The future of purposeful leadership according to Virgin Atlantic’s CEO

Richard Branson with Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss and Virgin Atlantic cabin crew celebrating the inaugural flight to Tel Aviv
Image from Virgin Atlantic
Holly Branson
Holly Branson's writing
Published on 4 May 2021

Behind every purpose-driven business is a committed, compassionate and visionary leader. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for strong and purposeful leadership has never been more important. As we look ahead to the future, I’m curious about what comes next. To learn more, I reached out to some of the leaders I admire most to hear their thoughts on the future of purposeful business and leadership in a post-pandemic world.

To kick off the series, I was thrilled to speak with Shai Weiss - the CEO of Virgin Atlantic. Shai shared so many great insights about what it takes to be an effective leader and lead a company through a global crisis and an unprecedented time for aviation.

Holly Branson purposeful leadership interview with Shai Weiss

Throughout our conversation, Shai focussed on three areas of purposeful leadership that are relevant for any business:

1. Put your people first 

Virgin Atlantic is a people-driven company, and this is something Shai is particularly passionate about. The need to bring people together through effective, honest and two-way communication was brought up a lot in our conversation. From setting up virtual coffees with anyone in the company who wants to join him, to measuring employee happiness as an output – Shai understands why it’s so important for a leader to put people first. As he said himself: “Airlines are the ultimate team sport.”

Virgin Atlantic crew on the cargo flight bringing PPE into the UK
PA Media

 2. Use purpose to guide every decision and navigate difficult times

Virgin Atlantic’s purpose is ‘to be the most loved travel company’ and Shai uses it to guide all of his decisions. As Shai said in our interview: “Our job as leaders is to show that purpose is not a fad and it actually pays back. I think we would not have gotten through this if we did not have the love of our people and our customers who see that supporting Virgin Atlantic makes a difference.” Throughout the pandemic, Shai had to make countless difficult decisions to ensure the airline’s survival. What I really admire is the way he made even the hardest decisions through a purpose lens and never lost sight of his people.

Two Virgin Atlantic cabin crew wearing face masks at the door of an aircraft
Image from Virgin Atlantic

3. Challenge the status quo and always ask ‘why’

Shai understands the importance of keeping an open-mind, thinking differently, and not getting stuck in our ways. One example discussed was Virgin Atlantic’s make-up policy, which was updated after a cabin crew member wrote to Shai and questioned why it only applied to women crew members and not men. Shai took the question to the leadership team, and the policy was updated to let crew members – both male and female –decide if and what make-up they wanted to wear while flying. This may seem small, but it was an important step to letting people bring their authentic self to work and it all came from questioning the status quo.

Virgin Atlantic cabin crew celebrating Pride
Image from Virgin Atlantic

From the importance of listening and two-way communication; to understanding your responsibility; finding new ways to bring people together; and sticking to your purpose even in the tough times – it was an incredibly inspiring and enlightening conversation. I hope there is something you can all take away from it and stay tuned for my next interview in the series.