Leadership and empowerment



The Virgin Group is one of the most famous venture capital entities with a brand name that rivals so many others. The company has been in existence for close to half a century, and has experienced impressive growth thanks to the vision and style of leadership of its chairman. This company has continued to dominate the industry and has permeated throughout all sectors of the industry with a high degree of success, which therefore calls for interest in determining the style of leadership which has always been practiced at the company.

In this discussion, the writer will develop an insight into the concept of leadership and empowerment, and how this has been practiced at the Virgin Group over the years. For a company which is better known by a single head than its culture or even brand, Virgin lacks in some areas, which therefore needs to be addressed. With this in consideration, its experienced success cannot be attributed to its leadership styles but, more likely, to its personality, which is dangerous for its future, as discussed below. There is the need to implement a company-wide leadership culture which will necessitate certain changes in the way things are done within the organisation, and this must start with the corporate level managers and be passed down to the line level managers.


Having an able leadership within an organisation determines the future of the organisation in relation to its ability to effectively withstand future problems and to compete. In the writer's view, leadership is the driving force behind the working of all other stakeholders within an organisation. Hence, leadership can be discussed in terms of what it is and what it can do and, bearing this in mind, leadership can only be applicable to the relationship that persists between human beings and not non-living things.

In this discussion, an attempt shall be made to develop the practices and importance of leadership from a corporate perspective, and to accordingly provide suggestions concerning what needs to be done in the event of leadership failure for the sake of rescuing the organisations from collapse. The organisation that will be discussed is the Virgin Group, but the writer will also present personal experience situations in order to highlight the points being discussed. The writer is of the view that, by using both corporate examples and personal experiences, a successful attempt can be made to develop the case for leadership within the organisation. This discussion will therefore take a critical view of leadership and how it is practiced within the company, and subsequently consider ways in which to improve leadership.

Leadership may be described as the ability to influence the actions of others; in other words, it relates to the decisions or actions taken by someone or a group of persons which have an impact on influencing the decisions taken by other persons. According to Peter K. (2002), and Robert N. and Christopher A. (2009), leadership is the ability to get things done within an organisation. Leadership therefore enables persons in the organisation to do what they are expected to do within the company. In the writer's view, leadership in the ability to achieve the objectives which are known to the leader, either with the help of the workers or through the unilateral decisions of the leader. Essentially, the leader's position cannot be overruled by the involvement of any other stakeholders in the process, and the leader should ultimately remain the important in terms of developing the objectives and creating influence. According to George W. (2003), the leader must lead by knowing what must be done and accordingly informing the workers about such considerations.

The Virgin Group

The Virgin Group is one of the well-renowned groups of company in the UK, permeating most of the sectors within the country's economy including Communication, Transport, Service Provision and, more recently, Leisure.

Richard Branson, who is renowned as the main whenever the Virgin Group is being discussed, is an established venture capitalist and entrepreneur, whose description normally includes descriptive terms like ‘eccentric', ‘consumer-oriented', ‘disregard for hierarchy', ‘respect for workers', ‘disregard for formal authority' and ‘sense of fun' (Grant R., 2004). Are these words typical when describing that which a good leader encompasses?

Nevertheless, the success of Virgin Group is viewed as being a combination of factors, as quoted as follows:

‘Once a Virgin company is up and running, several factors contribute to making it a success. The power of the Virgin name; Richard Branson's personal reputation; our unrivalled network of friends, contacts and partners; the Virgin management style; the way talent is empowered to flourish within the group. To some traditionalists, these may not seem hard headed enough. To them, the fact that Virgin has minimal management layers, no bureaucracy, a tiny board and no massive global HQ is an anathema. But it works for us! The proof of our success is real and tangible.' (Virgin, 2010)

Leadership Styles:

Effective leadership depends on the styles which have been utilised by the leader and the prevailing circumstances, which have necessitated these styles. There are various styles which a leader can adopt including:

a. Authoritative leadership

b. Democratic leaderships

c. Laissez-faire leadership (Miner J., 2007).

In the writer's opinion, the discussion surrounding leadership and empowerment should include various levels of management within an organisation, which include the following (see Appendix ii):

a. Corporate level

b. Tactical Level

c. Operational levels (Drucker P., 2007).

