Richard Branson has announced a revolutionary self-managed policy for his personal staff. At first sight it seems a step towards the idealistic dream of worker autonomy and self-managed work groups. So let’s look a little more closely at the emerging story
This week [september 24th, 2014], Richard Branson was reported as announcing a new policy for his 170 personal staff. They are to have full rights to setting vacations [‘holidays’ or ‘leave periods’ in British vernacular].
‘Empowerment’ of workers has been a theme in OB courses and popular leadership writing for a few decades. This seems to be a further example, with the added weight provided by the authority of Richard Branson.
The basic principle is easy to grasp. The notion has libertarian and emancipatory aspects to it. So what’s not to like about it? And why have such initiatives been the target of Critical Theorists who have tended to dismiss it as a managerial fad?
Behind the headlines
Branson hopes the plan will be rolled out to subsidiary divisions. He has been reported as being influenced by his daughter who told him of a similar scheme at Netflix. The back story begins to take shape.
As one admiring report put it, Billionaire Richard Branson may be the coolest boss ever.
Two ‘maps’ of the story
One perspective is to interpret the story as an example of subtle exercise of power masquerading as enlightened leadership. The scheme is at present on offer to the 170 personal staff of Richard Branson. In his own words, the workers have obligations to act in the corporate interest so as not to damage the company or theirs own careers. The benevolence conceals the power structure on organizational life. The majority of employees are not directly influenced.
Another perspective is to consider Branson to be an authentic leader whose moral compass is towards a happy and autonomous work force. He avoids the dilemma of enforcing democracy by inviting change rather ordering it. He shares a generally non-coercive style with some of the most successful modern entrepreneurs such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg who have built creative organizations
Oh, and one more thing …
The story breaks as the engaging fun-loving Branson is launching his new book. The Virgin Way: Everything I know about leadership.