Brexit and the oxymoron of political leadership: why should anyone be led by you?

On a recent Friday morning, I awoke shocked like many to find that UK electorate had chosen to exit the EU. As an advocate of Remain, I am still struggling to come to terms with the idea of a ‘divorce’ from what I regard to be a positive relationship with our fellow Europeans on social and economic issues. On the surface, Brexit has all the flavours ranging from nostalgia of self-rule to xenophobia.

Some have attributed Brexit to a political error by Cameron in holding a referendum, poor management of migration policy by the EU and downright misjudgement on how inflammable the issue of migration into the UK has become, such that it became the single-decision issue for most Leave voters.

It is worth reflecting on what caused this surprise result and what we can learn from it from a leadership perspective, as for me, the leadership vacuum on both sides of the debate is my overriding takeaway. As a consequence, the subsequent fall-out from the leading voices in both the Remain and Leave campaigns has left us with some dramatic short-term adverse and unexpected challenges.

The fallout is huge. The Prime Minister resigned with haste and no obvious successor, and the Leave campaign leadership exited themselves with equal undue haste, opting to save their own skins. Multiple Tories crept out of the woodwork murmuring their leadership credentials, whilst the Shadow Cabinet is in open revolt in an effort to oust Corbyn, struggling to survive a coup yet stating he’s under no pressure.

Meanwhile, the ‘rerun the referendum petition’ reached over four million signatures seemingly overnight, and the pound hit a 31-year low against the dollar. And there is talk in Scotland and Wales of total secession. It has been a painful experience to watch events unfurl on such a seismic scale, the like of which we have never seen before.

In business, when something happens of such significance – loss of a major customer or project, a strategic shift in the market, or a factory closure and a round of redundancies, we expect a clear sense of authority and direction to be communicated by the leadership. Someone steps up and reassures us that all will be well, and that this moment, like others before it, will pass. Heads come up, we face the challenge, we adapt, shrug our shoulders and move on.

In the case of Brexit, weeks after a vote demanding a significant change of direction, there remains a total leadership void. Precisely no one has stepped up. Neither side advocating their point of view had a clear game plan in the event of victory or defeat.

If you take one constructive lesson from Brexit, it is a stark reminder of the absolute imperative of genuine leadership. The political turmoil of the last few weeks offers many lessons about how to fail and succeed as a leader. Here are my thoughts on the leadership takeaways from the referendum.

Focus on your people first and second It is clear the Remain leaders failed to create engagement, and build trust. Employee engagement is one of the defining issues in current management debate. With the impact of the millennial generation joining the workforce, more people are simply showing up to pick up a paycheck, while their passion for the business and commitment has waned. They are cynical about business and are more focused on ‘what’s in it for me?’

To turn around these attitudes, business leaders need to stop trying to please their investors, who will never be satisfied, no matter how strong the results, and engage and inspire their people. They should invest in them through training, creative and flexible benefits packages, and create an empowering culture.

Business leaders who ignore their co-workers’ emotions and sentiment do so at their peril. Discontented employees lead to disengaged, fractured workplaces, poor customer experience and consequently mediocre results. The lack of engagement delivered by the Remain campaign showed in the results.

Spend face-to-face time with customers There is no greater place for learning what is going on in your business than being in the marketplace with customers. Leaders who apply all five senses to customer interactions learn more first-hand than they do from reading reports or looking at PowerPoint presentations.

When he became CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman asked his leaders ten questions to see how much time they were spending with customers. Their responses were so embarrassing that Polman challenged them to refocus their entire strategies on customers. This type of customer engagement signals to the entire organisation that the company puts customers first.

Remain discounted the apathy of the millennial generation, which favoured Remain, but only 36% voted. The lack of direct contact, creating real opportunities for listening and sharing concerns, was a weakness.

Think, act and behave with transparency In today’s digitally connected world, anything less than complete transparency creates a lack of trust. Employees expect their leaders to keep them informed about what is going on, no matter how negative the news. When they are not treated with this respect, they turn to external sources and internal rumours for information, which undermines leaders even more.

For example, following staff layoffs, Zappos founder Tony Hsieh wrote to employees: ‘Remember this is not my company, and this is not our investors’ company. This company is all of ours, and it’s up to all of us where we go from here.’ Hsieh’s communications are authentic, transparent, and informal. Honest conversations helped to heal issues. Rather than frowning on problems, Hsieh used them to come up with solutions.

Emotion beats logic, and hope beats fear This is a headline I saw in response to the way in which comments from Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, were dismissed. Carney, like those of us with a technical background, default to logical argument an analysis of the risks that might be faced. However, the Brexit campaign showed how little influence this approach carries with many people.

