Richard Branson's Views on Steve Jobs's Leadership

October 07, 2011 at 1:31 PM

Leadership doesn’t have a secret formula; all true leaders go about things in their own way. It’s this ability to think differently that sets them apart – and that enabled Steve Jobs to create perhaps the most respected brand in the world.

What leadership boils down to is people. Whatever your style, whatever your method, you need to believe in yourself, your ideas and your staff. Nobody can be successful alone – and you cannot be a great leader without great people to lead.

Steve Jobs’s leadership style was autocratic; he had a meticulous eye for detail, and surrounded himself with like-minded people to follow his lead. While he was incredibly demanding of his people, he wasn’t the best delegator – he wanted to involve himself in every detail, which is the opposite of my own approach. Personally, I have always believed in the art of delegation – finding the best possible people for Virgin and giving them the freedom and encouragement to flourish. When I set up Virgin Records, I even decided to separate myself physically from the company, by moving into a houseboat.

If you are not always there, it forces other people to call the shots, which in turn improves their own leadership skills, builds their confidence and strengthens your business. But whatever your approach, it is necessary to give other people the space to thrive, to catch people doing something right, rather than getting things wrong. Look for people who take their roles seriously and lead from the front, but who are not slow to see the lighter side of life. People who are inventive yet organised, focused yet fun, tend to be determined to succeed, and equally keen to have a good time doing it. A company should genuinely be a family, who achieve together, grow together and laugh together.

Steve Jobs wasn’t known for his sense of fun, but he was always at the centre of everything Apple did. Over his extraordinary career, he learnt the same lesson I have – that even when you’re successful, it is vital that you don’t solely lead your company from a distance. Walk the floor, get to know your people. Even though I don’t run Virgin’s companies on a day-to-day basis any more, I still find it crucial to get out and about among our staff. No one has a monopoly on good ideas or good advice, so as a leader you should always be listening. Be visible, note down what you hear and you’ll be surprised how much you learn.

Having said that, you also need to know your own mind. You have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk – and that’s something Jobs showed in everything he did. Nobody respects a leader who doesn’t know how to get his hands dirty and innovate personally. The trick is in striking the right balance between empowering your staff and being an example for them to follow.

Of course, there will be times when strong and decisive leadership is necessary, to make sure the right moves are made. If you place the emphasis on getting the little things right, and address the everyday problems that come up, you can encourage a culture of attention to detail. You can also have a lot of fun with these relatively tiny issues, whether it’s dealing personally with customers’ complaints – as Jobs often did via email – or surprising your front-line staff with a visit.

Despite his long battle with illness, Jobs never lost his love of Apple. Indeed, if you don’t enjoy what you do, then it isn’t likely to work out. I try to find fun in everything I do, from business commitments to philanthropic ventures, to my personal life. You are far more likely to be inspired and have great ideas if you love what you do, and can instill that spirit of fun throughout your company.

Jobs may not always have been the best leader of people – which may, in part, have been due to his health problems – but he was innovative, determined and, above all, passionate. Finding gaps in the market, and creating products that make a real difference to people’s lives, can only be accomplished if you have passion for what you are doing. If you make something you are proud of, that filters down to your staff, as well as your customers. Today, more than ever, you’ve got to do something radically different to make a mark.

In a 1997 marketing campaign for Apple, entitled “Think Different”, Jobs said: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.” I am proud to say that, in the accompanying montage, he counted me as one of them. I think it’s an attitude that’s shared by all leaders who make a difference – and it’s one reason why, despite our vastly different styles, Steve Jobs was always the entrepreneur whom I most admired.

 

 

 



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