- - Thursday, September 18, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE VIRGIN WAY: EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT LEADERSHIP
By Richard Branson
Portfolio/Penguin, $29.95, 352 pages

How do you institutionalize genius? Although this question is familiar to students of American government and military science, it is particularly elusive in business, where corporate leadership is often a contradiction in terms. But in his new book, “The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership,” Sir Richard Branson thinks he has the answer: Yo, Yanks! Hey, just do it the way I do while having a bloody great life, too.

From his foreword — “Don’t enjoy it? Don’t do it!” — to the epilogue 378 pages later, Mr. Branson jauntily urges his readers not to get bogged down in the “morass of perpetual paralysis by analysis.” Instead: “If your instinct is positive, then go with it Just be sure that you don’t make the same mistakes over and over.”

If that seems a little vague, it is nothing less than what you should expect from an author whose previous books include such titles as “Screw Business as Usual” and “Like a Virgin.” Even the flyleaf of “The Virgin Way” proudly boasts that “This is a book on leadership from someone who has never read a book on leadership in his life.” The reader is left to wonder if Mr. Branson has ever read any books at all, because he supplies neither bibliography nor footnotes. The only clue is an index listing a mixed bag of sources, including “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and “The Spy Who Shagged Me,” the latter an Austin Powers movie that inspired a Virgin Airways ad campaign.

Mr. Branson’s best source, of course, is Mr. Branson, a point made over and over again in a book that reads like an extended interview with himself. He blithely assumes that no one would have the slightest interest in such a rambling discourse were it not for the inconvenient fact that the Virgin Group now consists of more than a hundred companies worldwide, all the result of Sir Richard’s record as a hyperactive, freebooting entrepreneur. Adding to the fascination is that he just seems to get better with age, ensconced in his exclusive Virgin Islands hideaway, a Peter Pan CEO organizing space-tourism adventures on his Virgin Galactic brainchild. And did Sir Richard remember to tell you how much he’s enjoying himself?



Despite innumerable trendy causes, apologies for his own importance and shameless name-dropping, Mr. Branson is an agreeable companion while riffing through the pages of the Virgin storybook. But does he really know anything about leadership? The answer is a qualified yes, because the Virgin corporate model is by now well-known; namely, a resolute focus on overturning larger and more entrenched competitors by providing superior customer service, an equally determined focus on finding and keeping good people throughout the Virgin family of companies, and always that famously upstart mindset.

“What routinely fools a Goliath is when, instead of going after their market share, someone goes out to create a whole new niche market right under their imperious noses. The newcomer has got to ensure that the playing field is anything but level. In fact, you don’t even want to step onto their playing field. It confuses them even more when you sprint up and down the sidelines while they get bogged down in the middle. You always know it’s working when they cry foul!”

The only thing more astounding than Mr. Branson’s longevity as a business maverick is his record of replicating his unique leadership culture throughout the 60,000 employees and the hundred-odd companies of the Virgin Group. The junior executive who authorized the bawdy “Virgin Shaglantic” ad campaign, for example, explained that he hadn’t received prior corporate approval because “we decided that this was one of those occasions when it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission,” an impulse which Mr. Branson heartily applauds. But in a concluding chapter on executive decision-making, Mr. Branson shows that he is no laissez-faire CEO, instead displaying exquisitely honed instincts for knowing how and when a leader should intervene.

Maybe better late than never. Because Mr. Branson is a genuine entrepreneurial genius, his book on leadership should have presented a better organized and much more coherent account of just how he led the decades-long development of the Virgin multinational empire. It is as though Napoleon had detailed the dalliances of the French general staff with a succession of Austrian chambermaids while declining to reveal how he lured Czar Alexander into abandoning the decisive high ground at the Battle of Austerlitz.

Information-age leadership is a supremely difficult task, so why did Mr. Branson think that a disciplined memoir was beyond or beneath him? To institutionalize genius — in business or war — the first lesson is that anecdotes are never enough.

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national security issues.

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