Sir Richard Branson, the chairman of Virgin Group, is an example in many areas. He is often cited as an exemplary entrepreneur, who achieved phenomenal results without any prior knowledge in the field or any kind of leverage. His success is attributed to a range of factors, from his entrepreneurial vision to his audacity to the controversial and borderline unethical business practices he is known to exhibit. Despite the controversy surrounding his figure, it is undeniable that Richard Branson is an exceptional personality, whose success can be at least partially ascribed to his outstanding leadership qualities and traits.
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The easiest way to start the analysis of Branson’s leadership qualities is from the trait he emphasizes most often: optimism. Virtually any interview or a book about him includes it in one form or another. First, Richard always emphasizes the belief in the business you’re dealing with (Branson 2014).
While this is primarily an entrepreneurial trait, it benefits leadership in two ways: it inspires the people around you if you manifest it enough, and makes the role of a leader far less stressful and elaborate. At the same time, the ability to inspire the followers and make them believe in the idea you believe in is a key characteristic of the transformational leadership model, which centers around the idea of changing the surrounding people by imposing your inspiration and vision on them (Kwame 2012).
The second manifestation of optimism is formulated by Branson: never give up. It is a well-known fact that the Virgin group is an enormously diverse entity, and with diversity naturally comes the need to wander into unknown territories. This leads to higher risks and, in some cases, failures. Virgin Cola is an example of the latter, which proved that no matter how good a leader maybe, he is not immune to serious mistakes. Virgin Megastores also exhibit troubling signs of failing.
However, neither of these stopped Branson from exploring new fields. Even the most recent failed test of the Virgin Galactic space program did not stop Branson from moving forward. In this case, besides optimism, resilience is an important leadership trait that came into play, which not only guarantees the pursuit of the set goals but makes it easier for the team to deal with downfalls.
Another quality that is important for any leader is the ability to reach out to followers by establishing effective communications. It matters little how good is an idea, vision, or a goal set by the CEO if he can not effectively transmit it to his subordinates. The communication capabilities also can be traced in two principles emphasized by Branson in his books. First, he states the importance of communicating on all levels of the company (Branson 2014).
He rejects the existence of distance between levels of employees and believes that whenever such distance forms it should be eradicated. In this regard, he suggests organizing the workplace environment in such a way that it prompts and encourages communication between all company members. Second, Branson is known for actively building relationships. What’s more, he prefers doing it in person rather than relying on phone calls and e-mails.
In his book Business stripped bare, he famously says “Don’t be someone who gets stuck in front of a computer all day. Push yourself to get lunch with coworkers; grab coffee with someone in your industry.” (Branson 2011, p. 61) Aside from the benefits of such an approach for the business, it further strengthens the employees’ confidence in their leader. Additionally, it should be mentioned that Richard, being dyslexic from childhood, has taken a habit of writing down notes during conversations, which, according to him, has benefited his communication skills (Fertig 2013).
Finally, his involvement in philanthropic activities is a widely publicized fact. While philanthropy and charity tend to be viewed as publicity moves when it comes to large corporations like Virgin, Branson believes that such activities bring employees closer to one another and raise corporate values. He is known to actively encourage his staff to participate in various events, such as marathons organized to raise money for charities.
Besides the positive effect of uniting employees, an even more significant effect is the inspiration resulting from it. Doing good to others boost the confidence and trust in the leader, and projecting this approach on the followers adds to their self-esteem and nurtures their values. Again, this may be characterized as an integral part of the transformational leadership model, where the leader inspires the team by his exemplary behavior. However, admittedly, this is a somewhat more straightforward approach than is recommended by the model guidelines.
All of the mentioned qualities seemingly contribute to the overall positive image of Sir Richard Branson. Interestingly enough, the Virgin Group has been known to involve the questionable and sometimes barely ethical activities throughout its history.
For example, to avoid taxation, Branson has kept his employees’ salaries at minimum rates (Rushton 2013). This goes in direct contradiction with the transactional leadership model, according to which the leader should create a transparent and fair system of incentives to reward his followers (Bertocci 2009).
Nevertheless, his emphasis on boosting public image, establishing face-to-face contacts, and otherwise encouraging communication between different levels of employees, optimistic attitude, and exhibiting belief in his team and his goals can be positively identified as a charismatic leadership approach. It is very similar to the transformational approach mentioned above, with one key difference: while the transformational leader inspires and motivates his team aiming at changing them, the charismatic leader uses the same approach primarily to pursue his goals (Avolio & Yammarino 2013).
In conclusion, we can safely assume that Sir Richard Branson is an exemplary leader. The range of leadership traits, techniques, and characteristics he uses suggests his adherence to the charismatic and, to a lesser degree, transformational approach. Thus, despite some questionable practices, Branson’s approach proves to be both successful and prolific both to him and to the team he has created and continues to maintain.
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Avolio, B & Yammarino, F 2013. Transformational and charismatic leadership: the road ahead, Emerald Group Publishing, Bingley.
Bertocci, D 2009, Leadership in organizations: there is a difference between leaders and managers, University Press of America, New York.
Branson, R 2011, Business stripped bare: adventures of a global entrepreneur, Penguin, New York.
Branson, R 2014, The Virgin way: everything i know about leadership, Penguin, New York.
Fertig, D 2013, Richard Branson, Raintree, London.
Kwame, G 2012, Transformational leadership, Xulon Press, New York.
Rushton, K 2013, Virgin Media delays bonuses to avoid top tax rate. Web.