By Dan Leidl
Richard Branson’s presentation proved to be a genuine highlight at the 2012 World Business Forum. Surprisingly conversational and reserved, Branson seemed a much more accessible version of his more public and impossibly prolific self. An unnatural amalgam of figures like Errol Flynn, Henry Ford, William Parry and Bobby Kennedy, Branson is an uncanny entrepreneur whose ability to innovate customer experiences and product delivery has positioned him among the historic elite of global business figures. Equally famous for his record-breaking adventures and rock-star good looks, Branson has recently capitalized on his more-hero-than-human image to turn a focused eye on serving the under-served – an inspiring effort that he was giddy to discuss.
Throughout his World Business Forum presentation, Branson presented himself as grounded in a way that most billionaires don’t. He spoke of the fire that recently consumed his island home and the panic of knowing that his mother, Kate Winslet and others were inside. He explained his frenzied collision with a cactus while running naked across the island to subdue the fire and get the people inside out. He described his conclusion that once everyone was safe, “Stuff is pretty unimportant.” In reflecting on a childhood that lacked TV and encouraged creativity, he shared his parents’ efforts to ground him when he was young, saying, “If we ever criticized somebody, we had to stand in front of the mirror, and they would say it was a bad reflection on ourselves.” With a reserve that at times trembled self-consciousness or even embarrassment, Branson seemed human in a way he rarely seemed before.
Countering the humble connection he built with the audience, Branson shared plans to advance commercial space travel through Virgin Galactic. The presentation was stunning. Video footage of Virgin pilots traversing the stratosphere, gravity-less silences, and stunning world views painted a future of pay-to-play space sojourns that left the audience breathless and dreaming. Branson concluded with an eye on the future, suggesting that his interest in investing in space may have just begun, saying, “If we can send spaceships up, maybe we can send satellites up.” Always pushing boundaries, Branson’s ideas for what could be are nearly more breathtaking than what he’s already achieved. In explaining his perpetual push forward, he says, “We dream large and then try to make those dreams come a reality.”
More recently his dreams have been focused on solving problems that seem far more overwhelming than venturing into space. Through Virgin Unite and its efforts, Branson is working to make a global impact that changes lives, communities, even countries. Initiatives like The Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship, which supports entrepreneurial endeavors in South Africa and Jamaica, and Gaia Rocks, an effort to preserve natural resources and larger ecosystems, Branson is leveraging his voice, brand, and wealth to help large-scale causes. Perhaps most intriguing in scope and practice, through a partnership with figures that include Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan and others, Branson has worked alongside Peter Gabriel to create The Elders. A who’s who in peacemaking and social activism, The Elders is a unique group that is dedicated to the service and mentorship of at-need communities struggling with issues that range from political discontent to the aftermath of war.
While Richard Branson has achieved iconic status, serving as one of the most recognizable figures of his generation, his efforts seem grounded. From pushing the bounds of space travel and commerce to serving war-torn communities, he seems to have gained a truly global and sustainable perspective. Making a positive impact on the people around him is a clear priority. As he says, “If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re trying to go places in business that people haven’t been.”
Clearly he lives by these words, but he inspires with them as well.
Joe Frontiera & Dan Leidl are the managing partners of Meno Consulting, and co-author a regular column in the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. Dan and Joe are authors of the book, Team Turnarounds, (Jossey-Bass, July, 2012).