The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership

The Virgin Way
Publisher: Portfolio
Published: 10/20/2015
While building the Virgin Group over forty years, Richard Branson has never shied away from seemingly outlandish challenges that others (including his own colleagues on several occasions) considered sheer lunacy. He has taken on giants like British Airways and won, and monsters like Coca-Cola and lost. Now Branson gives an inside look at his strikingly different swashbuckling style of leadership.

The Virgin Way by Richard Branson

Key Points

Richard Branson is well known for doing things his way. As the successful founder of Virgin Group which controls over 400 companies, he’s made his unique mark on many industries, from airplanes to his own brand of cola. His unique perspective on business has influenced everything: from the way he acts with his employees, to what he values most in a company, and his leadership style. Read on to discover how Branson did business his way: with practical applications for how you can be a better businessman. Learn more about how to be a better decision-maker, the right way to discipline employees, and one of the most important skills someone needs to be an effective leader.

Branson doesn’t discipline his employees. Why not? He learned the hard way, as a kid, that some things were worse than punishment. He talks about how when he was growing up, he used to steal spare change from his father so he could get candy from the candy store. Eventually, the shopkeeper became suspicious of Branson and confronted his father with his suspicions. Branson came home that day fearfully: he was afraid of what his father would do and how he would be punished. However, his father never punished him: he just gave him the cold shoulder for a little while. To Branson, this was far worse than any punishment. He realized that he had disappointed his father, and that stung more than any punishment could. He took this principle to heart, and it influenced his leadership style later on. When Branson was in charge of Virgin Records, he discovered that his employee was stealing records and selling them. Instead of punishing his employee, he talked to him and then gave him a second chance. The employee was never caught stealing from the company again. In fact, he became an asset. He discovered several hit artists like Boy George: hit artists that Branson would have been robbed of, had he fired his employee to punish him.

Listening is also very important. According to Branson, listening is one of the most important qualities that a successful leader can demonstrate, and is usually a hallmark of a successful leader. When Branson worked at his magazine, Student, as a teenager, he had the opportunity to interview John Le Carre, a famous novelist. Since Branson’s tape recorder was constantly broken, he interviewed him without one. Soon, this became a habit as he learned diligent note-taking and listening. This is a habit he still carries with him today. He’s noticed it in other successful business owners as well. He gave a speech in Greece about business and noticed that there was one audience member who stood out. During the question and answer portion, he asked thoughtful questions, took notes, and asked meaningful follow-up questions, showing that he was listening closely and intently. The person in question is named Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, son of a wealthy businessman. He eventually started his own successful airline: EasyJet, which became one of the UK’s most successful airlines. It pays to listen.

No one likes to feel like going to work is a drag, and Branson agrees. According to Branson, company culture is extremely important. He believes the workplace should be somewhere where people have fun: where they enjoy their colleagues and the work that they do. The ideal is for every work environment to be fun, but how do you balance enjoying your job with, well, work? Branson looks to Herb Kelleher’s approach to running Southwest Airlines as an excellent example. When Herb Kelleher was accused of plagiarism with a new slogan “Just Plane Smart”, instead of inciting a legal battle, or an exchange of words, he challenged the CEO to an arm wrestle! His humor has also been echoed by his staff members. On a Southwestern flight, all of the flight staff hid in the bins on the plane, jumping out before takeoff to surprise the passengers! Not only has it been a great place to work, but it has also been one of the few airlines that have consistently remained profitable. And they’ve kept it up, for forty years!

