5 Lessons for Impactful Leadership (2020)

Manfred Kets de Vries

Five key lessons for entrepreneurs and leadership

As an organisation, the Virgin Group has been of great interest to the public and business experts worldwide, especially given Richard Branson’s creative leadership style in running and growing the enterprise. We dive into Professor Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries and Robert Dick’s case titled, “Branson’s Virgin: The Coming of Age of a Counter-Cultural Enterprise,” and explore five key lessons for entrepreneurs and leadership.


1. Look After Your Staff


From the get-go, Branson was focused on creating an inclusive environment that provided a sense of belonging and opportunity, more than high financial benefits for his staff. From providing food and “a place to sleep” during his teenage entrepreneurial ventures with the “Student” magazine, to Virgin’s flexible working approach, job rotation, opportunities for promotion (especially for women) and even providing his residential phone number to all airline staff – people were always a priority. In his own words, “Staff first, then customers and shareholders.” 


2. Give Back When You Can


Using the enterprise and his influence for charitable and philanthropic efforts, Branson has invested in causes that give back to society. From addressing AIDS, funding counselling clinics to using the Virgin aircrafts to recue people trapped by the Gulf War, Branson, like many other entrepreneurs has harnessed the power of his business as a force for good. More recently, the Virgin Group has donated supplies, operated cargo flights, recued stranded people, secured and delivered medical equipment, and supported small business owners during the COVID-19 pandemic.


3. Always Differentiate


Replicating what already exists without any differentiation does not set the business up for success. In fact, it makes the business lose any competitive advantage. Differentiation increases profits, as supported in this particular case and also in this INSEAD Knowledge piece. For Branson and the Virgin enterprise, each product and service was distinctly different from its competition – music records at discounted prices, enhancing in-store experiences with outrageous décor, Virgin Atlantic’s low fares without compromising customer service, and even in-flight masseurs, tailors, fashion shows and arriving at the London airport on a motorcycle. The innovative ideas for the service and entertainment of its customers have made Virgin stand out from the rest, earning it a strong competitive advantage.


4. Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses  


Leaders are human – they will not know everything. They key is identifying what you do not know and then finding someone with the relevant expertise, and trusting their experience. Realising that creating methodological controls and systems was not his forte, Branson sought help from his childhood friend Nik Powell, to manage the then newfound Virgin Records. Simon Draper was also recruited into the team for his knack for recognising musical talent and creative direction. Having an all-rounded team with differing strengths helped address the various aspects of the business, and successfully establish a market presence.


5. Have Fun


Branson’s efforts in establishing the Virgin enterprise stemmed from a passion for entrepreneurship and creation. While facing a fair share of challenges like the setback with national postal strike, issues with the tax authorities, business follies, and financial pressures, his entrepreneurial appetite drove him to stay resilient, curious and professionally invested in the business. According to this INSEAD Knowledge piece, passion immensely helps people to persevere despite setbacks. In the words of Branson, “If you do something for fun and create the best possible product, then the profit will come.”


The study also points towards other takeaways, as it follows the development of Richard Branson from his teenage entrepreneurships days to his status as founder and Chairman of the Virgin Group. It highlights the impact of innovative ideas that challenge status-quo, and leaders that rethink the traditional ways of leadership and doing business.


If you are interested in learning more about this topic:

INSEAD Knowledge, 2020

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