By Ralf Quellmalz

“If you aren’t making a difference in other people’s lives, you shouldn’t be in business – it’s that simple.”

Sir Richard Branson

Leaders are everywhere. Whether in organizations, businesses, politics, universities or at home, they are both present and visible at all times and places. Due to our social nature, we need individuals to act as the head of our organization and take the lead. We do not live alone nor do we do well at our one. As a result, leadership arises not only as necessity for survival, but also as the purpose-centered force to propel us into prosperity. Even though not every leader uses the same leadership style to guide an organization, it is vital for any organization’s success to be led with integrity. Integrity is referred as, “a function of knowing yourself, having a vision that is well communicated, building trust among colleagues, and taking effective action to realize your own leadership potential[1].” Throughout this paper, compelling arguments and examples will be used to demonstrate how integrity is the key to unlocking exceptional leaders and set them apart from other leaders.    

The popular definition of a leader is someone who has followers. However; such common definition does not fully resemble all of that which leadership entails. To gain followers, leaders need to have the ability to both influence and mobilize others. Leadership, “takes vision and imagination. It requires a certain optimism, determination, and creativity – the sort of characteristics that inspire confidence – confidence that turns other people into followers.[2]” To become a leader, one must have the ability to clearly and forcefully articulate a vision and work towards turning that dream into reality for the common welfare. As Warren G, Bennis said, “leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.[3]”   

Leadership, however, embodies a tough and complex enterprise. The decisions a leader has to make are not always easy nor defensible, as many decisions require compromise and, sometimes, terrible decisions have to be made. To lead requires strong character, conscientiousness, deep honesty, and moral courage in order to support the achievement of strategic ambitions. Therefore, leaders ought to “know who (they) are, in order to think without deceit[4].” This is the key reason why integrity is the most fundamental trait a leader shall possess – as it enables leaders to honestly measure what he can and cannot do admittedly. High self-awareness enables leaders to both recognize and acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses, enhancing their team’s ability to perform.      

Furthermore, leaders ought to lead with integrity to instill stability and order within their organizations. Integrity enables leaders to comprehend the necessary conditions that must be established to propel their organizations into achieving its goals. However, if an organization is lead through emotions or charisma, it tends to generate alarming degrees of dependency on its leader, creating high ambiguity over the future. Without integrity, leaders might be victims of their egos ruling over themselves, self-creating catastrophic consequences for their organization. Therefore, a lack of integrity hinders a leader’s capacity to develop a nurturing and positive environment.   

Integrity is the first and foremost characteristic leaders shall embody to fully take responsibility of their duty. If, through his leadership, an ethical leader does not see himself capable of benefiting his organization, he will not do so willingly. His uprightness will lead him to do whatever it takes to ensure the success of his organization, even if that requires him to step down. Integrity not only allows leaders to have respect for others, but also towards themselves. As a result, integral leaders can clearly distinguish what is right from what is wrong and would willingly encourage others to always choose to take the ethically and morally right path when in doubt. An organization’s ability of implementing fair decisions and communicating honestly most often than not relies upon the integrity displayed by its leader on a daily basis.   

Leaders who embody the quality of integrity channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company; due to the fact that their ambition is guided towards their organization, not their career. As a result, they will not only ask for help when in need, but also accept the blame and take responsibility for the results of their organization. Their sense of integrity enables leaders to fully comprehend the degree of responsibility they have towards the enhancement of their organization’s ability to succeed.

 Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, is a model business leader who has revolutionized the way businesses are led. By the age of 20, Branson had started a mail-order record business and by 22 he was already running a chain of record stores. Since then, he has founded a slew of companies, including Virgin Records, Virgin Airlines, Virgin Hotels, and Virgin Galactic. However, his key ingredient for success relies upon his rule-breaking approach to leadership, one, “which encourages every employee to become an innovative thinker, who can add value in their own way[5].” By establishing the right work environment and empowering his employees, Branson powerfully propels his organization towards innovation and creativity, which leads his businesses to outperform its rivals and achieve competitive advantage.

Through his collaborative leadership style, Branson clearly exemplifies the diverse ways in which leading with integrity boosts a leader’s ability to perform and achieve its strategic ambitions. Unlike contemporary business leaders, who are always searching for the latest trend in how to make an organization great, Branson leads his businesses with the same fundamental values he grew up with. Throughout his career, he knew he had to be true to himself in order to make his leadership truly authentic and build confidence within his followers. Branson clearly understands that there is no such thing as leadership without authenticity, as they intensely complement each other: “leadership doesn’t have a secret formula; all true leaders go about things in their own way[6].”            

What truly stands out of Branson’s success, however, is the fact that he never went to college. In fact, he did not even finish high-school[7]. Suffering from dyslexia at a young age, Branson could neither keep up with his classes nor fit in. Yet, he knew he could transform his vision into reality: “my parents agreed to let me leave school on one condition: that I would do everything I could to turn my ideas into reality[8].” Even though he had no formal education, Richard Branson remained loyal to his upbringing throughout the founding of his organizations, as when hiring his companies’ C-Suite he prioritizes candidates’ passion and commitment over and above their educational backgrounds. Furthermore, Branson has instilled within Virgin a culture that encourages and even celebrates failure. As an entrepreneur, he understands that without trying something new and failing at it, it’s almost impossible to innovate and grow: “do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again. Making mistakes and experiencing setbacks is part of the DNA of every successful entrepreneur, and I am no exception[9].”       

Richard Branson smiling next to one of his most inspiring quotes about courage

In every aspect of the organizations he founded, Richard Branson leads authentically. He consistently guides and shapes them with the same principles and values. Branson, both a visionary and an entrepreneur, serves as an ideal role model to prove the vital role integrity plays in leadership. Since early in his career, Branson not only clearly understood his strengths as well as his limitations, but also used both to reach higher levels of self-awareness and boost his capacity to achieve his goals. The fact that he leads with integrity enables him to reach his potential as a business leader and influence the right kind of people to propel his vision: “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[10].”

Rather than a situational or contextual factor, integrity is a state of mind that has no exceptions. It entails a powerful and honest commitment to do the right thing for the right reason, regardless of the circumstances. Leaders who lead with integrity are not only incorruptible, but also incapable of violating the trust of those who have confided in them. As Oprah Winfrey puts it out, “real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not[11].” Integrity is the key quality that sets great leaders apart, as it empowers them to lead justly, build trust, and communicate authentically. By exemplifying integrity, as Branson has proven, leaders can not only set the right and noble standards for their organization, but also deeply connect with their people to spur energy and enthusiasm towards their shared purpose.


[1] Peter Drucker. “Introduction and Definition of Leadership Styles Management.”

[2] William Daley.

[3] Warre G. Bennis, American Scholar.

[4] Wittgenstein Jr.

[5] “9 leadership skills from Sir Richard Branson” – Robert Half

[6] Sir Richard Branson in an interview with The Telegraph

[7] Virgin Homepage –

[8] Sir Richard Branson

[9] Inc – “Richard Branson Reveals 3 Important Lessons Most Leaders Learn Too Late in Life”

[10] “9 leadership skills from Sir Richard Branson” – Robert Half

[11] Oprah Winfrey

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