Since Aristotle’s time, effective leaders have recognised the power of emotional appeal (pathos) as a complement to rational argument (logos). The Leave campaigners focused their message at voter’s hearts not their heads, on patriotism, freedom and fear. The Remain campaigners peddled Aristotle’s third way (ethos) to win an argument, citing the expertise and credentials of their advocates.

However, voters ignored the experts. The underlying point here is that whilst we need to rely on the knowledge of others, in instances like Brexit where the arguments are complex and it becomes unfathomable to determine true ‘facts’, people give up trying to get to the truth, and fall back on gut feel and beliefs overcome conflicting evidence.

Indeed, both sides of the debate offered various ‘facts’ to support their arguments. The pile-up of competing promises and predictions left the public confused at best, cynical at worst. The Leave campaign won over by speaking to the anxiety and pain of people who felt ignored. In the end, it didn’t matter to working class voters that Johnson attended an elite Eton School, what counted was that Johnson’s statements resonated with their own grievances and anti-establishment sentiments

The implications for business leaders is that developed expertise and analysis only gets you so far, if you want to bring people with you, you also need emotional conviction and harness intuition effectively. People care less about facts per se than the implications of these facts to their well-being.

It does no good to deny that humans are emotional as well as rational. A campaign that elicits both emotional engagement and intellectual understanding has a huge advantage over one that appeals mainly to rationality.

A leader is a dealer in hope The importance of being an authentic leader – with alignment of thoughts, actions and feelings as enabling trust to inspire collective action – was clearly shown. Leaders advocating change must speak with sincere heartfelt conviction rather than using rhetoric to demand an obligation.

For me, the leading personalities on both sides were frequently manifested as double-dealing hypocrites, masking their ambivalence about the EU for their own self-promotion and careerist convenience. Credibility and authenticity are closely linked, and people are aware and sensitive to the slightest suggestion of hypocrisy.

Both sides of the debate engaged almost solely in fear-based leadership and scaremongering, reminding us constantly of all the short-term problems and issues associated with the opposing campaign. The Leavers focused on problems and issues with immigration and bureaucracy while the Remainers focused almost exclusively on speculating about the economic fallout from Brexit.

Be a positive, visionary leadership Leadership on both sides failed to provide any positive, coherent vision for the near or long term future of staying or exiting the EU. Their performance lacked vision, cohesion, passion and confidence.

To fully appreciate the power of a unifying vision, recall the powerful example provided by the late South African president, Nelson Mandela, who unified the country with his vision of a ‘rainbow nation’ for post-apartheid South Africa. He never resorted to the tactics of scaremongering and fear of change, rather retained an optimistic and positive vision of a future for all, replacing the dogmas of the past.

To deliver change, leaders need to create trust by addressing the real challenges and dilemmas in a positive, transparent and solutions-focused manner. Leaders should deliberately adopt a more intentional approach about their words and actions and how these impact their business.

Why should anyone be led by you? Formal authority counts for almost nothing in those moments of truth. Leadership is a function of what you say and do that attracts others to follow you. Farage had influence but no authority, following Brexit Corbyn has a formal mandate but no influence within the parliamentary Labour party.

The lesson for business leaders is clear, as recounted in Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones book Why Should Anyone be Led by You? It is a question all leaders should all ask themselves – do people have any reason to follow you, above and beyond what their reporting line tells them to do?

Watching Boris Johnson deliver his speech on the Friday morning exiting his challenge for Prime Minister, you could see from his body language that he was starting to wonder what on earth he had done. He had treated the campaign like an Oxford University debate – clever arguments and put downs, with no cares for the consequences – and now he reaped the rewards.

He once famously said he was in favour of having cake and eating cake as well, but despite being an attractive leader to some, eventually people saw through his ‘style over substance’ approach, at which point, a large chunk of his support dissolved away. He simply lacked credibility as a leader.

The leadership lesson here is stay true to yourself and stay on good terms with those around you. If you become too opportunistic, or if you start making empty promises, you will pay for it later. You aren’t a leader is you don’t have any followers.

‘Political leadership’ is an oxymoron by any measure – enduring and woeful unethical individual behaviours driven by self-interest, the absence of a credible ideology and rhetoric underpinned by convenient metrics just to name a few issues where there is no long-term vision that I’ve seen.

Leadership success always starts with vision. John Kennedy famously dreamed of putting a man on the moon. Eleanor Roosevelt envisioned a world of equal opportunity for women and minorities. Compelling visions can truly inspire people. But there is actually nothing mystical about vision, simply, a vision is a picture of what an organisation could and should be.

A hallmark of great leaders is that their vision includes big ideas. Big ideas get people excited. Nobody wants to do something small. Leaders want to feel that what they do matters – Kennedy’s vision for the space programme was ‘We choose to go to the moon . . . not because it is easy, but because it is hard’.

