When one mentions the companies of Virgin Group, the first thing that comes into mind is Sir Richard Branson, its indefatigable founder and one of the world’s best known rags to riches billionaire (Dearlove 2007). This 62 year old English business magnate runs more than 300 companies with operations across the globe (Branson 2011). He is one of the world most successful and admired business leaders (Branson 2006). Currently, he is putting all of his charisma, power and leadership behind the concept of global change. He has repeatedly asserted that leaders across the globe have a moral responsibility of contributing towards sustainable solutions to major world problems such as wars, climate change and sustainable economic development (Richard Branson autobiography n.d.).
As a result, he has founded several organizations and also written a book titled ‘Screw Business as Usual’. In this book, he has explained his theory as regards to why capitalism should be re-founded as a means, through which the desired results can be achieved (Branson 2011). At the age of 62, Branson is enthusiastic and charismatic, yet very courteous and shy. He has done everything imaginable in his efforts of promoting his group of companies. He has tried crossing the Pacific on a balloon, disguised himself as a bride, a pilot and even crisscrossed the sky in a free fall (Dearlove 2007).
He recently announced that he will travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere by the use of his new spaceship, christened Launcher One. Branson is envied by his peers, feted in Great Britain as a national hero and idolized by his employees. With a fortune estimated at US$4.2 billion, he is the 4th richest man in the United Kingdom. Forbes has placed him at number 225 globally. His companies operate across virtually every industry, ranging from health care to telecommunications and most recently space tourism. Virgin Group has more than 48,000 employees, it is present in 30 countries and raked in US$21 billion in 2011.
Despite dropping out of a high school at the age of 15 years due to dyslexia that resulted from the inability to keep up with the rest of the class, he overcame this setback to stand at the pedestal of success (Branson 2006). Few leaders possess the credentials of Branson to enable them take the driving seat in global causes like Richard Branson has done. He is a versatile leader, who does not believe in holding onto the past, because he believes that it can only drag him back. He does not believe in looking back with remorse, and every time he suffers a setback, he collects himself and focuses on the next challenge.
He says that this is the first lesson, which his mother taught him at a tender age (Richard Branson autobiography n.d.). Branson believes that he got his leadership skills from his upbringing. This is because his parents impressed upon him the importance of standing on his own two feet (Branson 2011). He says that at 10 years, his mother had put him on a bike to ride for 300 miles. These early lessons built his character and increased his endurance level. He has said in several interviews that he learned leadership through the trial and error method (Dearlove 2007).
He founded his first company when he was aged 16 years, and over the years, he has held that the most crucial quality for any leader is to have a personality feature of caring about other people (Specter 2007). He has asserted that it is impossible for anyone to be an effective leader if he or she does not like people, because that is the only way of bringing out the best in them (Branson 2006). This is the message he consistently reinforces with his top managers and CEOs. Branson places an enormous value on the management of time.
As the chairman of a group with more than 300 firms, he has said that he spends a third of his time on new projects, another third on trouble shooting and the last third doing a promotional work and talking about the entrepreneurship (Branson 2011). Despite this busy schedule, he ensures that he has time for his family and vacation. According to Branson, it is essential for all entrepreneurs to create companies they believe in 100%. Branson believes in creating a trust in his employees and managers by showing them the direction and then letting them navigate on their one, while making himself available for the consultation. Richard Branson can be termed as a passionate leader.
When one logs on to Virgin Group Website, the message is that Virgin Group “gives birth” to companies and then it “holds their hands” through the laid down organizational structures until they can stand on their own. Courage is a pre-requisite for a successful leadership, and this is one virtue, which Branson has in abundance. An example of his willingness to take risks is the space tourism venture through Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson autobiography n.d.). This business is obviously courageous and risky. The other venture, which made both admirers and critics stand back and watch, was his decision to take on the global leader in soft drinks, Coca-Cola, when he launched Virgin cola. Although the results were not very impressive, Virgin cola is slowly gaining the market share in several markets.
Branson is also creative, and he easily adapts to negative or positive changes in his environment. These qualities make Richard Branson both a charismatic and transformational leader (Bass 1990). Like other leaders in history, such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Emperor Augustus, who were empire builders, Sir Branson’s forte lies in his potential to build successful businesses from the scratch. In the business world, where fiscal reward takes a precedence within the realm of commercialism, Branson is an entrepreneur per–excellence.
Branson fits the bill, when one looks at The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership by Maxwell and Ziglar. They include the law of influence, the law of solid ground, the law of intuition, the law of timing and the law of priorities among other 16 laws (Maxwell & Ziglar 1998). These laws describe specifics, which one can use in order to look into the leadership characteristics of people and demystify the strengths, which provide them with the given leadership traits (DuBrin 2010). Leadership has been discussed and examined as a set of attributes and traits, which individuals show (Bass 1990). These are due to innate abilities and skills, which an individual can develop through the application and study. Leaders have to be keen observers of behaviours of other people and also be capable of applying the correct combination of communication skills (Bass 1990). The techniques used should be dependent upon the situation at hand. The available literature shows that there are five levels of leadership, which consist of position, permission, production, people development and personhood.
