What Makes Richard Branson a Global Leader?

Guest piece by Dr Stephanie Parson.

I used to believe that there were three levels of leadership: leading self, leading teams and leading organizations. However, there is a fourth level – leading global settings or global change. 

How does one move from leading organizations to leading global change? Think about it; there are very few people who actually lead from a global perspective. In countries where there are Presidents, one could say that these individuals have reached that fourth level of leadership. And of course we can look at world industry leaders such as Richard Branson, Percy Barnevik, Warren Buffett and David Simon; however, the question becomes, what makes these individuals different from those of us who have mastered the first three levels of leadership?

Let’s take Richard Branson as an example. 

An international celebrity and practically a folk hero in the U.K, Branson has an estimated worth of £895 million and ranks among the U.K.’s 11 wealthiest individuals.

When asked the secret to his success, Branson says he simply wants to enjoy himself. He began his career when he ventured into publishing as a teenage business phenomenon. In the summer of 1967, when he elected to leave Stowe, an exclusive private boys school, his headmaster thought his magazine venture was a bad idea and warned Branson that he would end up either as a millionaire or a prisoner.

Since that time, Branson has built an international entertainment and leisure empire. His notion of family underlies his success. He characterizes people as his firm’s greatest asset, and it is not lip service.

His business maxim is staff first, customers second and shareholders third. His company is described as a friendly, nonhierarchical organization where people enjoy themselves.

Branson has always blazed his own trail. In 1971, when a national postal strike threatened to bankrupt his company, he responded in characteristic fashion by launching a new venture. Displaying his trademark resourcefulness, he rented a shop on London’s Oxford Street, moved in his private collection of records and launched Virgin Retail. Thus began a chain of record stores known for the trendy experience that they provided customers. The business evolved into a hit-making, cash-generating record label. With that success, Branson reconceived his company. Having plenty of capital, he turned his business into a brand name and expanded into fashion retailing and catering, while closing his mail-order operation.

In early 1984, a young California lawyer named Randolph Fields called Branson and explained his vision of a low-cost international airline. Branson was intrigued by the prospect of financing the new airline, which became Virgin Atlantic.

Branson moved quickly — he later boasted that he could make a decision in the morning and have a new business running by the afternoon. The airline soon became a moneymaker as well.

Branson developed important principles that guide his success. He believes the top person in an organization should enjoy himself, so that others feel free to express their personalities. Work, he believes, should be an exciting undertaking that challenges the status quo, rather than a humdrum experience. He does not believe in formal board meetings, and encourages employees to contact him directly with ideas and issues that require discussion. In addition to fomenting a family atmosphere, Branson believes in developing a corporate culture well-suited to change. He seeks employees who have a maverick quality, thirst for original ideas and push for change.

Looking at Branson’s story, and those of other global leaders, I believe that the following traits set them apart:

  • They are better suited to meet the needs of the dynamic, global economy
  • They are not wedded to the past, so that they can effectively transform themselves
  • The new leader needs charismatic motivational skills
  • Loose hierarchical structures and flat bureaucracies will characterize new-era corporations
  • A level four leader must have a clear vision and must articulate his or her perspective to others
  • The leader must be sensitive to, and empathetic toward, the anxiety that results from continual change
  • Future leaders must be willing to share power in order to gain power, rather than jealously hoarding it for themselves
  •  New leaders choose colleagues whose skills complement, rather than resemble, their own
  • Organizationally, new-era leaders tend to hate bureaucracy and believe that smaller is better
  • They recognize the important role in contributing to social welfare and values

As leaders move from leading organisations to leading global change, there will be some characteristics they will need to leave behind. However, Bob Johansen (2009) describes some classic executive skills which will remain essential, including:

  • Physical and mental discipline – Leaders need “the ability to inspire people in a gripping way with physical and spiritual energy,” using both emotion and discipline
  • Active attention – Maintain focus in the face of a barrage of information
  • Readiness discipline – Be prepared to deal with eventualities or they will swamp you
  • Urgent patience – Know when to push others and when to back off and wait
  • Storytelling and listening – Teach and inspire others by telling meaningful stories. Become a more engaged listener
  • Humble strength – Peer into the future with humility, valor, character and clear goals
  • Synchronicity – Decipher patterns and connections that others miss

Perhaps you have what it takes to progress to level four leadership?

Business Strategist, Trainer, Author & Speaker, Dr. Stephanie Parson is the president of Crowned Grace International. She and her team deliver over 35 "Leadership: From Ordinary to Extraordinary"™ (L:FO2E) workshops around the world; workshops focused around their leadership methodology: Lead Self, Lead Teams & Lead Organizations. Over 6000 global leaders have attended one or more of Crowned Grace’s L:FO2E programs. Dr. Parson has also held executive level roles at Walt Disney World (Vice President), Parsons Brinckerhoff (Vice President & CIO), The Seagram Company (Director) and as a Commissioned Officer in the US Air Force. In her newest book: Leadership From Ordinary to Extraordinary – The Character of a Leader, she shares the 15 qualities of extraordinary leadership! For more information, contact Dr. Stephanie and her team at info@crownedgrace.com.

Image courtesy of Guiltaggen.

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