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4 leadership lessons from Richard Branson as he wins billionaire space race

Branson has made history by being the first billionaire to go into space.

Allie Nawrat

Fortune 500

Branson space
Credit: Virgin Galactic.

Unleash Your PeopleHow did Branson’s distinct leadership style help him achieve this life-long dream of going to space?

Over the weekend, Sir Richard Branson made history. He became the first billionaire to go to the edge of space in his own spacecraft, beating Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to this feat by a mere nine days.

Branson has joined the crew of his company Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 on its mission from New Mexico to stratosphere, the Earth’s upper atmosphere. He didn;t pass the Kármán Line, which is the point 62 miles above Earth that is officially considered the beginning of space.

On board, Branson called reaching zero gravity and the edge of space “the experience of a lifetime”, according to the Financial Times.

Branson has been talking – and competing with Bezos – about space tourism and commercial space flights since the early 2000s. While onboard the flight, Branson added: “Congratulations to all our wonderful people at Virgin Galactic and their 17 years of hard, hard work to get us this far.”

Credit: Virgin Galactic.

The billionaire is believed to spent more than $1 billion of his own personal fortune on Virgin Galactic; according to Forbes, Branson is worth $5.9 billion.

Despite all the hurdles, including an accident in 2014 where a test pilot was killed when a spaceship broke apart, Branson has stayed laser focused and continued to lead and motivate the team at Virgin Galactic to achieve this mission in 2021.

He, as well as Bezos and Space X’s Elon Musk, have also encouraged a lot more investment, particularly through SPACs into space tech startups, such as Planet Labs, Satellogic, Rocket Lab and Spire Global.

So what can leaders in any industry learn from Branson’s distinctive leadership style that has enabled his impressive business success (including this breakthrough spaceflight) over the past five decades?

Being a visionary leader with ideas and values

When he was his 20s in the 1970s, Branson founded the Virgin Group. The company started with Virgin Records, and quickly moved into the transport sector with airline Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Rail in the 1980s and 1990s.

Since the 2000s Virgin has also dominated the telecommunications sector through Virgin Media, and then Branson turned his sights on space travel and tourism from 2004, as well as other sectors like the rewards through Virgin Experience Days and fitness through Virgin Active.

It almost feels like Branson and Virgin have touched pretty much every sector out there in some way and a major backbone behind the 400 companies that now make up the Virgin Group is Branson’s vision and values.

In a 2014 interview with Forbes, he noted:

“The Virgin values have and will always be the same: to change the game and challenge the status quo by providing a product or service of great use.”

Branson adds in a recent blog about his trip to the edge of space: “We’ve always prided ourselves at Virgin for being able to adapt to business needs, while keeping our team and our customers at the heart of what we do. 

“It’s amazing where an idea can lead you, no matter how far-fetched it may seem at first.”

Branson is very clear that the principle is that Virgin doesn’t research its competition, but instead aims to be a force for good and focus on what is missing in the markets it operates in, whether that is space, telecomms or transport.

Of course, the company doesn’t always hit the mark – just think about the debacle around the 2018 bail out of Virgin Trains and its partner firm StageCoach – but that remains Branson’s mission with Virgin.

Finding the right talent and delegating is key

However, another central part of Branson’s values is to be a democratic and collaboration leader who brings in experts to delegate responsibility to.

He has been quoted as saying: “As much as you need a strong personality to build a business from scratch, you also must understand the art of delegation.

He has previously told the Telegraph: “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.

“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.”

He has also stated: “I have to be good at helping people run the individual businesses, and I have to be willing to step back. The company must be set up so it can continue without me.”

However, in order to do this, Branson involves himself in the hiring process for executives and managers at Virgin, particularly since he believes that his charisma and passion for what he is doing is what helps him find others who are committed to the company’s missions.

He specifically likes to hire where he knows he has weaknesses to ensure that his top team has complementary expertise and skills. He priorities personality rather then CV or qualifications in hiring, and notes that inter-personal skills are incredibly important.

“A person who has multiple degrees in your field isn’t always better than someone with broad experience and a wonderful personality,” noted Branson.

Value and empower your people

At our very own UNLEASH World Conference & Expo in Paris in 2015 Branson told how he treats his team like family. Speaking to UNLEASH CEO Marc Coleman he revealed his do-to lists, including tactics for recruitment, unlimited leave and attention to detail.

“I like to recruit and promote from within the company, you know their strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “And I like to find people who are good with people. If you promote people who aren’t good with people it can destroy a business. Caring matters.”

He added: “Employees want to know… am I being listened to or am I a cog in the wheel? People really need to feel wanted.”

Ultimately, employees and new hires want to feel listened to and learned from in their area of expertise – not just from Branson, but also from line mangers and the rest of the executive team – which is why listening and learning are two of Branson’s top leadership principles.

The third is laughter; being passionate about and enjoying what you do is fundamental to Branson. Remember, having a positive company culture, where employees are enjoying their work and feel valued is good for productivity and the business’s bottom line.

He adds: “A passionate belief in your business and personal objectives can make all the difference between success and failure. If you aren’t proud of what you’re doing, why should anybody else be?”

Making mistakes is OK, if you learn from them

Branson is very keen to praise people for doing good work, rather than criticize people for struggling. He believes that being positive is better for innovation and creativity.

Therefore, he really emphasised that himself and Virgin employees learn best from actions and running with ideas. If these ideas then fail, then that is fine if you learn from the mistake.

One example is in 1987 Branson and a business partner Per Lindstrand decided to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a hot air balloon known as the Virgin Atlantic Flyer as part of a world record attempt.

Although this balloon, which Lindstrand designed, did cross the Atlantic successfully, both Branson and Lindstrand had to jump sea as the balloon was likely to miss its Scottish landing site. Lindstrand almost died– he spent two hours in the sea before being rescued by the Royal Navy.

Branson learnt from the experience and the pair successfully crossed the Pacific Ocean in a hot air balloon in 1991.

Although he rewards people for making decisions, Branson has noted: “You don’t learn to walk by following rules.

“You learn by doing, and by falling over, and it’s because you fall over that you learn to save yourself from falling over.”

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