Great business leaders also know how to paint a vivid picture of the future. They make it look easy. However, most of them have worked hard to develop and articulate their thoughts. A powerful vision, well-articulated, attracts people, motivates them to take action toward progress, unites them to a common purpose and drives breakthrough business results.

A leader’s core vision provides the glue that holds an organisation together through time, consisting of core values and core purpose, ideology shaping the vision, the raison d’être. You discover core ideology by looking inside, and connecting with sincerity, humility and authenticity. You can’t fake it.

What Brexit showed what is needed in our political leaders is this big commitment to emotional and intellectual transparency, and robust validation, such that when people see what their vision is, there is almost an audible gasp, creating an emotional connection to sharing the vision.

Brexit should be a wakeup call for all business leaders. The result and feedback showed Britain’s leaders were out of sync with its voters. Could the same thing be happening with your workers in your business? Are you connected and in touch, creating engagement, creating and sharing a vision? Or are you too intent on achieving your own personal agenda and progress? Ask yourself, ‘Why should anyone be led by you?’

What visionaries see: Vincent saw the corn, Einstein the number, Zeppelin the Zeppelin, and Johan saw the ball.

My grandfather was a Dutchman, and that’s where I get my height – 1.84cm, 6ft 3 inches – the average height of a man from the Netherlands. The fact that I frequently speak Double Dutch is simple an act of clumsiness, not heritage.

The death last week of Hendrik Johannes Cruijff, known to us as Johan Cruyff, rekindled memories of watching the 1974 World Cup with my Grandma from the Dutch side of the family, especially the moment of The Cruyff turn. Cruyff, who died at the age of 68, was one of football’s greatest and most significant figures. The proof lies in two phrases with which he will always be synonymous.

One is Total Football – the style epitomised by the Netherlands team, with Cruyff as the centrepiece, who reached the 1974 World Cup final before losing to West Germany. It was a philosophy based on the theory that any outfield player could play in any position on the pitch with comfort. Cruyff was the embodiment of that supremely skilled, multi-purpose footballer.

At that same World Cup, he performed a piece of skill that remains his calling card forever – The Cruyff turn – when he bamboozled Sweden defender Jan Olsson with a touch of football ballet, allowed him to drag the ball behind his standing leg with the inside of his foot. It combined instinct, quick thinking, athleticism and natural ability. That was Johan Cruyff.

He has left an indelible mark on the game that will live on in the stylistic approach he brought to Barcelona and is maintained to this day his protégé Pep Guardiola. As a player with Ajax, Barcelona and the Netherlands in the 1960s and ’70s, he brought to the game a true breath of genius. As a coach too, he shone gloriously, offering innovation, inspiration and a steady supply of silverware from teams emboldened in his image.

Cruyff in full-flow was a sight to behold. An inch under 6ft, lean but whippily resilient enough to soak up the most brutal physical tackling, he was blessed with exquisite balance and a destructive variation of pace. One second he could appear to dawdle aimlessly, the next he had exploded, probably going for goal.

His most vivid attribute though, was his regal command of the football, as exemplified by the dazzling manoeuvre to which he gave his name. All in the twinkling of an eye, he would dummy to pass or shoot, then drag the ball behind his planted foot with the inside of his other boot before swivelling through 180 degrees and sprinting away, leaving his hapless victim trying to work out what had happened.

To all that dexterity, Cruyff added acute vision and positional intelligence. I always think of being in charge of the speed and direction of the ball. When I don’t have control of the ball what do I do? I press to get it back. It’s a way of defending. But more important is that I like to have the ball. That was Cruyff in 1979, giving birth to the high-pressure pressing game he developed at Barcelona, continued by Guardiola.

It’s like everything in football – and life. You need to look, you need to think, you need to move, you need to find space, you need to help others. It’s very simple in the end he said in 1990, and today we have ‘tiki-taka’, characterised by short passing and movement, working the ball through various channels and maintaining possession.

Tiki-taka moves away from the traditional thinking of formations in football to retaining the ball and shaped the Barcelona style maintained today through Messi, and the passing ‘carousel’ characterised in recent years by Andres Iniesta and Xavi.

Cruyff was obsessed with football from early boyhood and joined Ajax as a youth player after his mother, a cleaner at the club, had sung his praises and persuaded the club to take her 12-year-old son into their youth system.

Cruyff made his senior entrance for Ajax in 1964, and Britons became widely aware of the Dutchman the following season in which the 19-year-old Cruyff touched sublime heights in the 7-3 aggregate evisceration of Liverpool in the European Cup. It was the halcyon early ’70s days, however, that the man called Pythagoras in boots by the British sportswriter David Miller, established his everlasting reputation.

