Richard Branson: The man and the myth

The Virgin boss, for all his breathless enthusiasm, gives little away about either himself or his companies' financial performance, says Rebecca Burn-Callander.

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 26 Sep 2014

Richard Branson, always so hard to pin down on his financials and his ability to turn calamity into cash (sometimes), has finally decided to share the secret sauce behind his success in this latest tome.

Unfortunately, I've finished the whole thing and I'm still none the wiser about how he did it. I feel as if I've watched a film on fast-forward with the sound off. Don't get me wrong. There are certainly lots of salient points in The Virgin Way: How to Listen, Learn, Laugh and Lead. Collaboration is good, as is saving the planet, we must all take risks, er, try everything once except incest, and good decisions are based on knowledge not numbers. And then you realise, hang on, none of these pearls of wisdom is really Branson's. The last of them was Plato, the incest line, Sir Thomas Beecham's. The rest could have been taken from any self-help book for entrepreneurs.

'All ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them,' writes Branson, quoting Mark Twain. I am unsure whether he is aware of the irony.

In fact, you could save yourself £20 on this book and just Google famous quotes from Twain, Winston Churchill and Ralph Waldo Emerson. For someone who professes to have hated school and book learning, he certainly places a lot of store by hackneyed phrases. It's a tactic that Branson has perfected with his Virgin companies too: selling other people's ideas to the nation. Yet we buy his line about Virgin being a 'challenger brand', a 'disruptive force' and an 'innovator'. And I'm beginning to think that we buy it because he really does too. He truly believes his own hype.

For example, in this book, he admits that he nicked the idea for Virgin Atlantic from Sir Freddie Laker, the man who introduced low-cost routes between New York and London, and Herb Kelleher, founder of Air Southwest. Laker later helped him to defeat the mighty British Airways in one of their endless skirmishes (perhaps this was 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' thinking from Laker).

Branson's telling of his copycat prowess is all done in a very British, 'weren't they clever, I'm standing on the shoulders of giants' way that somehow makes it all rather endearing.

Much of the book tells the stories of other people's successes, in fact, and what we, like Branson, can learn from them. There's some clever dick who invested early in Google, and the bright spark at Walmart that brought in new light bulbs ...

These stories are not uninteresting but feel like filler. This is no 'tell all'. Instead it's more of a compendium of jolly business stories. It is also an outlet through which Branson can congratulate his staff. In fact, he attributes so much of the success of Virgin's surviving brands to these clever hires that you wonder whether Old Beardy had any hand in them at all.

While the Virgin billionaire's account of himself reads like a pseudo-diary, you finish the final chapter knowing nothing new about him. He comes across like a loveable cartoon character, hopping around in each episode cutting ties (there's a no tie policy at Virgin) and risking life and limb for some outlandish prank, until the usual conclusion is reached: everything turns out for the best, and haven't we all learned something?

This book is a romp of a read, but a dreadful bore to anyone who knows his story already. This is simply another restitching of the tales that are already part of the well-worn fabric of Virgin's history. We have his well-documented scraps with BA, the ill-fated launch of Virgin Cola, the face-off with First Group over Virgin's rail franchise. All these tales are told in Branson's breathless, excitable fashion.

But what of the unsuccessful ventures that aren't talked about? What of Virgin Galactic, which has been promising to take people into space since 2007? How does Branson square his love for the planet and work with the Elders (a group founded by Nelson Mandela that aims to find humanitarian solutions to the evils of this world) with his gas-guzzling ventures? So many questions, so few answers.

It feels very difficult to pin down Branson on anything. He seems at times to be a sort of moustache-twirling villain, at others a paragon of virtue. After 377 pages, I still can't see the man behind the marketing. Branson fans will love this book, as they love everything he does. But as a work of literary genius, it ain't up there with Mark Twain.

Rebecca Burn-Callander is the Daily Telegraph's enterprise editor.

The Virgin Way: How to Listen, Learn, Laugh and Lead, by Richard Branson, Ebury Publishing, £20

- Richard Branson knows PR better than HR - MT editor Matthew Gwyther on the Virgin boss' plans to offer his staff unlimited holiday

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

What happens to your business if you get COVID-19?

Three bosses who caught coronavirus share their tips.

NextGen winners: The firms that will lead Britain's recovery

Agility, impact and vision define our next generation of great companies.

Furlough and bias: An open letter to business leaders facing tough decisions

In moments of stress, business leaders default to autopilot behaviours, with social structural prejudices baked...

The ‘cakeable’ offence: A short case study in morale-sapping management

Seemingly trivial decisions can have a knock-on effect.

Customer service in a pandemic: The great, the good and the downright terrible ...

As these examples show, the best businesses put humanity first.

How D&I can help firms grow during a crisis

Many D&I initiatives will be deprioritised, postponed or cancelled altogether in the next three months....