When Richard Branson talks about his biggest career influences and mentors, he almost always mentions his mother, his father, and English airline entrepreneur Sir Freddie Laker. But in a recent LinkedIn post, the billionaire Virgin founder talked about his uncle Jim who “didn’t have such a personal impact upon my life, but had a huge effect on the way I think about the world.”
Great-uncle Jim served in the Army during World War II and made a reputation for himself by munching on grass as a “healthy practice.”
But despite the teasing that Branson’s uncle (and by association, Branson’s father) endured from other Army officers, he wasn’t dissuaded from continuing his quirky habit in public.
Eventually it was discovered that Uncle Jim’s grass-eating practice wasn’t as much motivated by health as it was by conducting top-secret military research. As it turned out, he was working for the British Special Air Service, and was instructing the elite forces how to survive off grass and nuts when food was scant.
Of course, when that information was unearthed, his reputation changed, as did his peers’ opinions of his odd eating habit. But before that, he wasn’t intimidated to do something publicly that others found strange.
Branson says Uncle Jim’s willingness to stand out inspired one of his key tactics for making business decisions: Never shy away from an idea simply because others consider it unexpected, even inadvisable.
“Whenever everybody else thinks your idea is absolutely barmy, it could actually prove to be a stroke of genius,” Branson concluded from the anecdote.
“There have been countless occasions in my business career where everyone has urged me to make one decision, and I have gone in the opposite direction,” he writes. “From setting up Virgin Atlantic to fighting to get Virgin Trains West Coast back on track, from signing The Sex Pistols to launching Virgin Brides. Not every move has worked, but that’s part of the fun and the best way to learn.”
He explained that Uncle Jim influenced him to believe that it’s completely possible to take the road less-travelled — and even thrive while doing so. “It’s a lesson I’m still following today,” he said in the post.
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