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6 Leadership Lessons From Necker Island

Sir Richard Branson is a man I’ve admired as long as I remember. His books – jammed with stories of his entrepreneurial exploits and intrepid adventures on earth, sky and space – sit atop my bookshelves, their pages underlined with insights on taking risks, managing setbacks and living bravely.

So when given the opportunity to spend a week with him on his private Caribbean island of Necker, I was curious as to what else I could glean from the man behind the larger than life media persona. As it turned out, plenty. It just wasn’t what I’d expected. In fact what impacted me most was not his brilliance as a businessman (clearly that’s a given!); it was his “way of being” and how that infused energy, passion and creativity into our group, the conversations we had and the possibilities that emerged from them.

Be Approachable

Before I arrived in Necker Island I was asked if I’d facilitate a Q&A session with him. I was delighted and honored by the opportunity but, admittedly, a little nervous too. A few times I had to sit myself down and remind myself of the advice I give to others; that no matter wealthy, clever or accomplished someone is, they are ultimately no more human than anyone else.

Turns out I give good advice, because, for all of Richard Branson’s fame, fortune and larger than life media persona, he’s actually a very relatable and approachable person.

The lesson: be someone people find it easy to be around.

People can sometimes be quite out of touch with how others perceive them and some even get a kick from being intimidating (a sure sign of an insecure ego.) So it’s worth taking a moment to put yourself in the shoes of the people you interact and consider whether you are someone people feel safe to speak to openly and candidly. The higher you climb, the more important this is.

Be someone people find it easy to be around. @MargieWarrell

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Give Up Proving Your Worth

Sir Richard Branson may be a Knight of the British Empire but, barefoot most of the time on Necker, he cares little for formality. In fact, he is refreshingly unaffected by his fame or fortune without need to prove himself to anyone – a hallmark of every genuinely inspiring human being I’ve ever encountered. Of course that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a healthy sense of self-worth, but he isn’t driven by a need to prop it up.

The lesson: give up pretense and keep your ego in check.

Not only do you not have anything to prove to anyone, but when you try to do so, it doesn’t enhance how others perceive you, in fact, it diminishes. Nothing speaks more loudly than someone who is at home in their own skin.

Nothing speaks more loudly than someone who is at home in their own skin. @MargieWarrell

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Play More

Watch the business news and you can’t miss a bunch of suited men (and, if you’re really lucky, the occasional woman!) talking very seriously about very serious things because, let’s face it, managing a business-economy-country is serious business. But too much seriousness can suck the joy out of life.

While Richard Branson was not the loud larger-than-life larrikin I had somehow expected, he brought a light-hearted playfulness into our gathering as he does to everything. When we visited his home one evening to listen to Estelle perform for our group, he was the first to jump up on the bar and start dancing. I quickly threw off my heels and followed suit. Dancing on that bar, I decided I needed to dance more often… particularly on tables. It’s just more fun!

The lesson: stop taking everything so seriously (yourself included).

Play and laughter are not only good for your health, but make you a much better person to be around. In all seriousness though, a little childish play can defuse the pressures of our adult lives.




Live in Questions, Not Answers

Each morning on Necker revolved around a “think tank” session where we heard insights from a host of people on business, leadership and life. One of them was former NASA Astronaut Captain Mark Kelly who talked about good decision-making and said that, “None of us are as dumb as all of us.” It was a great insight on the perils of “group-think” and the importance of challenging the consensus thinking. As Kelly spoke, Branson scribbled notes in his small note pad that he takes wherever he goes.

Sure, he may have built over 100 companies operating in 50 countries, but he remains curious, open to new ideas and eager to find better ways of doing things. While being open-minded may sound like sheer common sense, but I’ve observed that as people grow older, they can easily slip into a fixed view of the world, complacent in their approach and closed to new (and better) ways of meeting their challenges.

The lesson: Be open to unlearning what you think you know so you can relearn what you need to know.

Keep asking questions and never assume you have a monopoly on answers. Because, no matter how successful you may be, there will always, always, be ways of doing things better.

Be open to unlearning what you think you know so you can relearn what you need to know.

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Find What Ignites You and Do More of It

At an age when many would retire to the golf course (or in Branson’s case, a tropical island), Branson has no interest in putting his feet up and sipping martinis. There are still so many things he’s passionate about, including the various initiatives of his foundation Virgin Unite.

Of course it’s easy to be cynical and say “All fine for Richard Branson to do what he likes; he’s loaded!” but he got to where he is because of the passion he’s brought to everything he’s done, and his willingness to lay it all on the line to turn his audaciously bold dreams into reality.

Passion is contagious. It rubs off on everyone around you and attracts enthusiastic impassioned people into your orbit. After meeting Branson’s team at Virgin Unite, he’s clearly done just that.

The lesson: find what you’re passionate about, then find a way to do more of it.

If you’re indifferent about what you’re doing, do something else. Because when you are inspired about what you’re doing then you’ll not only do it better, but you’ll be far more successful at it.

Find what you’re passionate about, then find a way to do more of it. @MargieWarrell

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Embrace a “Why Not?” Mindset

As I posted photos of my week on Necker to Facebook, numerous people made comments like “The world needs more Richard Bransons.” While I agree with the general sentiment, I actually don’t believe the world needs more Richard Bransons (it’s not big enough!). What it needs are more people just like you and me committed to embracing his “Why not?” mindset – to challenge the status quo, dream bolder dreams and lay our fear, vulnerability and pride on the line for the sake of something far more important.

The lesson: stop playing so safe and rethink the risks of inaction.

Truth is, nothing worthwhile is achieved in your comfort zone. Most people overestimate the risks of leaving it, underestimate themselves, and kid themselves about the cost of inaction.

So let me ask you, what might you do differently if you committed to being more playful, more passionate, more curious and most of all, more YOU?!

Stop playing so safe and rethink the risks of inaction. @MargieWarrell

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MARGIE WARRELL has come a long way from her childhood growing up on a small farm in rural Australia. Today is a thought leader in human potential and is passionate about helping people live and lead more bravely. Drawing on her background in business, psychology and coaching, she runs courage-building programs to organizations worldwide such as NASA, Ernst & Young, Oracle, The Body Shop and The UN Foundation. An adventure traveller who has worked and lived around the globe, Margie is mom to four rowdy kids and author of three bestselling books: Find Your Courage, Stop Playing Safe, and Brave.

  • Matthijs R. Colenbrander

    … :-) …

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