The Life-Changing Leadership Lesson I Learned From Sir Richard Branson on Necker Island

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Each year Virgin Unite, the not for profit foundation of Virgin and the Branson Family, hosts a series of “Connection Trips” that provide education, inspiration and impact opportunities to entrepreneurs seeking to grow their businesses and make a positive difference. I had the privilege of being invited to train a group of entrepreneurs withRichard Branson on Necker Island in June. I had never met him before and like most — if not all — of the entrepreneurial and business world, I held him an incredibly high esteem for several reasons. First, his charismatic entrepreneurial spirit has inspired generations of entrepreneurs to take the necessary risks to realize their own dreams and find the fulfillment that they deserve. Second, his brand was one of those truly rare examples of a global conglomerate of companies that was united and informed by the same values proposition. Third, those values have consistently manifested real social change on a global scale that has taken many forms including the Carbon War Room, B Team, Ocean Unite and the Elders initiatives, among others.

I jumped at this opportunity to share strategic thinking around how to define, frame and scale your purpose with a group of entrepreneurs committed to making their own distinct contribution. At the same time, the chance to meet to Sir Richard Branson was a huge part of the appeal as I all hoped to learn something about business that had enabled his extraordinary success. The invaluable lesson I learned had nothing and everything to do with business and will remain a fundamental of my understanding of effective future leadership for both entrepreneurs and corporations.

On one evening of our five-day stay on Necker Island, Richard gave a Q&A for the guests. That’s when he made one remark that, for me, threw what makes Richard and the Virgin Group so unique into relief. He was asked about what success and happiness looked like for him after so much success, and he spoke specifically about the importance of family and how he had nurtured the family relationships in his 40-year marriage.

At that moment that I realized that family and everything that it implies is the defining quality that has underscored the success of Richard, the Virgin Group and Virgin Unite itself. The way that Richard related with guests and employees on the island is with familiarity of someone you know and care about. The way that the Virgin Group treats its employees demonstrates dynamics that better describe a family than a corporation. The way that customer service manifests itself around the world in brands such as Virgin Atlantic, America or Australia in the form of the conversation, friendliness or music you enjoy are all the offspring of a mindset that treats everyone with familiarity and intimacy of family. The way Virgin Unite leads and contributes to so many global impact solutions reflect a belief that human beings are one family sharing a common home.

By sharing what is second nature to Richard with the group that night, he revealed what makes the Virgin brand so special and why it inspires such loyalty, passion and admiration around the world. In doing so, he gave a masterclass in 21st century leadership. For ultimately, every corporate leader today is the prism through which all their intelligence, energy and inspiration is focused to then manifest itself in the company’s culture, community and impact on the world. As such, every purposeful leader today is challenged to recognized this telescopic dynamic and to embrace the responsibility evolve as much as they can to drive company growth as far as possible. We see proof of such alignment between personal values and corporate leadership of Howard Shultz of Starbucks, Marc Benioff of Salesforce, Beth Comstock of GE, Paul Polman of Unilever, Sheryl Sandberg ofFacebook and Bill McDermott of SAP, each of whom has the transformed their companies into positive cultural forces. Many of these are also part of the BTeam, the organization Virgin Unite incubated to join a global group of business leaders catalyzing a better way of doing business, for the well-being of people and the planet.

This leadership mandate is a double-edged sword in that when a company is challenged or seems stuck, the first place its leadershipmust look is to themselves and identify what they are thinking or behavior that is holding the company back. Only then can they overcome the obstacles that are stalling growth to take actions that will propel growth. As such, this enlightened approach to leadership is as much a personal journey as it is an organizational or cultural repurposing, and the corporate leaders that will most effectively shape our future will be those that most tirelessly challenge themselves to become the people they need to be to realize the goals they want for all stakeholders.

I left Necker Island not just more respectful of the journey every entrepreneur faces and deeply grateful for the gracious generosity of our hosts, but also inspired to challenge myself and other business leaders to become the best versions of themselves to realize serve their highest purpose and company growth. To see the value proposition of such an approach one need only look at Richard Branson, the Virgin Group and the foundation, Virgin Unite, who continue to leverage and elevate and celebrate personal values to drive business growth and scale social impact to improve the lives and future of all.

For more information on Virgin Unite visit

Image via Flickr courtesy of user Juan Alberto Garcia Rivera at

Written by

CEO We First Inc, author NYT's bestseller We First, strategic corporate consultant and trainer, father, Australian, optimist.

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