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An excerpt from Richard Branson's "The Virgin Way"

An excerpt of Branson's new book, The Virgin Way.

Reprinted from THE VIRGIN WAY: Everything I Know About Leadership by Richard Branson with permission of Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright (c) Richard Branson, 2014. 

What’s become known around our various companies as ‘the Virgin way’ is something that has evolved since day one. When someone who has just joined us from outside comes out of their first, usually highly informal, strategy or product meeting and says, ‘Wow, you folks certainly do things differently, don’t you?’ the response is often, ‘Yup, that’s the Virgin way’, usually said with a smile and a knowing wink. As you will (I hope) understand, one of the keys to ‘the way’ we do things is nothing more complex than listening – listening intently to everyone who has an opinion to share, not just the self-professed experts. It’s also about learning from each other, from the marketplace and from the mistakes that must be made in order to get anywhere that is original and disruptive. And perhaps most importantly, it’s about having fun with a capital F while we’re doing it. Leading ‘the Virgin way’ often has quite unpredictable consequences and takes us to places where other ‘more sensible’ operations might fear to tread. And with a brand that is now as visible as it is, this means leading from the front and sticking your neck out in ways that a lot of leadership styles might not consider ‘prudent’, a word that I do not use on a frequent basis. I don’t profess for one moment to have some kind of secret formula or a panacea for the challenges of business in general. What I write about in the coming pages is simply what, in my wide-ranging experience, has served me and, by extension, Virgin extremely well – the vast majority of the time at least. Having what we like to call ‘serious fun’ is at the core of ‘the Virgin way’ and that’s something for which I will never apologise. Being passionately engaged and enjoying every minute of what you do is an attitudinal thing – a spark – that cannot be mandated, trained, put in a job description or an employee manual. It’s something that’s either in a person’s DNA or not, and as such has to come from within. If you’re someone who believes in going your own way and having a lot of fun doing it, then you’re already on the right track and there’s probably very little anyone can say to modify your course more than a few degrees. I’d just urge you to do a lot more listening than talking, don’t be afraid to wear your passion on your sleeve for all to see, and when in doubt trust your instincts.

I only mention all of this in order to be totally transparent on how I have lived my life and to put my, perhaps somewhat less than traditional, take on listening, living, laughing and leading in the proper context. There are a lot of slightly crazy things I have done with boats and hot-air balloons, jumping off tall buildings and more that certainly had the potential to shorten my life expectancy. Some may call it recklessness but I prefer to call it taking ‘calculated risks’. One way or the other, though, I’d certainly put many of my past adventures in the category of ‘Don’t try this at home’. What I do believe to be an essential, however, particularly for anyone with entrepreneurial aspirations, is an unfettered willingness to trust their instincts and to follow their own star, even if at times it might appear to be leading them towards the edge of the precipice.

My star has certainly led me over quite a few cliffs and in some pretty wild and woolly directions and so I should also confess that from an early age, my idea of ‘having fun’ might not be the same as a lot of other people’s. Whether the challenges are physical or financial– or sometimes both – fun, aka excitement, has for me always been inextricably linked with taking risks and sometimes perhaps some pretty insane ones. The problem is that being told ‘You’d have to be crazy to even think about doing that’ has to me always been like the

proverbial red rag to a bull. Whether it’s starting a Christmas tree farm, a capital-intensive business like an airline, kite-surfing across the English Channel in my sixties, fighting to reduce the suffocating carbon blitz that is killing our planet, or seeking to commercialise space travel, I love nothing better than what appears to be an outlandish challenge. As any of my colleagues at Virgin will attest, in my vocabulary the phrase ‘seemingly impossible’ is defined as ‘something that should be a lot of fun disproving’.

After a Laser dinghy ride around the island with me, one frequent guest on Necker (who wishes to remain anonymous) once laughingly commented, ‘Wow, Richard! After that experience I now understand what makes Virgin different: you really take the “shortest distance between two points is a straight line” thing very seriously, don’t you?’ When I asked what exactly he meant by that, it turned out that the thrill I get from sailing at high speed through, and frequently right over the top of, the island’s encircling jagged rocks was clearly not what he’d had in mind when I suggested we go sailing. The way I see it, though, just about anyone can chart a safe course and laboriously pick their way around a field of obstacles – but where’s the fun in that?

My approach to sailing around Necker is perhaps a pretty good analogy for my view on leadership in business. If your vision is to reach a distant beach where, because of the reefs surrounding it, no one has ever set foot, then the chances are that reading the same old charts as everyone else has used isn’t going to get you there either. And the readily available excesses of data on just about every subject tends to give most people more ammunition on why not to pursue any even slightly off-the-chart objective. I have spent my life trying off-the-chart things and going places that friends and colleagues have told me were bad ideas. Does that make me nothing more than a contrarian? Perhaps. However, pushing the envelope and sagging when everyone else zigs is something that just seems to be part of my DNA, and to date it has worked pretty well for me – most of the time, at least. 

I didn’t take any business courses or read any books on leadership to figure out how I would make it in life, so be warned that some of the pages ahead probably aren’t for everyone. While I wouldn’t necessarily categorise this as a ‘leadership book’, on a whim I decided to search the term on Amazon and was more than a little blown away by the results – on the day I checked, I found a mere 93,467 matches! Not only that, but I have to confess I don’t believe I have read a single one of them. As a result I have no idea what the other 93,467 authors have to say, but I doubt that few if any of them can have had a fraction of the fun I’ve had in the forty-plus years I have been leading the charge with the Virgin group of companies. Then I had a thought that perhaps ‘leadership’ simply isn’t the right word for what I have been practising? So when I went back to Amazon and searched, ‘Having a great time while building ahighly diversified global business with an extended family of simplywonderful people’, guess what? There was not a single match – at least not until now! 

Reprinted from THE VIRGIN WAY: Everything I Know About Leadership by Richard Branson with permission of Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright (c) Richard Branson, 2014.