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.


Metaphors we lead by: Book Review

January 23, 2011

Metaphors we lead by, edited by Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer, Routledge, 2011, 222pp
Reviewed by Tudor Rickards

Leadership is often associated with ambiguities and with a bias towards the heroic individual of high moral standards. This book offers a plausible explanation of these ambiguities from a critical theory perspective

One of the quests of management authors is to write a text that works for practicing managers and for business researchers. This is one of the few books which achieve that goal.

The metaphors we lead by

As its title suggests, Metaphors we lead by examines leadership through a series of metaphors as perspectives or maps. These were derived from investigations carried out by teams of researchers from Lund University Sweden. Each team provides one specific metaphor, which labels patterns of behaviour likely to be familiar to leadership practitioners and researchers. We find the commander figure of classical theory engaged in acts of direction and control. Then there is the saint (servant leader?); the buddy (mentor); the gardener (coach?); the cyborg (super-hero as tireless as a machine) and the bully (leadership’s dark secret).

Ways of seeing

The metaphors offer ‘ways of seeing’ in a way echoing the earlier influential book on images of organization by Gareth Morgan. The metaphors are of interest, as understanding leadership from various perspectives.

The conceptual framework

Leadership researchers will also find interest in its conceptual framework offered by editors Alvesson and Spicer. The framework proposes that perspectives of leadership differ within three inter-related domains, that of leaders, followers, and researchers/observers. It offers understanding into the nature of the ambiguities of leadership including its multitude of definitions. It is through their mutual creation of their organizational realities that images of organization and develop.

The framework from a critical perspective

One innovative aspect of the book for many managers will be its linking with a critical theoretical perspective. The editors seek to avoid “the uncritical celebration of leadership [and] to heroic individual” [p2]. Critical theory is itself a complex set of philosophic ideas. As a starting point consistent with this book, we might refer to an earlier work Professor Alvesson (together with another distinguished critical theorist):

“The capacity of human beings to reflect and think critically makes it possible to question and challenge mainstream management theory and practice (Alvesson & Wilmott 1996: 40)”.

This perspective is influential among researchers of leadership although one that is less familiar with many managers, who take for granted what is broadly a rational economic model of human behaviour. This derive from the classical approach to management (managerialism), which feeds into and draws on managerial ideas and actions. From it, we have the metaphor of the leader as commander, experienced in the means of command and control, and acting under conditions of rationality, and drawing on rational expectations to explain and understand human behaviours.

The new leadership ideas of the 1980s popularised the management of meaning. Symbolic leadership was offered as an alternative to the strictly managerialist approach. To be sure, symbolic leadership can be seen as retaining aspects of the heroic (and saintly) leader. However, as Alvesson and Spicer point out, the approach is dominated by ‘ a monologic’ view (a leader’s perspective). They proposes a ‘dialogic’ one in which the interplay between leaders and subordinates is more important than how a leader influences the meanings which followers develop of organisational duties and rights.

Bridging the gap

It is a matter of personal regret that I have witnessed ‘paradigm wars’ between colleagues who take a critical perspective and those who take a more traditional functionalist view of business. This book offers promise in helping bridge that gap to some degree. It offers possiblities to leaders and subordinates of considering new ‘ways of seeing’ leadership, particularly in its treatment within Business Schools around the world.


Alvesson M., & Spicer, A., (2011) Metaphors we lead by, Oxford: Routledge
Alvesson, M., & Wilmott, H., (1996), Making sense of management, London: Sage
Morgan, G., (1986) Images of organization, Newbury Park, Ca.: Sage

Leadership and the criticality of action learning

March 9, 2009
Linus Tunstrom

Linus Tunstrom

A seminar at the Revans Academy for Action Learning and Research explores how action learning sits alongside critical management theory. These topics have also attracted the interest of leadership researchers

The Seminar [March 31st 2009] hosted from Manchester Business School is one of a series which according to organizer Dr Elaine Claire explores

How action learning sits alongside related approaches to learning and development and brings together practitioners and scholars in debate and critique, in order to enhance understanding and action in the field. This particular seminar seeks to [explore] differences between action learning and critical management theory … some would argue that by its emphasis on empowerment of the learner, upon the development of critical questioning insight and through a focus upon facilitating individual, organisational and societal change, ALL action learning is critical! This is the starting point for the seminar ..

Action learning and Melvin Bragg

This poses a rich set of issues to be explored. It seems the kind of thing that would make a good topic for the wonderful BBC programme In Our Time, moderated for many years by Melvin Bragg.

Bragg’s approach is to take a richly intellectual topic and invite structured discussion from a small panel of leading authorities. (Over to you, Lord Bragg).

A few thoughts to add to the discussion

The seminar includes a contribution from Russ Vince who has earned a reputation in helping codify the enormous field of experiential learning.

Russ has also the unusual (unique?) title of Professor of Leadership and Change (at the University of Bath). So there may well be insights into yet another set of relationships between leadership, experiential learning and change.

An example of this, and an action-oriented one, can be found in the work of theatrical director Linus Tunström of Upsalla’s Stadsteater.

Linus Tunström

Tunström explained his leadership style at a recent creativity conference at Upsalla University. His career route into his current role includes a period as a film director whose work has been shown at Cannes. He has developed a leadership style which was always going to be one in which the actors would be invited to find their own voices and interpretations around his own broad vision of the work. It is a leadership style which seems to me quite compatible with trust-building (‘empowerment’?), discovery learning, and creative leadership.

The critical management and action learning workshop

This workshop also reaches out to another powerful social science concept, that of critical theory, which has a long-standing research group at Manchester organized by Dr Damian O’Doherty and Dr Damian Hodgson, who suggest that a good summary of the field of study can be found in the Oxford Handbook of Critical Management Studies edited by Alvesson, Bridgman and Willmott.

Professor John Hassard, also at Manchester Business School, has been a senior figure in the field for some years.

No doubt the seminar will also bring some participants up to speed with this increasingly influential approach for understanding the fundamental nature of knowledge.