LIVED Leader: Sir Richard Branson (Founder of Virgin Group)

Every business, like a painting, operates according to its own rules. There are many ways to run a successful company. What works once may never work again. What everyone tells you never to do may just work, once. There are no rules. You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over, and it’s because you fall over that you learn to save yourself from falling over. It’s the greatest thrill in the world and it runs away screaming at the first sight of bullet points“.

The complexion, velocity and volume of change that occurs in the modern workplace is staggering and unpredictable. There are so many complex factors that are influencing change in the business world, such as increased global connectivity, digitalisation, technological advancements and even evolving demographics that shape the way competition manifests itself. The criteria under which organisations can be deemed to be performing well are constantly shifting, and many leaders are suggesting that continual innovation is a top priority in order to succeed.

In the face of unpredictability, Sir Richard Branson (the founder of Virgin Group) demonstrates sheer Drive and determination to achieve the stretching challenges he sets for himself and others. As the world reacted to the tragic crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two in the Mojave Desert, he brought our attention to the fact that “humanity’s greatest achievements often come out of our greatest pain… Virgin Galactic goes on, with an unwavering commitment to safety and a renewed sense of purpose”. Even after potentially damaging setbacks to progress and reputation, Branson maintains a passionate commitment to achieving success for his organisation and remains enthusiastic, energetic and positive towards his mission.

So how does Branson know what his purpose and vision should be for the future if conditions in the world of work at present are so volatile and complex?

His anticipation of the future typically goes far beyond the types of trends for which most leaders plan. Take Virgin Galactic as an example. He has previously noted the predictions Stephen Hawking has made about how the human race is likely to be wiped off the face of the Earth (disease, artificial intelligence or an asteroid), and that the colonisation of other planets is a logical contingency. Virgin Galactic isn’t just a luxury service, it’s a mechanism to revolutionise travel on Earth now and to support his idea for “space hotels”.

The point here is that Branson’s Intellect is based in creating innovative visions for the future, and having a high willingness to take calculated risks in order to achieve them. His entrepreneurialism gives a strong impression that he operates with a high level perspective, but Branson has also been seen carrying a notebook to take regular notes on detailed observations that he makes in all of his interactions, particularly when it comes to evaluating his own companies. He wants to discover the facts and core elements of a problem, as well as recognise where gaps lie in performance, in order to make decisions around how to improve the situation.

In these situations, Branson typically suggests that most risks are worth taking if they are “for a good cause, and contribute to a good life”. This emanates throughout his approach to decision making and the challenges he pursues, advocating a clear set of ethical principles that guide his approach to work and corporate social responsibility. He stands up for what he believes in and is not afraid to voice his opinion in situations where others may disagree, eg remember when he waded in to the Amanda Knox trial via Twitter suggesting that “everyone deserves fair treatment”? In this way, Richard displays authentic leadership through his honesty and openness. His Values make it easier for him to motivate and inspire those who work for Virgin Group.

Having said this, being able to inspire people isn’t only a by-product of being yourself. Branson proactively inspires and influences others by using his awareness of Emotions. He actively listens to people and relates to their stories. He builds rapport by understanding people on an individual level, eg “Remembering anything I have in common with somebody and the context of our last meeting helps cut through the chit-chat when we next meet and become better friends”.

Branson learns from these conversations and praises others in order to build their confidence, eg “I will praise, praise, praise… and only criticize if they are going to kill themselves crossing the road. People know when they’ve done things wrong; they don’t need to be told. When I write my letters to employees, you’ll never see a line of criticism”.

On balance, effective leaders in the modern workplace also need to manage their own emotions effectively. Branson demonstrates a level of self-awareness and an ability to utilise his social support networks to mediate his own emotions, eg “The key is to remain calm and collected. If you are getting angry, take a deep breath, realize you are taking it too personally and, even, take a step back. Rely on those around you to help you out. Teamwork can often win”.

Branson is similarly very aware of his own curiosity, driving him to constantly “think [he] can do better”. He recognises that this drives the innovative approach that makes him an inspirational leader. In relation to a&dc’s LIVED model of leadership, Branson’s key strength is in Learning. He proactively seeks to learn, and frames many projects he embarks on as ‘challenges’, eg the Virgin Earth Challenge. This primes himself and others to take on (and be enthused by) stretching goals, as well as gather feedback and reflect on what works well and not so well.

Most importantly, Branson is willing to make mistakes and learn from them quickly. When talking about Virgin Cola, one of Branson’s most publicised commercial failures, he explained that “it was a great learning experience for our team, and in taking on the role of plucky underdog, Virgin seemed to win over a lot of the American public. It certainly made things easier when we launched subsequent businesses there, including our airline”.

Ultimately, in a world where change and unpredictability are the new norms, Richard Branson’s natural preference for continual self-improvement and learning enable him to navigate the intellect, values, emotions and drive of his organisations toward success. This makes him a LIVED role model for leaders of the future.

Author: Jordon Jones