As can be seen from the above leadership styles, the most preferred by employers is the autocratic leadership style; however, the one preferred by workers is the democratic or free-reign style.

According to UPX Success (2009), the top level management (corporate level) at Virgin, including the Chairman, Sir Richard Branson, have adopted an extensive transformational leadership style, although the middle-level management (tactical managers) have continued to demonstrate innovative practice aimed towards making the efforts of every employee contribute to the benefits of the organisation; this can be done by ensuring the employee benefits when the organisation benefits. As a result of such techniques, the employees are encouraged to be innovative and free in order to demonstrate their ability in their work (UPX Success, 2009).

However, it has also been noted that, as the managers who are hired to run the division in the company have to have a very thorough background of their fields, strict specialisation is therefore encouraged across the entire organisation.

Is Leadership Important?

According to Gill R. (2006), the leader plays an important role in the organisation, including the following (see Appendix v):

a. Developing confidence, motivation and morale

b. Establishing a conducive working environment

c. Co-ordinating the efforts of all the workers within the organisation

d. Guiding the workforce to achieve what is expected of them

e. Initiating action amongst workers.

The writer views these elements as being crucial roles played by the leader, since the leader is responsible for ensuring that objectives have been achieved (Cohen C., 2009) and, hence, whilst the time span for leadership may vary, the leader's importance to his/her followers cannot be underestimated.

As can be seen from the above description, it is clear that the leadership style at Virgin ranges from strict authoritative and free-rein style, where workers are encouraged to work innovatively; this is the case assuming that staff are given the freedom to devise their own ideas and subsequently contribute to the success of the organisation, whilst simultaneously performing their duties without failure, as expected.

In the writer's view, by allowing workers to devise innovative ways of working within the organisation, they are able to gain an understanding of the importance of democratic leadership or Laissez-faire leadership; however, this is not the only recipe for success.

According to Tannenbaum and Schmidt (Ricky W., Gregory M., 2009), leadership ultimately depends on the situation in which the organisation finds itself.

The above demonstrates the different styles of leadership depending on the company's position. For instance, if the company is in a crisis (when targets have to be met or changes are imminent), the management may consider wielding more power by making all major decisions and denying the employees the power to decide what is to happen. However, in situations of normality, the management may allow workers to decide what they would prefer to do; this is based on the premise of situational theory (Peter G., 2009), which states that effective leadership can only be based on the situation in which the organisation is as explained above.

Other theories of leadership include the following (see Appendix iv):

a. Contingency theory

b. Situational leadership

c. Behavioural theory

d. Trait theory.

At the Virgin Group, we can therefore deduce that, by the virtue of Richard Branson's free style, which seems to have developed the company, we can see combinations of behavioural and situational leadership styles.

Leaders are expected to give workers direction and to delegate duties and responsibilities; therefore, this may call for empowerment whereby workers will are given full authority over the tasks by which they have been entrusted.

The decision by the management of the Virgin Group to allow the workforce to be innovative cannot be successful without staff being given sufficient power to run their work-floor. This is because, in this report's view, when workers are permitted total control over their actions without the fear of losing their jobs or being reprimanded for their actions, it is likely that they will subsequently end up performing much better, and even becoming more innovative. According to Handy C. (1990), leadership is very important and can only succeed when the workers are allowed total freedom in whatever they are doing. However, empowerment cannot simply be practiced in any kind of work environment or culture, because, as noted earlier, if the company allows employees to be innovative, we then have to believe that the employees must be of a very good standard, either from the time at which they become hired to work at the company or through the training received.

According to Shari N. (2001), empowerment requires a qualified workforce which fully understands what needs to be done within the organisation. Therefore, on this basis, if workers are not qualified, there cannot be any form of empowerment.

In the writer's experience, an effective leadership is one which enables employees to feel comfortable performing the tasks which they have been assigned; this means that the tasks must be predetermined by the management and, with this in mind, management should set out objectives to be met by the workforce, and they (workers) must then work towards achieving such objectives.

