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Richard Branson’s Great Uncle, and the Road Less Traveled

February 8, 2017


Richard Branson. Sorry, Sir Richard Branson.  Regardless of what you call him, he is without a doubt one of the world's pre-eminent entrepreneurs, philanthropists, humanitarians, adventurers, and visionaries. Record labels, airlines, space planes, kite surfing,…record-breaking balloon trips...the guy has even been knighted. 


How does a guy like Richard Branson, become a guy like Sir Richard Branson. He frequently mentions his biggest influences; his mum, father, English airline entrepreneur Sir Freddie Laker, and Nelson Mandela. But, did you know Sir Richard Branson also cites another foundational influence, his Great Uncle Jim. 


The story - part of a LinkedIn series on mentors -  is a perfect example of how an uncle who doesn’t have the everyday influence of a parent can still play a critical part in the way a young person thinks and feels about the world. According to Branson, his great uncle Jim "didn't have such a personal impact upon my life, but had a huge effect on the way I think about the world."


Branson tells about how Uncle Jim served in the Army in World War II and made a questionable reputation for himself by eating grass, apparently liking it, and thinking it was good for your health too. In fact, a picture in a local newspaper at the time showed uncle Jim… “with his nosebag in hand, eating the hay he had grown in tubs in his bathroom.”


Remember, this was the 1940’s Britain – long before kale and wheatgrass sipping Californians, and genteel man-bun adorned kombucha aficionados in Brooklyn. Today, we’d have captured a video clip of Uncle Jim on our phone, post it, and get him trending, grab some thumbs up, some likes, and maybe some shares. But that's today. This, let’s just say, was a much more serious time. Men were men, not grass eaters. 


Well, everyone but Uncle Jim. 


Obviously, Uncle Jim was teased. But so was and Branson father for his connection to Uncle Jim, “You must be Jim Branson’s son! Here have some grass! You’re a sprightly looking colt. When are they going to geld you?” This comes off pretty harmless in the LinkedIn recounting of it, but it’s not difficult to imagine that the teasing and ridicule was real. Gelded? Really!


What these ridiculers didn’t know was that Uncle Jim was working with a special secret regiment designed to travel light, live off the land, and eat “grass and nuts” behind enemy lines! “After that,” according to Branson, “Dad was more than happy to let the connection be known.”


It's a fun and funny story, but with serious implications not just for the war effort but for the enduring lesson it taught his young great nephew,  “Uncle Jim had also set me a quite wonderful example. Whenever everybody else thinks your idea is absolutely barmy, it could actually prove to be a stroke of genius…Uncle Jim’s example was simply that it is sometimes OK to take the path less traveled.”


Branson continues “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 – 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.”


How far did the ripples of Uncle Jim carom into Branson’s impressive and uncle-inspired life? Perhaps all the way into his nephew's lifelong campaign to say goodbye to the tie, “I often carry a pair of scissors with me, ready to cut off the tie of any unsuspecting wearer…I remain convinced that ties only exist because managers, after spending years being forced to wear ties by their bosses, decide to force the next generation to do the same. They subtly encourage conformity. Most people in business dress the same and that contributes to them acting the same. Wearing a tie really can restrict new ideas and innovative thoughts – not to mention breath!"


Uncles, whether they’re around everyday or only sporadically, be they grass-eating oddballs or of a more normal variety, can have significant and long lasting influence.  These unique “Un-parents” bestow a special kind of impact that most may not even be aware exists. Each uncle, in their own special way, has the opportunity to shape their families and society, endowing a legacy with a richness frequently inaccessible through the parent-child-only, traditional lineage. 



Got a great story to tell about being an uncle, or about one of your special uncle or uncle-like characters in your life?
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February 9, 2017

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