Things A Swimming Lesson From Richard Branson Taught Me About Leadership
“Life is a hell of a lot more fun if you say yes rather than no.”- Richard Branson
It’s 6.30am and I’m on a beach with Richard Branson.
Quite why I decided to say yes, I don’t know.
Potentially drowning doesn’t sound like ‘a hell of a lot more fun’ to me.
But when Richard Branson challenges you to do something insane, you’ve got to try, right?
I was on Necker Island as part of an entrepreneurial mastermind, a group of extraordinary people sharing ideas, strategies, and mindsets.
As you’re probably aware, Richard Branson is not only an incredible businessman, he’s also a well-documented adventurer, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when, over dinner, he casually announced his intention to get up early the next morning to swim 3 miles of open ocean to neighboring Mosquito Island.
We were ‘welcome’ to join him.
I’m not a strong swimmer and wasn’t planning on it. Plus, I’ve got a busted knee which provided a convenient excuse. I figured I’d stay on the safety boat and tag along.
That’s when I heard Richard say: “Look at that!”
And, no joke, a gorgeous rainbow had appeared over the island.
Well, if that wasn’t reason enough to get over my bulls**t fears, nothing was.
Lesson One: No Excuses
You’ll always find reasons not to do what scares you.
But true leaders do it anyway.
Branson, for example, forgot his goggles. No problem. He casually backstroked the entire way!
Leaders find a way.
So I dove in at the deep end — literally. I mean, this was Richard Branson.
The guy has had like 76 near-death experiences, ranging from head-on bike crashes to boulders the size of cars careening towards him on the alps, to falling on a cactus butt-naked while trying to put out a fire (true story). He’s been rescued at sea multiple times- so I was clearly in no real danger.
I followed my 69-year-old mentor into the ocean and swam further than I ever have before. My lack of long-distance swimming experience caught up with me in the end and I had to finish the trip on the boat- but I did so with a sense of pride instead of shame.
Lesson Two: Great Leaders don’t let you get complacent or comfortable
As I watched the rest battle the final kilometer, I noticed there was one swimmer way out in front, the only woman in our group, Steph Farr.
She beat the rest of the pack by over 300 yards.
But Branson is never one to let you rest on your laurels. After serving a well-deserved breakfast, he challenged Steph to swim back…against the current.
Lesson Three: The pre-supposed close
I was shocked that Steph agreed to do this challenge — especially since no one had done this before.
But what impressed me was how Richard inspired her to do it.
It’s a classic tactic that’s been used in the past to get world leaders to agree to peace initiatives, or to get corporate CEOs to take a bigger responsibility for the environment.
The tactic is called the presupposed close.
Before Steph agreed, Richard congratulated her, thanked her, insisted on taking a picture together, and accompanied her to the beach to explain how she could best tackle the swim back.
He already presupposed that she would take on the challenge and succeed in doing so.
And by doing so, made the picture of her completing this challenge so real in her mind, that she had no other choice but to say yes.
I know Steph, and I know she was glad she did.
It was just this small interaction that reminded me of one of the most powerful lessons we can all take to heart — especially when you’re in a leadership position.
Great leaders know that there are people better than they are.
They know when to lead by example and when to lead by challenge or inspiration.
A great leader won’t let you get comfortable.
They push you to push yourself.
And in their presence, you do things you once thought impossible.