In this report's view, effective leadership is one by which the objectives and rules for achieving such objectives are set; however, employees are awarded with some degree of freedom when determining how they shall achieve such objectives; this is more a democratic form of leadership, as denoted by (Ciulla J., 2004). The reason as to why a democratic form of leadership is favoured above other forms of leadership is owing to the fact that this form of leadership is characterised by the following (Spillane J., 2005):

a. The leaders involve the workers in the decision-making process

b. Leaders set the objectives and accordingly allow workers to discuss these objectives

c. The decision-making process is often longer due to the participative nature of the management and leadership in the organisation

d. Workers will often have a sense of belonging in the view that they have contributed to the decisions being made at the company and, therefore, the chances of success of the tasks is likely to be higher.

According to Hersey and Blanchard, leadership depends on the kind of employees working within the organisation. With this in consideration, the leaders may then consider one of the following circumstances:

In the shown above, a company which can be identified at position D4 is amongst the best companies within the industry, with leaders showing great concern for the welfare of workers who, in turn, are well qualified to work. We can place the Virgin Group within this position because:

a. It is one of the most admired companies in the UK. Most people view this company as a success story in many different industries, as opposed to the struggles faced by other organisations

b. It is the market leader in various sectors and, as noted in the quote above, the Virgin Group allows for talent to be empowered

c. There seem to be a well-qualified workforce which is permitted with innovation, and is therefore able to participate in the development of the company.

The Virgin Group has also been seen to have few management levels, and so the organisation can therefore be termed as a ‘flat organisation' (Cole G., 2003), as shown in the below:

This diagram shows the flat structure of management where the management levels are few, as maintained within the Virgin Group. In such organisations, there is a wide span of control[1] and, therefore, it is considered that the management should not be in position to direct all the activities to be undertaken by the workers, and so they subsequently tend to delegate; however, management do delegate too much without empowerment, as this could potentially lead to a lack of accountability.

Therefore, for a large organisation to adopt a large span of control with fewer management levels, there must be internal structures in place within the organisation which ultimately facilitate this style of management. If we return to the on situational leadership, it can be seen that workers can be considered as ‘well-qualified' when they are able to perform the task assigned to them with few or no difficulties. It is therefore evident that the leadership style adopted within the Virgin Group is a more democratic form of leadership, as the employees are given the opportunity to devise new ideas for the benefit of the company.

However, leadership should not be paternalistic (John A., Anna T., Robert S., 2004), especially where the company is big, such as the size of the Virgin Group; this is based on the premise of one leader knowing better than everyone else and, as such, the leader appearing more elevated than other members of the company.

In the view of the writer, the fact that Virgin is always almost fully associated with Sir Branson is very worrying because, in the terrible circumstance that anything should happen to this one leader, i.e. a scandal, this could then spell the end of the company. Whilst such personal elevation may work for small organisations and firms — and, to some extent, for the larger organisation in terms of the names of the leader — this approach is a risk for the organisation and, therefore, is not encouraged. For instance, whilst the mention of the name ‘Virgin Group' almost instantly brings the thought of the chairman, Sir Branson, to the forefront of most of our minds, the mention of British Airways does not lead to the knowledge of its chairman, Mr Martin Broughton, or its CEO, Mr Willie Walsh, but rather its sense of class for the kind of customers being served on this flight.

However, although some may argue that the mention of Virgin elicits quality, adventure, daring and innovation, this is not a more popular view than that of the first the names of its chairman (Debra N., James Q., 2007). Therefore, if there is anything which an organisation should seek to be known by, it should be its ability to create a sense of either quality or brand to the client (Johnson G., Scholes K., Whittington R., 2008; Brian A., Adrian B., 2009).

