What Richard Branson Can Teach You About Leadership

Richard Branson, billionaire and founder of the Virgin Group, is not your typical businessman. He has always been a bit unconventional in his business approach and leadership style, preferring experimentation and rule-breaking to idleness and maintenance of the status quo…favoring employee autonomy and flexibility to micromanagement and rigidity.

As a result, he has cultivated a workplace (or workplaces, rather) where his employees are not treated like subordinates, but instead like equals. He has created a company culture where employees have the freedom to freely express themselves and their ideas…where people are expected to not only work hard, but also enjoy themselves.

And with that, here are eight Branson quotes that can teach you how to lead—the Branson way.

“Too much credit goes to me for what we have achieved at Virgin. The successes happen from working and learning with some of the world’s most inspiring and inspired people.”

Lesson learned: Be humble.

If you don’t know the answer to something, speak up. If you messed up, take responsibility for your actions and don’t try to cover it up. Your employees will be able to relate to you and respect you more if you show that you are human, too. Remember that even as a leader, you can learn from the people around you—even if they happen to be your subordinates.

“My life has always been about learning. I’ve never been one to adhere to the rules, and instead favoured first-hand experiences.”

Lesson learned: Remain curious.

One thing that has made Branson so successful as a leader is not only his humility, but also his open-minded attitude and love for learning. If you want your company and your employees to continue to grow, then you have to cultivate a learning culture. Encourage your employees to ask questions, learn as they go, and experiment. Create a culture that accepts mistakes and failure, but also encourages growth to emerge from it.

“I have always believed in the art of delegation—finding the best possible people for Virgin and giving them the freedom and encouragement to flourish. If you are not always there, it forces other people to call the shots, which in turn improves their own leadership skills, builds their own confidence and strengthens your business.”

Lesson learned: Give your employees freedom and they will reward you with productivity and success.

Rather than always looking over his employees’ shoulders, Branson gives them the freedom to make decisions without him. In turn, they are happier, more confident and better able to become leaders themselves. And a business full of leaders? Now that’s a healthy one.

Branson even blogged about how “perplexing” he found the decision of Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, to suddenly force her remote employees to come to the office. He wrote that, “if you provide the right technology to keep in touch, maintain regular communication, and get the right balance between remote and office working, people will be motivated to work responsibly, quickly, and with high quality.”

A 2001 study by Brigham Young University confirmed Branson’s philosophy. The study found that people who were given more flexibility at work were able to work more hours before getting burnt out. Those who kept regular office hours got burnt out after just 38 hours of work per week, while remote workers with flexible schedules were able to work nearly 20 hours more—57 hours per week—before getting burnt out. As it turns out, giving your employees more flexibility makes them more productive, as well.

“A person who has multiple degrees in your field isn’t always better than someone with broad experience and a wonderful personality. I like to take chances on people, and whenever possible, promote from within—it sends a great message to everyone in the company.”

Lesson learned: When it comes to hiring, forget degrees and what looks good on paper. Look at the whole picture.

Successful hiring is not just hiring the person with the most experience or fancy degrees. It’s about hiring well-rounded individuals with personalities that will fit in well with your company.

Reward those who have paid their dues and worked hard at your company by promoting them. This will encourage all of your other employees to work hard too, knowing that there is a possibility of promotion down the line for them, as well.

“If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your business.”

Lesson learned: Show your employees that you genuinely care about their well-being—and they, along with your business, will prosper.

Branson grants all of his employees a full year of paid paternal leave. He also gives all salaried workers unlimited vacation. Of course, not all companies can afford to do this—and that’s fine. What’s important is that, like Branson, you show your employees that you genuinely care about them. This could be as simple as recognizing little employee achievements in your weekly team meetings. Or pulling them aside and asking how they are doing if you know that they are going through a hard time. It’s often the small gestures that go a long way.

“On a leadership basis, people should try to get rid of any practices that reinforce hierarchies. Why should a CEO be addressed as ‘Mr Bloggs’ if a receptionist is simply addressed as ‘Joe’? They should be treated exactly the same. There are some people who insist on using their titles, and because of this, they can’t develop human relationships with people in the same way. If you put yourself on a pedestal, you are asking to be knocked off.” 

Lesson learned: Get rid of the titles. Create a flat organizational culture, if you can. 

You don’t have to be best friends with your employees, but if you want them to succeed, it’s important that they feel comfortable around you. Allow all of your employees to come to you with a problem. Even if you are the CEO of your company, get to know every person on your team (assuming that the size of your company permits that).

Like Branson suggests, toss the titles and formalities. Just because someone is a developer doesn’t mean they can’t pitch in ideas for how to improve the marketing. Blur the lines between the departments so that all employees are held accountable for your company’s success. Doing so will increase innovation and productivity; employees will “do something not because they are told, but because they want to produce the best work for their clients.”

While a flat organizational structure tends to be more common among smaller companies, Valve, a software development company, is one example of a large company that has developed a completely flat organizational structure. Even though the company is made up of 300 employees, bosses and managers simply do not exist.

The CEO, Gabe Newell, states that, “Today at Valve, we don’t have that traditional marketing or sales organization. Each developer’s responsible for thinking about how to measure and optimize customer satisfaction.” The only downside to this, as Newell talks about, is that, without any management system in place, it is more difficult to monitor employee performance and behavior, which can potentially cost the company money. The solution to that? It’s simple: Smart hiring.

“To change the game is at the heart of what Virgin stands for, so the company culture has always been: ‘Don’t sweat it: rules were meant to be broken.’”

Lesson learned: Don’t be afraid to break the rules. 

Go with the flow. Experiment. Be able and willing to adapt to change. Adaptability, in large part, is what makes a good leader.

“You are far more likely to be inspired and have great ideas if you love what you do, and can instill that spirit of fun throughout your company.

Lesson learned: Have fun.

Branson is known for goofing around and setting some pretty wild April Fool’s pranks. He has created a company culture in which his employees are encouraged to have fun and joke around. In practically every photo I see of him, Branson has a smile on his face. He always seems to be having a good time. He even wrote a book called: “The Virgin Way: If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing,” which seems to perfectly sum up his philosophy on work and life.

Such happiness and good energy is contagious. A happy leader makes happy employees.

Bottom line? We spend most of our lives working. So take a hint from Branson—and enjoy it!


Good leadership is not just showing up and telling people what to do.

As Branson has shown, it’s about being open-minded to new ideas and listening—to your employees; clients and customers; and anyone else who might have something to teach you. It’s about being humble and abolishing strict hierarchies. And for organizations that are inherently hierarchical and difficult to change, good leaders at least give all their employees the freedom to exercise their opinions. They give them autonomy.

Effective leaders, like Branson, also experiment. They know that trial and error is what leads to success. They know that mistakes and failure are inevitable—but what matters is that you and your team learn from those mistakes.

Moreover, successful leaders are emotionally intelligent, and they continually show their employees that they care. They work hard to create a positive company culture.

And at the end of the day, they know how to have a good time—and they make work a fun place to be.

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