Following a transfer to Barcelona, his international zenith was as Player of the 1974 World Cup, performing and scoring in lordly mode on the way to the final against West Germany. Come the big day he began brilliantly, embarking on a penetrating run and earning a penalty – before the Germans had even touched the ball. Although the Dutch dominated, West Germany bounced back to win 2-1.

Cruyff laid aside his boots in 1984 to take his forceful personality into the coaching arena, retracing the steps of his playing days to serve first Ajax and then Barcelona. He proved to be as innovative off the field as he had been on it, focusing passionately on skills and techniques, introducing fresh routines and specialising in one-on-one work to eradicate individual weaknesses.

As Barcelona coach in 1988 to 1996 he laid the foundations for what we have seen in the last decade of Barcelona’s dominance of European club football. The words of Guardiola, today’s most celebrated football coach, can be used to outline Cruyff’s influence at the Nou Camp: Throughout my career I’ve simply tried to instill what I learned from Johan Cruyff. Johan Cruyff built the cathedral. Our job is to maintain and renovate it.

La Masia, an old Catalan farmhouse built in 1702 was first used by Barcelona to house its youth academy under a Cruyff initiative introduced in 1979. In 2009, Barcelona won the Champions League with eight home-grown players from Las Masia. In 2010, Spain became World Champions with eight players from Barcelona, seven were from La Masia.

Cruyff and his first Ajax and Netherlands coach, his mentor Rinus Michels, together re-imagined the game as a highly skilled, swirling spatial contest, whoever managed and controlled limited space on the field would win. Over time his ideas became the new orthodoxy of elegant, thoughtful creative football. It was Cruyff who made it that way. Cruyff was a visionary leader who could put his ideas into practice on and off the pitch.

Plenty has been written about visionary leadership over the years, but Cruyff’s passing got me thinking: what is it that makes a visionary visionary? There are relatively few people that are universally regarded as visionaries, my list would include Edison, Einstein, the Wright Brothers, and latterly Steve Jobs.

While universally acclaimed, they are often regarded as super-talented genius, outliers that live outside of the range of normal human experience, so what are the traits of a visionary?

They are big-picture oriented & imaginative You can recognise visionaries by their ability to see the big picture in an imaginative way. They envisage a big, bold new future, and imagine future possibilities in their minds and then explain what they have imagined clearly. They imagine concepts in their mind’s eye that others cannot imagine. Through their imagination they can draw future possibilities.

They have strong convictions Once a visionary has an articulated vision, they must have strong conviction if the vision stands a chance at becoming a reality.  Certain visions are extraordinarily difficult to carry out and thus require an extraordinary strong belief in the vision and the visionary’s ability to carry it out. Conviction moves new ideas forward.

Visionaries have a sense of meaning & purpose They are clear about where they are going and what they will have to do to get there. Their behaviour is purposeful and directed. A trait is the willingness to take calculated risks and hold a certain amount of discontent with the status quo confronting naysayers constantly doubting the vision and the visionary.

Visionary leaders have the quality of persistence Following on from their conviction, meaning and purpose, one specific challenge unique to visionary leaders is best expressed by the warning label on a driver’s mirror – objects in mirror are further away than they appear.  Because of the vividness of their visions, visionaries often underestimate the difficulty in bringing the vision into reality or the distance between the present and envisioned outcome, as the vision seems so close and obtainable to them).

Visionaries must possess the quality or attribute of persistence. Unabashed persistence allows them to push through all difficulties. In the end, the difference between a successful and unsuccessful visionary often comes down to drive and persistence.

Visionary leaders make good predictions – they are not dreamers Visionaries build an accurate conceptual model of the future based on their understanding of the present, and then bring that model into reality, creating the future. A visionary’s key ability is not their prophetic sight, but rather the gift to predict accurately from the present into the future and combine with executive ability to carry out the vision – visionaries literally creates the future.  While there is some difference between predicting and influencing the future, possessing the former skill is helpful and the first step to developing the later skill.

They are focused and present, positive energisers Visionaries are exemplars in terms of focus and attention to the moment, to make it happen. They have positive attitudes and positive energy, belief that they can achieve something new and spectacular. This mindset and behaviour enthuses and influences others around them as to the possibilities that they have envisaged. Due to this positive attitude and energising personalities, visionaries are surrounded by positive people who are willing to help them achieve a common vision.

Visionary leaders are highly sensitive A frequent characteristic of visionary leaders is that they are usually sensitive, or taking a different angle, can be awkward, prickly and temperamental.

