I will be honest, never been a person for biographies and memoirs (unless you are talking about Stephen King, that is).
I struggle to read through people’s life stories unless I can find some practical lessons to guide me through — it’s probably a shortcoming on my side, I won’t lie.
However, when I approached Richard Branson’s life story in his three autobiographic books The Virgin Way, Finding My Virginity, and Losing My Virginity, I found a practical companion that provided me with practical insights and some true lessons in becoming a leader as a business owner and the face of my very own company. Branson is known for his rule-breaking approach to leadership, one which encourages every employee to become an innovative thinker, who can add value in their own way.
Throughout his long history of running businesses, the Virgin Group founder has been a well-respected employer - someone who has created thousands of jobs for talented people around the world. "Leadership doesn't have a secret formula; all true leaders go about things in their own way," Sir Richard noted in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.
Being a better leader is a matter of practice, and most likely a few great lessons learned along the way and as a billionaire and owner of hundreds of successful businesses, Richard Branson shared his very own lessons, and I thought I'd round up a few of my favorites.
Take yourself less seriously
“Happiness is the secret ingredient for successful businesses. If you have a happy company it will be invincible.” — Richard Branson
Management consultant Peter Drucker once said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Before Virgin became what we know today, Branson recalled how he and his workmates would sit around on bean bags in Virgin Records’ only shop, having a great time. The idea of a group of people enjoying their jobs and the company of their colleagues shaped up the company culture of Virgin today.
Become a better listener
“Listen. Take the best. Leave the rest.” — Richard Branson
We all assume great leaders are great speakers — well, yes, and no. Great leaders are actually amazing listeners first.
Listening is such an underrated skill, especially because there is an assumption that the best thing we can do to help others is offering advice. What about taking the back seat and just listening instead?
A great example is when Branson gave a speech in Greece about business.
During the question and answer session with the audience, one young man stood out by the quality of his questions, and by how he listened intently enough to ask great follow-up questions. That man was Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of one of the UK’s most successful airlines, EasyJet.
Treat others with respect
“Respect is how to treat everyone, not just those you want to impress.” — Richard Branson
There is something I heard once — when you go out on a first date with a man (or woman, for what matters), look how they treat the waiting staff and the cab drivers. You can learn a lot about a person by doing that.
I do believe that there is a lot of truth in this old saying, and it shows that great leaders are appreciative, and know the importance of making a great impression on anyone. This is also a great practice for karma points if you believe in that sort of thing.
Learn from failure
“Learn from failure. If you are an entrepreneur and your first venture wasn’t a success, welcome to the club!” — Richard Branson
We all heard the famous phrase “luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation”.
Making great decisions the most important part of being a leader. Over time, Branson had a complicated relationship with decision making. Take the launch of the soda Virgin Cola in 1984 and Virgin Brides, a bridal wear business, in 1996, both unsuccessful businesses.
Yet, without those experiments, Branson would have not learned a valuable lesson: there’s no secret formula for making the correct call every single time.
After years of getting it mostly right, but sometimes wrong, he came to the conclusion that the best decisions usually take time.
Don’t let fear hold you back
“Screw it. Let’s do it.” — Richard Branson
As I mentioned, Virgin brides may not have been a success, but hell, Branson pursued an idea and gave it his best shot. I believe leaders learn to listen to their gut as well as realizing that there is a time to try new things in your business.
More often than not stagnation is what kills businesses over anything else.
Director Alfred Hitchcock shot the infamous shower scene in Psycho 78 times to get that moment just right.
Let’s be honest: the scene itself seems quite simple and straight-forward. Nevertheless, to make it stick and become an icon of what tension is and has been in cinematic history Alfred Hitchcock did not just settle for something that looked “okay”.
As much as we can see this as sheer perfectionism, there is something about this example that also proves that most of what you do won’t be perfect, great or even effective the first time you try it.
Diversifying is what gives us space to play with what is not set, and keep going with what works, as Branson said in his famous quote “Business opportunities are like buses, there’s always another one coming.”
“There is no greater thing you can do with your life and your work than follow your passions — in a way that serves the world and you.” — Richard Branson
Learning and reading about Richard Branson has been quite eye-opening for me, it has taught me a lot about things I thought I knew about leadership.
Being a better human is such a key part of being a great leader, and learning to evolve and celebrate both successes and “failures” can only strengthen our leadership.
A great leader leads the people from within, rather than above. The inspiration and teachings a leader provides are what show others the right path to a life of purpose.