Richard Branson offers staff autonomy over vacation times and duration. Simples?

October 3, 2014

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.



August 28, 2013

Leaders We Deserve will shortly reach its one thousandth leadership post. We review highlights since the blog started in 2006

Within the next week, Leaders We Deserve will publish its one thousandth post. In celebration we will be looking back and perhaps looking a little ahead at the leadership issues of our age.

The start

In 2006, as we started publishing, the Iraq war had ended, and Saddam Hussein was executed. Later, leaders Tony Blair in the UK and George Bush in the USA, were to be embroiled in controversies on the information that informed the decision to attack Iraq, particularly the Weapons of Mass Destruction that were never found there. At that time, there was a sense that political change was achievable by regime change, and the removal of a dictator. [Later, LWD reviewed Tony Blair’s biography]

Dashed hopes

Belief in aggressive regime change as a strategy continued into the period of the Arab Spring of 2012, although with increasingly evidence to the contrary. The sequence of revolutions and dashed hopes seemed to me to demonstrate the difficulties in the concept of a tipping point. The recent counter-revolutionary crises in The Middle East are the latest illustrations of how the evidence of history warns us against the complete acceptance of simple models of change.

The financial crisis

Economically, the financial crisis of 2008-9 was the dominant feature of the period. The world is still struggling today with the impact of the credit crunch, and the dilemmas of a system globally in which banks are said to be too big to fail, and their leaders who were found in hindsight too often wanting in judgement and ethics. [See Lehman Bros and the Limits of Leadership]

Some of the leaders were humiliated and stripped from office. There are increasingly calls for more criminal charges to be brought about. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the concept of a leader’s moral compass has attracted attention.

The most charismatic leader?

The most visited post in LWD has been the one examining the nature of Che Guevara’s leadership style. If popularity among subscribers is the criterion, the iconic poster-boy of a former revolutionary era could be nominated the most charismatic leader to be written about in the thousand posts.


Another in the top ten of all posts for visits was an account of the situation in Zimbabwe, and the increasingly dubious methods deployed by Robert Mugabe to retain power. [There are no winners in Zimbabwe] Mugabe has retained power through several elections since. Subsequent posts have been less frequented.

Sporting leadership

LWD concentrated on two sports, football and tennis, with less frequent forays into cycling, American Football and Rugby union. If you count chess as a sport, there were also quite a few attempts to present chess as a means of understanding strategic leadership.

Apple, Steve Jobs and Foxconn

Steve Jobs founder of Apple died leaving a hugely successful global company. A biography released shortly after his death gave a richer picture of the design genius as a difficult person to work for. The succession challenge was made more difficult by supply chain crises. A post written in 2012 documenting problems at its major supplier Foxconn, was another which continues to attract substantial numbers of visits to LWD.

Teaching from LWD cases

LWD posts have become increasingly used as teaching aids on executive programme.

The Apple Foxconn case is a recent successful one. [Apple’s new leader faces ethical dilemmas at Foxconn ] Others widely used around the world include Peace One Day: The Adidas Puma Story , and Emirates Airline: the Secret Story of a Successful Company .


There have been many contributors to the 1000 blogs as well as over a thousand subscribers, and supportive colleagues. I am grateful to you all, you know who you are. I will risk errors and omissions acknowledging you in a future post

To be continued [including those acknowledgements]

Authentic Leadership and the Mask of Command

October 12, 2009

Mask of command

Almost by definition, a leader has intentions of influencing the behaviours of other people. This is often associated with personal ambition. Which prompts the question: How might we assess a leader’s authenticity through their examining their actions?

In recent years, a popular leadership concept is that of the authenticity of leaders in their actions and public pronouncements. For example, a recent article in Harvard Business Review examines authentic leadership. Its author, Jim Heskett, traces the term back to Warren Bennis, one of the all-time greats of leadership thinking.

Bennis raises questions about the nature of leadership … can a leader be authentic, or do the masks of command force the leader to be something other than his or her true self? Can a leader both act and be real?

Heskett introduces the idea of a leader’s moral compass. That is a term which is suffering through over-use particularly in political circles by leaders claiming the high ground of moral rectitude.

There’s more to authenticity …

Recipes for authetic leadership can be found in many popular books on personal development. Too often they are offered as checklists to be followed. Professor Heskett takes a more grown-up approach. He introduces the realistic situation in which a leader is aware of the need to reassure and comfort others under difficult or even extreme conditions. The mask of command requires a leader to appear confident when all seems lost. How does that sort of performance stack up with notions of authenticity?

Are some leaders able to navigate a managerial life without being authentic to their organizations or to themselves? In fact, are there times when it is necessary to avoid being authentic?

Some people take the view that any display of command demonstrate that a dramatic performance is going on. To them, such behaviour is phoney. Others are less dismissive of role-playing in public life.

As the general manager of a small company I am currently faced with this exact dilemma. In less than 12 months, business has gone down 46%, production is running at 12% capacity, the warehouse full and I am worried and scared. 25 people look up to me, every day, probably questioning every decision made, worried to death about their future and I see fear in their eyes. The question is not if the command mask can coexist with authentic leadership, but rather how it can not. I can not afford not to wear a mask of everything will be okay or chaos would soon follow.

So what do you think?

The mask of command is a term borrowed from the title of book by the English military historian John Keegan. He was interested in political leaders and dictators. But the concept has wider application into business and other areas of activity such as sport.
I rather suspect that Professor Heskett is working from behind the mask of the professional academic concealing his own views to encourage us to think for ourselves. Which is a mask I rather think I should be borrowing as well.