Cruyff was argumentative, arrogant, dominating and brilliant. He prized creativity over negativity, beauty, originality and attack over boring defending. There were problems along the way. With his belief in the ‘conflict model’ – the idea that you got the best out of people by provoking fights and thereby raising levels of excitement and adrenaline – Cruyff made enemies almost as easily as he generated delight. Battles with club presidents and team-mates led to ruptures.

Like Cruyff, Steve Jobs had a burgeoning personality that at times over spilled, primarily due to frustration. This sensitivity can manifest itself as quirkiness or even in certain cases as mental illness – think for example about Van Gogh or John Nash.

Nevertheless, no other football figure can match Cruyff’s combined achievements in his two principal careers – thrilling, mesmerising presence and performances on the field, then inspiring and hugely influential coach off it. Vision creates vitality, focuses energy and defines purpose.

Cruyff used his brain, as well as his famously agile feet. His rules of the game were simple. If he had the ball, the space on the pitch had to be made as large as possible. If he didn’t have it, the space had to become threatening and small. He adjusted his perspective continually with the movement of the ball.

Toon Hermans, his fellow-countryman, eloquently described his almost spiritual enthronement in Dutch hearts:

And Vincent saw the corn
And Einstein the number
And Zeppelin the Zeppelin
And Johan saw the ball.

Richard Branson would make a great Father Christmas

Christmas might be about many things – jumbo tinfoil, the only time in the year you eat stollen, and wearing cheap coloured paper hats – but if there’s one thing above all others that Christmas is for then it’s lively debates around the festive table with your nearest and dearest. This is because Christmas is supposed to be ‘the most wonderful time of the year’, but everyone has their own unique idea of what ‘wonderful’ consists of.

For some people, it would be playing tennis on the frozen lawns of their Cotswold dower house, for others, putting the Christmas cake on their head and racing around the house against their sister. Yes I did that and ended up in the doghouse as the cake didn’t make a great landing cornering around the dining room table. Still, the dog enjoyed the icing.

Clearly, in a world with such disparate values and beliefs, what Christmas means and how we celebrate it can be sources of intense debate. However, there are a number of key issues we must resolve as far ahead of the big day as possible to ensure it goes well for all involved. In my mind there are five key debates:

1. Slade or Wizard: in the thrilling Merry Christmas Everybody, Noddy Holder intended to write the great working-class Christmas song. With its euphoric debauchery undercut with melancholy, and its Royle Family-like lyrics (Does your granny always tell ya that the old songs are the best? Then she’s up and rock’n’rollin’ with the rest), Merry Christmas Everybody does instil a nostalgic renaissance for Christmases of my youth, notably wandering round Woolworth’s whimsically wondering whether to buy my mum a tin of Quality Street or Roses.

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, meanwhile, is so great that one simply goes along with Roy Wood’s assertion, rather than pausing for a minute and saying Actually Roy, if it were Christmas every day, I’d be really fed up by March, and we’d all have scoliosis from sleeping on the floor in the spare room. There’s something in Roy’s staring eyes that disturbs me too.

Winner: Slade, IT’S CHRIIIIIIISMUSSSSS! although honourable mention for my personal favourite – Jona Lewie, Stop the Cavalry, all together now Dub a dub a dum dum, Dub a dub a dum dum, Dub a dum dum dub a dub dub….Wish I was at home for Christmas

2. Clear or Coloured Fairy Lights: working class people have multi-coloured lights, because they’re ‘great’; middle-class people have clear lights, because they’re ‘classy’ – well that’s what The Times once said, and I’ve never forgotten it.

People who were working class but have become middle class buy clear lights, and then spend the Christmas season feeling vaguely uncomfortable that their tree looks a bit sparse and Puritan. However, my wife’s catholic upbringing means she is too busy lighting the winter candles of Vatican proportions in our house to notice. (note to self: check fire alarm batteries).

Winner: multi-coloured fairy lights. At the risk of sounding treacly, there is just something a magical about bringing a big, riotous burst of colour to a random corner of your living room, or your front porch, or strung across your kitchen window. It changes the whole look of the place. You dim the big lights and suddenly it’s all red, green and blue. Apart from the pointless green ones, which get a bit lost among the greenness of a green tree.

3. Quality Street or Roses: like George Foreman v Muhammad Ali, the ultimate Christmas debate perhaps? Cadbury’s Roses or Nestlé Quality Street?

First impressions from intense personal research is that Quality Street initially seems to be mostly comprised of toffees, caramels and fudges, but the Cadbury box is equally guilty, it also contains six chocolates along this theme. Actually, this is worse, as the Roses box only contains ten types of chocolate while the Quality Street contains twelve.

Ostensibly similar – coffee crèmes, strawberry crèmes, various shenanigans with nuts and caramel – Roses were always well ahead for me, because the only thing going for Quality Street was the Green Triangle which has always seemed like some high-tech sweet, possibly left over from the set of Star Trek.

