I have a lot of respect for Richard Branson, but it has nothing to do with his entrepreneurial achievements. I respect him because Richard is one of the few serious public figures who don't take themselves too seriously. He's not afraid to show that he's a real person and that's rare to see. We disparately need more Branson's, not to create businesses but to inspire people with soul, passion and personality.
It seems many of our social and economic problems come from sanitising personality. It seems almost dirty to be a public figure who shows emotion or any other human characteristic. Say a stupid joke, laugh at the wrong thing or do something clumsy and you'll be made to regret it for years to come. So, all speeches are rehearsed, all appearances managed. But real people don't rehearse the things they say, they laugh at stupid things and quite often do clumsy things. I work with public figures in business, politics and entertainment a lot and I find it a little disturbing that a physiological divide even exists between those making the headlines and those reading them.
Key for a prosperous Britain is a generation of young people inspired by accessible role models. If entrepreneurs and politicians exist in a distant world of their own then young people will feel they have no chance of reaching, or even surpassing, their achievements because it's simply not for them- it's a different world. The personality Richard brings across is a crucial lesson to take note of as it brings exactly that aire of accessibility; of humanity.
Britain needs more than success to ensure a good future. It needs excellence- in all fields. To succeed you have to work hard. To exceed, you need to accept responsibility for your mistakes enabling you to learn from them and build on the experience they teach. Acknowledgement of personality gives ownership and identity to both our successes and our failures. This is as true in politics as it is in business. The political system is currently excellent at diffusing responsibility - ensuring blame is near-impossible to pin and impetus to champion new causes is greatly subdued.
We talk about a need for Britain to cultivate entrepreneurship, innovation and invention. I get the feeling this is missing the point. Before that we need to dismantle the taboo of personality. I want to see more people going into business driven by passion first and profit second. More students in engineering because they want to change the world around them, not because it might pay a little more than accountancy. Public figures must understand that any act they put on to sanitise their personality is damaging because they unwittingly create role models with no base in reality.
Actually, I've never had a coffee with Richard Branson, in reality things might be very different but a) I'd like to hope they're not and b) even if they are he's still inspiring many thousands around the world to chase their ambitions based on passion, not profit.
This nation has a great challenge to overcome in the next generation. It needs to define a place for itself in a globalised world where notions of tradition and heritage give way to the pace of a borderless market. Until recent history Britain has lead the world in terms of personality. It has been an engine for innovation. Going forward it needs to regain that energy. We'll never again be a manufacturing powerhouse or realise growth through tourism or wine. Passionate innovators like Richard Branson are Britain's competitive advantage. To stimulate them and their creative energy we must accept the value and importance of personality: in business and in society at large.
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