The Virgin Hotels Grand Opening Party was quite the spectacle. Comely models dressed in Virgin red were posted in every elevator to spare guests the chore of pressing their desired floor button themselves. A Father Guido Sarducci lookalike "priest" took guest confessions (in the hotel's Shag Room, naturally) and immediately posted those confessions for all to see via a tablet hookup to the neighboring restaurant's video monitors. DJs were doing their thing on multiple hotel floors. And servers in retro roller skating outfits were serving the food in Miss Ricky's, the diner on the street level of the hotel.
But the event had one star attraction, one piece (Richard would probably spell it "peace") de resistance: Sir Richard Branson himself.
Some of Branson's visitation with guests was digital, via a special "get in bed with Richard" suite, where ladies (and some gents) could pose as lasciviously as they liked in Virgin Hotels' signature bed and Branson would be added digitally for a racy pic that the hotel shared on social immediately.
But Branson also shared himself with the guests in person. Starting, in grand style, as the star attraction of a parade that afternoon. Branson and an impressive gaggle of frauleins straight out of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" made their way spectacularly down the middle of South Wabash on an elaborate float, re-creating the Danke Schoen scene from the classic Chicago-based hooky-themed movie. (see photo.)
Which was great reinforcement for me of four simple, straightforward, but easy to overlook lessons I've learned from the workings of Branson and his organization. Each of these is, in a sense, a component of this overarching theme: A great leader needs to be a good sport. No matter how exhausted you are in your duties as leader, your people are watching and counting on you, and they deserve no less. (And Sir Richard's elaborate, exhausting day in town promoting Virgin Hotels had started the night before at a Chicago Bulls game where he agreed on zero notice to be a human bowling bowl being sling-shot towards pins via a sled with wheels in a daredevil timeout stunt to promote the hotels.)
Here are the four simple leadership lessons:
1) Give your employees room to act as leaders too, and cheer them on for what they come up with on their own.
Those of us who lead companies tend to be proud of our own abilities in a wide swath of organizational activities. But often it's not worth proving your own technical or creative worth if your staff has already come up with a concept they're enamored with. Case in point: The concept of building a float to re-create the Ferris Bueller "Danke Schoen" scene (with Branson as Bueller) came from an ideation session trying to tie together Chicago-related and Virgin-appropriate themes; when the team presented the idea to Branson, he immediately agreed to participate, rather than micro-questioning and overworking the concept after it was presented to him. (Even though, strange but true, he had never seen the film.)
Now, I have little doubt Branson could have sent the work group back to the whiteboard to come up with 3 or 4 more alternatives that were equally parade-float-worthy, bosomy Chicago-themed crowd pleasers. Yet the initial idea was fine, his people had suggested it, and he fully embraced the idea straightaway.
2) Show up.
Even though Branson is a celebrity CEO (if he's not the most famous entrepreneur in the world I wonder who is), he's fulfilling a traditional function that other great hoteliers-and with the launch of Virgin Hotels he is now firmly a hotelier, though he runs his hotel brand primarily via the brand leadership of hospitality veteran Raul Leal who is his Hotels President-also take on: committing to be at the opening of every new hotel. (Other great hotelier CEOs like Herve Humler at Ritz-Carlton, also never miss a hotel opening anywhere in the world, and Ritz-Carlton has so far opened some 88 hotels globally.)
So, rather than putting on prima dona airs and picking the day for a balloon ride or to oversee the renovations of the mudroom at his latest island acquisition, Branson made sure to be there to cheer on the troops and tell them the values that turn Virgin into Virgin.
3) Share in the unglamorous behind-the-scenes work just like your employees do.
The smiling-in-public part of being a celebrity CEO is hard work in and of itself, but not everybody understands that, so it's good to inspire your team by working hard behind the scenes in the less glamorous parts of the operation as well. Branson, in spite of the rest of his astoundingly varied schedule (it would exhaust me to even list a few of the pies he has his fidgety fingers in) showed up early for rehearsal, where he spent over making sure he was appropriately synced up with the ladies in lederhosen for their musical number.
4) When it's "go time," let everyone get a piece of you.
As a leader, you mean a lot to your people; your presence and your personal interactions, even if brief, with your team and your fans are likely to be the highlights of their night. Case in point with Branson: In the course of the parade a young fan (pre-teen?) jumped atop the Tesla that Branson was grandstanding on top of, and Branson sportingly not only dances a bit with her but swings her upside down in an adorable manner.
And he stuck around at the party so that everybody could get their little piece Richard for the evening, understanding that most everybody at the opening was someone who had in some sense contributed to the hotel and was likely to continue to do so in the future: investors, the arts community with whom Virgin has a special bond, the Virgin Hotels employees and their families, even the artisans who had created the furnishings that enliven the guest rooms at the hotel, were likely to be in attendance.
As a leader, are you as good a sport as Branson is? It's easy to fall into thinking as a leader, whether you're CEO or even mid-level manager, that you're too important or too busy for such frivolous stuff. But it's not frivolous, and you're not too busy. Trust me, and trust Branson.