Sir Richard Branson has been voted Britain's most admired business leader of the past 50 years, in a poll of top bosses.

The business magnate, and head of the multinational conglomerate Virgin brand, came first in a survey by the Sunday Times, who asked chairmen of FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies, chief executives and chief financial officers, non-executive directors, lawyers, accountants and business headhunters.

Dominic O'Connell, business editor of the Sunday Times, said: "This is the authentic insider's view on who has made the biggest impact on British business over the past five decades. We asked business leaders to rate their peers – and Branson came out on top by a good margin.

"He has his critics, but this is a tribute to his longevity, and his impact across a big number of industries."

The poll also showed a "marked predilection for industrialists", O'Connell said. "Our highest-rated businesspeople included Sir James Dyson of vacuum cleaner fame; Sir Ernest Harrison, the man who brought us the mobile phone; and Arnold Weinstock, the former boss of General Electric Company. Away from manufacturing, the stars were Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco, and Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP."

Branson has hit the publicity trail to promote his new book: The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership.

Speaking recently in the Wall Street Journal about what he has learned from life about business and leadership, Branson said: "A great leader is somebody who's fairly inspirational, who is a tremendous motivator of people. Somebody who looks for the best in people without criticising, or jumping down their throats.

"Somebody willing to delegate, who doesn't try to do everything themselves and is willing to let people make mistakes. Somebody who can stand back and look at the bigger picture and by delegating free themselves up to take the company forward into new areas. Somebody who passionately believes in what they're doing. Somebody willing to make a positive difference within their company and their community, and within the world as well."