Many people are tempted towards thinking that Branson has not had his challenges on the way up the business ladder. However, that is not the case. During his early years, Virgin records were continually in cash flow problems. This was despite registering brisk sales. In order to service an overdraft, the then 20 year old Branson pretended that he was buying records for the export market. This move was aimed at escaping the British excise tax on sales. Branson was arrested and locked in for a night. He was only released after his mother went bail for him by pledging her home as security. In a plea bargain, he was ordered to pay £60,000 or face a re-arrest, trial and the attendant criminal record (Dearlove 2007).
Branson had also been earlier arrested, after he founded a student’s magazine and broken laws, dating back to 1889 and 1917. These laws banned the publication of advice pertaining to venereal diseases remedies. Fortunately, he avoided going to prison after he sought the sound legal advice and was fined only £7. After this incidence, he emerged vindicated and more emboldened (Branson 2006). However, with the tax evasion, the law was not definitely on his side, and he said that avoiding the imprisonment was the most persuasive incentive in his life.
After that incident, Branson vowed that in his life, he would never do anything, which had the likelihood of leading to the imprisonment or embarrassment (Richard Branson autobiography n.d.). He says that his parents had impressed upon him that all he had in life was his reputation. He says that even with riches, one can never be happy after losing his or her good name.
Another major challenge, which Branson faced, was after the launch of Virgin Atlantic. This was due to what he terms as dirty tricks by the British Airways, which did all in its power to steal Virgin Atlantic’s passengers. Faced with a financially draining competition with the British Airways, he waged a lengthy court battle (Branson 2006). In 1993, he accepted a £500,000 settlement to him and £100,000 to Virgin Atlantic. Branson’s vigour for seeking justice shows that he is a figurehead in his companies. According to DuBrin (2010), there are a number of characteristics and innate traits, which make one an effective leader. According to the authors, for any task to be successfully accomplished, a passion is a must.
Passion is prevalent in entrepreneurial leaders, and Sir Richard Branson fits the bill as a passionate leader (Greiner 1998). As it was said earlier, taking initiatives and the associated risk is another leadership personality trait. It can be seen that this is the Branson’s forte. In addition, in depth knowledge of the industry one is operating in and the competition faced is a vital cognitive factor of leadership. Branson is in most cases well informed about the businesses he operates. This coupled with his another cognitive factor of leadership, creativity, has gained Branson respect from both friends and rivals.
Furthermore, the Branson’s leadership style entails hiring the right people, to whom he delegates day to day affairs of his businesses (DuBrin 2010). He is most active during the infant stages of his firms, after which he steps back to let the management do its duty. Although Branson has never taken any management courses, he fits pretty well into management concepts which are given pertaining to entrepreneurial leaders (Dearlove 2007). His leadership style can be also characterized as being democratic. He truly believes that listening to other people and getting their input is a core value to him (DuBrin 2010).
He is always armed with a notebook, just in case he hears of something interesting from people he interacts with, regardless of their level or status. Whether it is a business partner, an employee, a friend or a total stranger, Branson knows that good ideas can come from anyone, anywhere and at any time. He has on several occasions said that Virgin Group as an organisation is driven by the information and informality. The organisational structure of Virgin is bottom heavy, because he does not believe in the top management strangling the lower levels (Morgeson 2005). At present, Branson is not lost to the fact that he is a mortal, who will one day die. As a result, he has embarked on an initiative of cultivating dialogue within Virgin Group (Zaccaro, Rittman & Marks 2001). He is of the opinion that this is the right time for his HR leadership and the rest of management people team to question him (Richard Branson autobiography n.d.). However, he is firm that this should be done without destroying the long term culture of what it means to be Virgin. Branson strongly believes that for an effective people management, everyone should have a share of people management in them.
Sir Branson has asserted that the collective needs surpass him as an individual, because a shared responsibility strengthens groups (Gallo 2011). Therefore, he does not believe in hierarchical culture because it deprives junior staff of pride in their work, especially when the boss calls all the shots.
Branson argues that companies, which are successful in motivating their staff, hire leaders, who are capable of inspiring their teams to achieve their shared goal (Dearlove 2007). To sum up the Sir Richard Branson’s people management philosophy, no company, whether big or small, can survive in the long term without passionate and energized workers, who believe in the common mission and understand how to actualize it (Gallo 2011).
The unique skills, which set apart successful leaders from the others, have always been a reason for the examination and discussion. Sir Richard is an entrepreneur, who has been gifted with a unique combination of charisma, leadership, timing and intelligence. Several scholars have attempted to conduct researches aimed at providing a factual foundation to assess the reasons, which lie behind the successes of Sir Branson. Most of their analysis have centred on his entrepreneurial and leadership abilities.