If I told you that you were going to meet a 66 year-old business man worth 7 billion dollars who owns his own island, you’d greet that person with certain assumptions and expectations. Right? Well, when I met Sir Richard Branson for the first time, I brought in my own assumptions of what he’d be like. And I was completely f’ing wrong.
The philosophy of cycles suggests that whatever generation you belong to, you’ve got to go through certain phases in your life. When you go from a teen to a young adult, you go to college. When you become a parent, you’re supposed to create a certain life for your family. And when you retire, you go on cruises and live in warm climates. There’s a formula to life: all you gotta do is follow it.
Well, if there’s anyone that calls bullshit on all of those things, it’s Sir Richard Branson. A man with childlike curiosity that transcends his age, never lacking in challenge, vigour, drive, and passion, Branson is the type of person that chooses his own path, or as he likes to say, “Screw it, just do it”.
I had the fortune of meeting Sir Richard in May 2016 as part of a Virgin Co-lab Innovation event in Sydney, and then again at Virgin Disruptors in London in October. What I learned from those meetings with such a brilliant and successful man should be of no surprise, but for me, the whole thing was a massive surprise that changed the way I viewed teamwork, leadership, and even myself.
Here’s what Sir Richard Branson taught me about leadership:
Don’t lose the inner child.
Standing by as this man pranked anyone around, threw himself into random conversations, strolled curiously through the room asking questions, or made a quick cuppa tea because he was “parched” it was clear Branson didn’t let all his responsibilities hamper his spirit. Just because you are running a serious business, doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun and approach the world with a humble curiosity. There was almost a cute awkwardness to it, with the awkwardness only felt by those with expectations of what that “type” of person should do. Holding on to your “inner child” helps maintain curiosity and desire to always learn and develop.
Just imagine…all the things you’ve learnt in life, and experiences you’ve had, that teach you what you shouldn’t try. Well, Branson tries them!
It’s NOT about me.
Branson’s got 40 years in business, he’s a famous thought leader and a hugely successful businessman. So clearly he’s going to do all the talking, and we’re just the puppets that agree, right? The backup dancers. The warm up act. Maybe even simply there to massage his ego?
HELL NO! During the introductions of all our meetings, Sir Richard made it perfectly clear: “they’ve all heard from me before. I want to hear your stories. Challenge us.” And he meant it. Getting on stage, he took with him a snippet of information about me being asked to leave the stage once at an event, and the first thing he did was ask me to tell the story. He took a back seat and provoked questions to get everyone involved, especially the audience.
There was no broadcast. It was a conversation where he listened. His hunger for hearing other perspectives is infinitely higher than any desire for an ego massage.
Just imagine…what could you hear and learn from others to make you grow, if you just asked questions and then kept quiet.
There is an insatiability to the way Branson challenges, provokes, and inspires. Anyone can play devil’s advocate and take an opposite stance — that’s easy. But, it’s not effective. Sir Richard’s approach is different: he takes action. He told some hilarious stories behind his mantra: “screw it, just do it”, my favourite being about how he broke Virgin into Heathrow Airport when British Airways had exclusivity and covered their Concorde in the Virgin livery.
Never settling means that you ban complacency from your life and work, and you become relentless in your pursuit of improvement, for you, your team, and your organisation. What was most profound though, was how this had clearly rubbed off on others. I met people from a host of Virgin brands and the Virgin “family”, and the same insatiable attitude came through in all of them.
Virgin’s commitment to disruption and sharing what we can do to have an impact is directly tied to Branson’s insatiable pursuit of the next big thing.
Just imagine…think back and compare how many times you’ve thought “I wish I had” rather than “I wish I hadn’t”. I’m guilty of being safe and settling occasionally. Hunger for improvement and growth, is a lifestyle choice. Chose it and own your own destiny along the way.
Balance is everything.
Through conversations that day, and seeing more of Sir Richard in action, what became crystal clear, was his desire for and focus on balance. For every story about the Virgin businesses, disruption, Virgin Galactic, and the economy, you’ll see a post of him kitesurfing with ex-presidents, bike riding, playing tennis, or working to improve the planet with the elders or teaching world leaders to swim.
Just imagine…we invest a huge amount of time, effort and mental energy into work. Firstly, we should do what we can to enjoy it, and follow our passion. But almost more importantly, we should invest in our total life, balance, and making sure that we have a positive impact on ourselves. And, you don’t need to own an island to have a fun time with your family.
I’ve been inspired by Branson’s energy, enthusiasm, and curiosity. He’s taught me to challenge myself, and be bold. At a recent conference with Dr. Jason Fox, I was asked to pick my “word” for the year. A word that would help define what I go after, and how I plan my year. My word is “impact”. In 2017, I want to have an IMPACT. Thank you Sir Richard for helping me find my word.
Also published on Medium.