Richard Branson: Invite Your Enemies to Lunch

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By: Joe De Sena, Founder & CEO of Spartan Race

For Spartan Up! the Podcast, I traveled to gorgeous Necker Island to interview Richard Branson.

As I sat across from him, I saw that we are wired similarly. He is fueled by frustration and driven by imagination. He values friends and family, always making time for fitness. He’s the type who’s easy to talk to. I’d bet that most who meet him think of him as a close friend, because of the way he listens and connects. He has that kind of demeanor.

Richard Branson has had tremendous, global success. With that kind of success, he’s found himself with critics – roadblocks lining the road to success. If they can’t stop him, they’ll at least attempt to slow him down. It’s something that comes with the territory. Just ask Lebron James. Ask top celebrities. People are intimidated by greatness.

Branson told me the story of starting Virgin Airlines. After he was bumped from his flight going to Virgin Islands Branson hired a plane, and wrote “Virgin Airlines. One way. $29 to BVI.” He filled the plane. It was that simple in his mind. He would start an airline that thought about the customer as a person. That’s exactly what he did. Spoiler alert if you don’t want to know what happens — Virgin Airlines took off.

With the great success of the airline, however, he recalled the pathetic low-blow attempts to shut down his emerging new company.

British Airways was determined to put him out of business — often crossing moral boundaries in the process. Branson took them to court and, after winning a great sum of money, shared the British Airways Christmas bonus with his staff.

So what, I asked, is his most important secret to success?

His answer was simple: look for the best in other people.

Throughout his life he’s never thought ill of other people. He looks for the best and praises them. Branson at times seems almost not human. He’s too good at what he does. No, great. Nearly perfect. When he starts something, he tends to succeed. He aspires to go to space and is the type you’d need to convince to wear a helmet. He has had falling outs though, like anyone else. He is human. He told me:

“Life is short and the world is much smaller than one realizes. You are going to come across people time and time again in the most surprising places… As a leader it’s even more critical to be out there motivating and praising and inspiring people. If you do fall out with somebody in life, even if you think it was their fault give them a ring. Your ex-partner or your ex-wife… befriend them. Go out to lunch with them.”

There’s a rational and emotional side to everything. Your brain versus your heart. It’s a shame when the two disagree. His lessons spoke to me. I’ve met a lot of good people over my lifespan, formed lifetime friendships. Unfortunately, I’ve also had falling outs. No extreme athletic event I do will ever negate how human I am.

We have a finite amount of room for relationships. It’s been proven by Robin Dunbar, who created the Dunbar number, approximating we can have 150 relationships at any given time. Since I was a young entrepreneur, my amount of relationships has far exceeded this amount. This isn’t an excuse, it’s a fact. Of course, I have far fewer pillars in my life — family and close friends, my extended Spartan family and those I can go to with any problem.

I’ve made a point to keep my phone on for folks who lose their way. Just because we aren’t working together doesn’t mean we are working against one another. I’m wired a certain way — that doesn’t change because a disagreement. I’m open to forgiveness.

The greatest leaders in the world have preached forgiveness. Perhaps the most extreme example is Nelson Mandela who both invited his former prison guard to his inauguration and even had lunch with a man who in the past advised he be given the death penalty. When Mandela passed, Maya Angelou said beautifully: “He has offered us understanding. We will not withhold forgiveness. Even from those who do not ask.”

Sitting on the island, Richard Branson looked beyond content. He was in the moment. It took me until after I left to understand — Branson extends an olive branch to those who cross him and to those who he crosses. How peaceful does that sound? No wonder he is able to put all of his focus and energy into whatever he works on.

Life is too short. We are entitled to be human. Sometimes we make mistakes and rub people the wrong way. What defines us is not those who are able to avoid confrontation, but those who are able to deal with it. The human body is able to self-heal when we are cut. In that same manner, we must heal our past relationships.

Branson commands respect and greatness from those around him. A natural born leader, he is always deep in thought and hungry for more; always one step ahead. He casts a shadow far larger than his body frame.

And it is Richard Branson who taught me about forgiveness. He’ll be the first person to tell you to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Much closer. He’ll even recommend you invite them to lunch.

Check out the Spartan Up! Podcast.

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