Effective Leadership

The view being held by the writer concerning effective leadership and empowerment in such an organisation states that it should:

a. Allow for individual participation in innovative practices and initiative at all the levels, but within the set corporate objectives. By allowing the workforce to be innovative without setting the scope within which they can work, chaos or conflict of purpose is likely to arise (Morton D., Coleman P., Eric C., 2006). The importance of the leaders in their functions of facilitating an environment where the workers are willing to go by the rules cannot be underestimated.

b. Effective leadership calls for open communication channels where it is not only the information sent that matters but the channels for sending such information. Information flow using the available networks (shown below) should be devised so as to move fast and to reach the intended parties as and when it is intended to reach (Lehman C., 2007). In the view of the writer, the hairpin network is ideal for passing information which has been deliberated upon by the top level management and which is subsequently viewed as being ‘balanced'; however, since it involves discussion, time will be of the essence, especially where crucial decisions are to be made within a very short period of time (see 5 below).

c. The leadership style used within the organisation should not be rigidly held concerning certain principles, such as, for instance, being consistently held as a democratic leadership or laissez-faire leadership. The leaders have to be flexible and accordingly practice different styles at different times depending on the circumstances of the organisation (Don H., John S., Richard W., 2001; Jeffery S., Caron H., 2009). By incorporating different styles of leadership, the leader and the workers will become used to the different styles. As such, the adoption of a particular style at some point in time will not be viewed as a change and so will not be met with suspicion.

d. There may also be the necessity to have workers take part in management through the ‘suggestions box' method and questionnaires (Venkataramana P., 2007). By developing these tools, the workers gain access to the opportunity to present their views, which can then be analysed and used to further the management process. This is, in essence, a form of empowerment. The writer is of the opinion that there may not be sufficient time to call meetings which may, if called, drag on and on. With this in mind, if the workers are given sufficient power to run the organisation, the use of these tools will be necessary.

e. Leadership should seek to create leaders and not subject workers to the same level at all times. Effective leadership is determined by how many more leaders are created (Timothy P., Kathy M., 2003). By doing this, the continuity of the organisation is almost guaranteed and, in the long run, is a cheaper way of sourcing leaders from within the organisation than from outside the organisation. At the Virgin Group, this can be done through various practices, such as job training and further delegation of work and authority to the workforce (Cooper C., Burke R., 2006).

f. Leadership can only be effective it accommodates the popular views of the workforce, which is ultimately the ‘working hands' of the organisation. Of course, the fact that leaders must, from time to time, make unpopular decisions cannot be underestimated; however, they should incorporate the views of the workers as much as possible (Curtis K., Manning G., 2002). At the Virgin Group, this can be done through general meetings or departmental meetings between the leaders or managers and their subordinates; this can be referred to as the process of ‘Worker Participation in the Management (WPM), and is within our preferred observation of democratic leadership, where objectives are set by the top management whilst other decisions are participative.

g. By maintaining a wide span of control at the Virgin Group, the management must always get qualified staff members to work in the organisation, such that the managers or leaders will have less trouble in trying to influence their actions. However, this can prove to not only be expensive in terms of seeking to find the most qualified staff members or training the workers to be qualified, but may also erode the sense of accountability amongst team members or departmental workers under a single chain of command. The management should consider developing a tall structure (see Appendix iv) by Cyril O., Koontz H., (2008).


From the above discussion, it is evident that the leadership practices at the Virgin Group are as robust as the company itself, and the management has tried to ensure that the image portrayed externally is the same as the culture which is actively practiced within the company, where the workers are allowed to demonstrate their ability to work innovatively and to develop the organisation.

Effective leadership is demonstrated by the ability of the management or leaders to influence, but the writer's opinion is that this should be within some scope beyond which the leaders should wield total control. This is not to say that the leader is authoritative in any way; it is to mean that the democratic style being used should incorporate the objectives and guidelines set by the leader, whilst simultaneously taking into confidence the views of the workforce or the followers.

A total free-rein leadership style may not work under all the circumstances facing the organisation and yet, total authoritative or democratic styles may also fail. As such, there is the need to move along a continuum and to adopt leadership styles which go with the situation or circumstances facing the organisation. Whilst the styles of leadership being practiced at the Virgin Group are hailed as the cause of success of the company, holding that, leadership is important for success, and it has been found that personality elevation in such a big venture capital is not leadership and needs to be changed. The management of Virgin must consider whether they would prefer to be known as daring, simply because the chairman is portrayed as such, or as effective leaders.

Essentially, the Virgin Group must consider changing their leadership style and ensuring that the views of the workers are taken into confidence and that corporate culture is elevated above a single individual. Leadership is an art, and this must therefore be subjected to learning and change.

[1] This is where one manager manages many workers.

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