Thanks to the subsequent rise of Celebrations and Miniature Heroes, both Roses and Quality Street have had to face a radically changed chocolate landscape and adjust their content. For Roses, this has meant scrapping many of the old faithfuls – coffee crème, strawberry crème, toffee penny. Quality Street, meanwhile, has tried to reiterate what it sees as its core values: primarily cheap toffee that takes a filling out.

Winner: Roses. The mighty Caramel Keg is a classic.

4. Best guest for Christmas dinner: At 11pm on Christmas Day, when the number of empty Theakston’s Old Peculiar bottles on our kitchen table resembles a recycling tip of a small English town, we always start to discuss who you would invite for your ideal Christmas dinner guest, obviously bored by present company. Passions are aroused as names are thrown into the discussion, advocates of each lobbying noisily for their choices to be included, but whom would you invite?

I’m pretty sure George Orwell would be a great guest, but he would hate the whole celebratory atmosphere, he’d much prefer a quiet drink at the pub. Karl Pilkington would be there to annoy people with his morose, cynical anecdotes, and then perhaps become just irritating, and maybe Voltaire, because he was witty, good looking and charming – everything I’m not, so you need a balance. Maybe I should have a really serious guest? Someone along the lines of Leo Tolstoy? Perhaps not, could get a bit heavy. I must be in a trivial mood, but at times triviality makes life worthwhile.

Winner: Ernest Shackleton, he would ensure that if we ran out of food and drink he’d launch an audacious visit to the local off licence to secure supplies, whatever the distance and weather, and save us all.

5. Best person to play Father Christmas If someone was to build a passenger-carrying rocket for joy rides into space, would you go? Of course you would, especially if Richard Branson was involved, and he’s be my choice to be Father Christmas – he’s a beardy bloke so already halfway there.

I’ve had some mixed experience with Virgin Atlantic going to the USA, the last time we went the rate of progress through the boarding queue was so slow that technically I was classified as a missing person.

But let’s consider Branson himself. In the 1990s, barely a week went by when we weren’t treated to the unedifying spectacle of Branson’s mouse like little face being winched to safety from some vast expanse of ocean.  His speedboats kept running into logs of wood or his balloons were always too heavy for sustained flight. Shave off the face fungus I thought, that’d lighten things up.

Despite the often-disastrous attempts to go across the Pacific on a tea tray or up Everest on a washing machine, I do like the way he keeps on trying, his boldness and attitude of giving it-a-go and the way he’s made it in business without a pinstripe suit or a predilection for golf or freemasons.

He says he’ll get us into space with Virgin Galactic and I’m up for that although I’m not sure about the £100k ticket price and then getting a seat next to Bob Geldof. I like Bob’s attitude and outspokenness, he’d be goo to chat too I’m sure, but can you imagine what he’d be like complaining about slow in-flight cabin service?

My concern about Virgin Galactic wouldn’t be the perilous spins, loud bangs and crashes of Branson’s previous failures as I sat there, but rather the expectation that every passenger will have to conform to Branson’s relaxed style and only allowed to fly in jumpers and corduroys, with his face beaming out from the safety procedure videos. He’s got nice teeth though.

But recall Fatal Attraction, you thought Glenn Close was dead, you relaxed and then, whoa, she reared up out of the bath with that big spiky knife. That’s one thing Branson doesn’t do. No, not lie in a bath of cold water pretending to be dead, love him or loathe him, he doesn’t sit back and think That’s it, I’ve had enough.  He just keeps on with his self-belief and crashes into the next idea. He never gives up, a dose of Branson’s can-do and will-do attitude is just what we all need to take our businesses forward.

Perhaps the lasting legacy of Branson’s continued success is his focus on identifying new markets and bringing successful customer-oriented business models to them. Within this, there are a number of traits of Branson’s attitude and approach that I admire, and that we could all do well to replicate in our everyday business ‘thinking and doing’:

Do what you want to do What is your purpose, what is your vision? Identify what you want to do and with tenacity and resolution, make it happen. It’s good to be specific – wanting to be rich isn’t helpful as it’s too vague. Your ‘I want to…’ statement only needs to be one sentence, but have clarity and focus.

An entrepreneur is not unlike an artist. What you have when you start a company is a blank canvas, you have to fill it with both the ‘big picture’ and the detail in order to succeed. However, unlike a work of art, a business is never finished, it constantly evolves. Branson epitomises this ‘do what you want to do’ attitude, and gives it a go with every new venture.

Create something that stands out It is not easy to start a company and to survive and thrive. In fact, you’ve got to do something radically different to make your mark today. For me, building a business is all about doing something to be proud of, bringing talented people together and creating something that’s going to make a real difference to other people’s lives. Branson has done this for 40 years, shaking up sectors by doing something that hadn’t been done and by continually innovating.

