Sir Richard Branson turns 65: The leader as extreme risk taker

Entrepreneur Richard Branson waves a model of a LauncherOne cargo spacecraft from a window of an actual size model of SpaceShipTwo on display, after Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne announcement in 2012.

Being a risk taker with a creative mind and ability to look at the big picture are top attributes that set Sir Richard Branson apart from other global entrepreneurs, according to academics at the Warwick Business School.

Deniz Ucbasaran, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Warwick Business School, said of Branson, who turned 65 this week:

“Some people consider entrepreneurs to be extreme risk takers and people who have made it from rags to riches.

“If this holds true then Richard Branson wouldn’t qualify. But I suspect few would disagree with the label entrepreneur being associated with Branson. Why? Because Branson spots opportunities – opportunities to improve customers’ well-being, even if on a small scale.

“He clearly has empathy with customer problems and a creative brain to solve these problems.”

“Importantly, however, Branson acts on these opportunities to create value for customers even when faced with the certainty of being challenged by incumbents but with the uncertainty of knowing what shape that challenge will take as well as knowing how to respond.”

Richard Branson spots opportunities to improve customers’ well-being, even if on a small scale. Deniz Ucbasaran, Warwick Business School

“He is able to do this, not because he is a risk taker,” said Ucbasaran, “but because he knows what he can afford to lose and is confident that he can engage the energies of those around him by sharing his vision for a better future for customers.”

Related: Sir Richard Branson on lessons on success from major failures

Challenging authority

Nicos Nicolaou, a professor at the Entrepreneurship and Innovation department of Warwick Business School, believes Branson’s business success can partly be attributed to what is often seen as a considerable learning disadvantage: dyslexia.

“Many people forget Branson is dyslexic, and research has found that dyslexics are often more likely than others to become entrepreneurs,” said Nicolaou.

“This is because they take a more creative and take a holistic view of things. Just look at some of the other hugely successful entrepreneurs: Steve Jobs, Henry Ford and Charles Schwab were, or are, also dyslexic. So dyslexia can be gift that accounts for part of their success.”

“Branson, through his own admission, attributed frustration as a major factor in driving his entrepreneurial spirit at the beginning of his journey,” said Nicolaou.

Like Steve Jobs, Branson was frustrated by the restricted environment of school and college, so instead challenged authority by looking for an opportunity, he stated.

For Branson it was selling records by undercutting the High Street competition, then went on to establish an airline, a mobile network and a rail company, among others.

Nicolaou also cited how Branson was told by his headmaster he would either find himself in prison, or as a millionaire.

“We all know how that story panned out – Branson’s net worth stands at multiple billions,” said Nicolaou.

"It is ultimately that determination to be creative and look at the big picture that has made him such a success story.”

Sir Richard Branson at the Virgin London Marathon

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