Taking risks is scary, but it can heed big results: especially if you’re willing to stick to your guns about a new idea or project, even when other people doubt you. That, and if you stick to your guns, you never know when luck might find you! For example the first record Virgin produced was Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, which was extremely popular in the U.K. Branson wanted to sell it to Atlantic Records, but Ahmet Ertegun, the one man he had to convince to want it, wasn’t buying it. He didn’t think the sound would be popular with American audiences. Branson kept pestering him about the record anyway, and he finally gave it another listen. Just as luck would have it, he was listening when William Friedkin walked in, who immediately upon hearing it knew it was the right sound for his film, The Exorcist, which turned out to be a hit horror movie. Atlantic records agreed to buy the album, and it became a hit! Branson took a risk when he tried to sell the album to Atlantic Records, but he truly believed it could be a hit and was willing to convince other people it could be too. And luckily enough, the album was playing at just the right time. Going after what you want means luck has the chance to strike! This principle was echoed with Branson’s good friend, Antonio, a student at Stanford. He randomly met a cool guy at a movie theatre, and afterward, agreed to go to coffee. The guy he met told him about a crazy business plan he had for a company he was starting with a friend. Though the idea was a bit too complex for him to understand, he decided to invest the $10,000 he planned on investing in a new car and bought himself a 1% share. That 1% share is now worth billions. The company he invested in? Google.

Decision making is an extremely important part of being a successful leader. But how do you do it effectively? Though Branson leans towards making decisions somewhat impulsively, he has learned that putting decisions off to really think about them can also pay off immensely. One instance of Branson’s impulsive decision making was his choice to start an airline company. Instead of doing market research or taking any typical steps to start his company, he just went for it. That company, Virgin Airlines, may have been successful: but not all of the companies he started impulsively fared as well. For instance, Virgin Brides and Virgin Cola ended up as flops that didn’t ever become profitable. After making decisions more recklessly, Branson determined the best way to determine a course of action was through thoughtful procrastination. In this method of decision making, he and his team work slowly, putting off the decision making as long as possible, until they have charted out the best course of action. This method has been incredibly beneficial: and even prevented Branson from getting into a huge mess. Goldman Sachs offered Branson the opportunity to invest in what was marketed as an incredibly profitable opportunity. He didn’t take Goldman Sachs up on their offer: after doing extensive research he and his company declined. What he didn’t know was that they were talking about mortgages that would eventually contribute to the housing collapse of 2007. Had they not gone on the fact-finding mission, and delayed their decision, they would have lost money and been part of the scandal.

One of the most important elements of Branson’s success has been his willingness to innovate. When he was developing his airline, he realized that most airlines were ignoring one extremely important factor in air travel: the number of times passengers actually spent at the airport! In fact, he discovered that almost half of the travel time for an average passenger was spent there. He used this knowledge to make his airports as appealing and luxurious as possible. He focused on the airport experience instead of the passengers’ experience flying, unlike his competitors, and utilized innovation! He was also innovative when he decided to put his Virgin Megastore in New York, with Times Square as its location. He was heavily advised to put the store elsewhere: that most New Yorkers were unlikely to go due to its location. He followed his gut and put the store there anyway. The store brought in sales of roughly $1 million weekly, and the customers that were brought to the area inspired revamp of Times Square. In both situations, he was willing to look at things from a different perspective, and it paid off.

One area where Branson feels passionate is education. As a highschool dropout, his school career ended when he was 16 years old. Despite his lack of education, he has been extremely successful. He believes that the education system does not emphasize the skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur. The problem? School shut down individualistic thinking. Most teenagers Branson meets are individualistic and passionate, but these aren’t traits that the school system actively rewards. Students are forced to engage with standardized testing, and teachers encourage children to submit to professions that already exist, instead of supporting innovative spirits. He believes the solution is changing the focus of topics in education, and bringing in entrepreneurs to inspire kids to build career paths that they are truly passionate about. He believes that kids should be taught about failure: specifically that it isn’t a road block, but an opportunity for growth.


Richard Branson is well known for doing things his way. As the successful founder of Virgin Group which controls over 400 companies, he’s made his unique mark on many industries, from airplanes to his own brand of cola. Not only does he have a unique perspective: Branson knows what he’s talking about. He started his first business when he was in high school and has been running successful companies ever since. Read on to learn Branson’s unique perspective and well-informed tips on topics like how to be a better decision-maker, what to do when your employee intentionally hurts your company, the single most important skill a leader needs, and many more.


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