Then, I think Branson takes three further steps that make him different:

Think big Branson thinks big. He steps outside of his comfort zone, he makes every second count and tries new things taking calculated risks. Branson believes that anything is possible, that everything is negotiable, that rules are made to be broken and that business is a fun and creative way of life.

Think bigger Branson takes his first vision, then stretches it. How can you scale and leverage to increase your total success? Branson believes in thinking bigger, in leading from the front, in action over hope, in making it happen – and in controlling his own personal destiny. He goes for it.

Think biggest Branson is all about the possibilities to keep growing, taking advantage of opportunities to ‘think biggest’. He has a solution-focused attitude, an ambitious and passionate nature, a competitive, enthusiastic, resilient, bold, rebellious and ruthless approach to life. He believes he can.

It’s safe to say that Richard Branson perceives life somewhat differently than the majority, and it is this perspective that drives his thinking and actions everyday. He lives his life on the edge, living life to the fullest, living for the moment, with a work-hard/play-hard mentality. He chases his dreams, backed up by perseverance, imagination and courage, trusting his instincts.

So for me, Branson would make a great Father Christmas, cutting a dash on his sleigh, pulled along by those fabulous reindeer. Of course, whilst he has the beard, the reindeer have no tail – you know the story? Well, once upon a time, a reindeer took a running leap and jumped over the Northern Lights, but he jumped too low, and the long fur of his beautiful flowing tail got singed by the rainbow fires of the aurora – that’s why to this day the reindeer has no tail to this day.

So believe in Father Christmas, believe in yourself, believe in your dreams, and believe in your big, bigger, biggest vision.

Do you have a vision, like William McGregor and Charles Sutcliffe?

Last week’s release of the 2013/14 football season fixtures brought the usual clamour and excitement for the season approaching, as we all searched out for those local derby games and when the games against antagonistic rivals (dirty Leeds United) would be played.

The season ahead is also a special one, with the 125th anniversary of the founding of The Football League, and with an eye on nostalgia, some of the opening day fixtures are to be between the 12 original founding members of the Football League.

My own team, Burnley, will entertain Bolton on the opening weekend of the new season, 3 August. It will be the usual jousting for Lancashire pride, armed with we eat more pies than you and other tribal songs resonating with ribald humour.

The Clarets’ Turf Moor ground hosted games in the inaugural 1888-89 season, and is one of only three original grounds remaining – Preston and Sheffield United being the other two – reflecting the roots of the game in the working class Northern towns.

There will be drama and excitement, disappointment and triumph in league games in the coming months, as players make their mark, but who were the visionaries who pioneered the football industry 125 years ago?

The roots of The Football League can be traced back to William McGregor, then the secretary of Aston Villa FC, who created the league itself, and Charles Sutcliffe, a doughty solicitor from Rawtenstall, Lancashire, who devised the mathematical process for compiling the fixtures and a host of other reforms and innovations in the early C20th.

William McGregor was born in Perthshire in 1846. In 1888 he owned a linen draper’s store in Aston, and was attracted to Aston Villa by their link with the Aston Villa Wesleyan Chapel. He sent a letter to clubs including the line: I beg to tender the following suggestion… that 10 or 12 of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home-and-away fixtures each season.

He wrote the letter in pencil on the back of a draper’s fashion plate and two weeks later all the concerned parties met at Anderton’s Hotel in Fleet Street, London, to discuss the proposals.

It was here that a set of basic principles was agreed. Among these was the stipulation that a team should always field a full-strength side. It is the only one which remains in the Football League’s rules and regulations today (rule 24.1).

A further meeting took place at the Royal Hotel, Manchester, on 17 April. It was there that the name The Football League was born on a suggestion from the representative from Preston, Major William Sudell.

It remains a pivotal point in football’s development because it is the moment when the idea of league football was given a public expression. Before that, the major clubs in England played mainly in cup competitions, with those games supplemented by a series of ad-hoc friendlies.

The McGregor letter is the start of Saturday at 3pm as we know it today. It’s the point at which professional football decides it has to get organised and get regular, reliable income or be strangled at birth.

The inaugural season kicked off on 8 September and was won by Preston North End, who went through the 22-game season unbeaten. They also won the FA Cup and became known as the Invincibles. On the opening weekend, Preston beat Burnley 5-2, but we won’t linger on that.

It was not until the first season reached its midway stage that the points system was agreed. Some clubs felt none should be awarded for a drawn game, but at a meeting in Birmingham in November a motion was passed by six votes to four in favour of two for a win and one for a draw. It was also McGregor who also first suggested the idea of a league table.

