don’t often see in business. Although his company originates in the UK and is a global company, it has found great success in the US. Entrepreneurial leadership is greatly admired in the US. This overall attitude helps entrepreneurs succeed and grow in business. However, the overall supportive atmosphere is not enough. It takes a great leader to grow a great company. Branson’s conscious decision to put the employees first, demonstrates his unique leadership style and takes on business. He creates a different type of work environment, which is contrary to many big businesses. A perfect example of this is Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart was built by Sam Walton, who was also a great entrepreneur. However, Wal-Mart puts the goal of providing customers with the lowest price possible ahead of its own customers. As a result of this, Wal-Mart constantly has to fight off unionization, high turnover rates, poor customer service, and a poor public image. Virgin does not have these issues because Branson puts the needs and concerns of the employees first. Branson’s philosophy is that “if your employees are happy, they will do a better job. If they do a better job, the customers will be happy, and thus business will be good and the shareholders will be rewarded” (“Sir Richard Branson, Chairman, Virgin Group, Ltd.”). While some may argue, this is no way to run a global business, Branson has proved it can work.
Caplan, Janice. Coaching for the future: how smart companies use coaching and mentoring. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 2003.
Gitman, Lawrence J., and Carl D. McDaniel. The future of business: the essentials. 4th, student ed. Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning, 2009.
Goleman, Daniel, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee. Primal leadership: learning to lead with emotional intelligence. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 20042002.
Murray, Allen. " Leadership Styles - Management - WSJ.com." How-To Guides from the Wall Street Journal - Wsj.com. http://guides.wsj.com/management/developing-a-leadership-style/how-to-develop-a-leadership-style/ (accessed March 2, 2013).
Trump, Donald, and Robert T. Kiyosaki. Midas touch: why some entrepreneurs get rich-- and why most don't. Scottsdale, Ariz.: Plata Pub., 2011.