It is a little known fact that up to 1968, a Burnley supporter and his son compiled the entire fixture list of the Football League. They were Charles and Harold Sutcliffe, solicitors who lived in Rawtenstall throughout this period.

Charles Sutcliffe was a remarkable man. He developed and perfected a system of working out the full fixture list, which was an arduous task to say the least, especially when one considers that by 1923 there were 88 league clubs. It was a task he performed until his death in 1938 after which his son Harold took over until he died in October 1967.

Sutcliffe joined the Management Committee of the Football League in 1898, serving for 40 years, eventually becoming the President of the Football League from 1936 until his death. Sutcliffe also founded and was the first president of the Referees’ Union.

So two visionaries who shaped the football industry. I’m working with a couple of clients at the moment on the vision for their organisations, do you have a clear vision for yours?

Visioning is a process, not an output. A vision helps inform direction and set priorities for your business. Without a vision how do you know if the direction in which you’re currently heading is the right one? Without a vision, how do you know if the decisions you’re making are beneficial?

A vision isn’t a single statement, it’s a set of ideas that describe a future state of the business. Of course, the future is something that all organisations must grapple with, but the vision should provide a sense of aspiration, and stretch the imagination too.

Visioning is like dipping your toes into the future so you can start to understand what your organisation needs to do in order to achieve future success as you see it, and gives you purpose and direction, and helps to set priorities.

Let’s say you’re setting up a new business and designing a new product to bring to market. Without a vision of what you want to accomplish with your product, you will have a hard time providing direction to your decisions, giving purpose to the countless hours you’ll spend in development, and influencing the various practices to bring the product to market

What are the attributes of a vision for your business? Look back from the future and ask where do we want to be? In the present, ask where are we today? – and the gap is what we need to do to get there?

Let’s get a little more practical and talk about important elements that make up a properly defined vision:

Passion You have to be passionate about your vision, if you’re not passionate about your own vision, no one else is going to be bothered!

When Kennedy announced that his vision was to put a man on the moon, he captivated the American people with his passion. Passion is contagious and if you are passionate about your vision chances are you’ll get others to be passionate about it as well. Your vision may not seem very grand to you, in the same sense as perhaps Kennedy’s vision was, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate about it.

Reality While passion is essential, it’s good to have a helpful dose of reality from time to time. A realistic vision doesn’t have to mean a mediocre vision, Kennedy’s vision was far from mediocre, it was a giant leap for mankind to be sure, but he was confident enough in the capabilities of those involved in the project to get the job done.

It’s important to be realistic, because your vision needs to be attainable, otherwise it wouldn’t be a vision, it would be a dream. But something that’s attainable doesn’t mean it has to have already been attained. You want to stay grounded, but not at the expense that you can’t look above what’s already been done.

Simplicity The simpler your vision is the more attainable it will be, the more complex then the easier it will be to become bogged down in the details. A simple vision doesn’t mean an easy vision, Kennedy’s vision was far from easy, but it was simple enough that the American people could understand it, and simple enough that those around him could develop it.

Go for something great Go for a vision of greatness – something far out there from where you are today, something that is big but also specific, scary but also exciting. Get past the 49 reasons why it won’t work. If the early draft isn’t sounding a little far-fetched, then you probably haven’t pushed yourself hard enough.

Step into the future Visioning works better when you see things from the perspective as if you’re already sitting in the future you’re envisioning. This seems strange, but it really is critical. Don’t write as if your vision going to happen, write as if it already has happened.

A vision with the above attributes is quite simply a picture of what success will be at your chosen point in the future. It encompasses answers to an array of questions: What does our organisation look like? What are we famous for? Why do customers buy from us?

Complete the visioning process, and you’ll have a clearly articulated focus for your organisation, something that won’t change every time the market or your mood shifts.

A vision also makes it much easier to handle the business opportunities that present themselves every day. The calls come in every day, and then we agonise over what to do, without a vision they tend to grab what’s just in front of them.

Having a vision makes decisions much easier: The only opportunities even worth considering are those that are going to help us attain our vision.

A great vision is inspiring. It gets you and everyone in the organization excited to come to work. When we do effective visioning, we’re moving toward the future we want, not just reacting to a present-day reality. If we do our job well in this regard, I believe that we keep our competitors reacting to what we’re doing, instead of the other way around.

Business life is one big road with lots of signs, so when you’re riding over the bumps, don’t complicate your mind, put your vision to reality. Be daring, be different, be impractical in your initial thinking, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imagination against the play-it-safers.

Throughout the centuries there were men and women who took first steps down new roads, armed with nothing but their own vision. So, be a McGregor or a Sutcliffe, get yourself a vision. Make it compelling, challenging, clear and concise, and inspiring.