The World Needs More of Richard Branson's 'Hubris'
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There was a tragedy last week. Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight. The co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, died.
Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur, has pushed the Virgin Galactic program as the path to space tourism. For hefty sums, he says, you, too, can see space, becoming one of just a historic handful to leave our atmosphere and aim for the stars. Needless to say, many people have already signed on. Trouble is, Branson doesn't have an approved spacecraft in which to travel, though tests, like the failed one last week, have gone on.
It is a core project for Branson's empire. He muses about it often, believes in it, sees its potential financially, and has been an active part in moving it along -- some would say too active, given the accelerated timetable testing has been under. He has been loud, autocratic, curious and demanding. In short, he has been Sir Richard.
And that is where the criticism lies. Branson, we are told, is driven by profit and hubris. Hubris has made him blind to the perils of space travel, made him recklessly ignore risks and fail to understand all the issues involved. Hubris, after all, is that excessive pride that makes you defy convention and rules and, from Aeschylus to Shakespeare, has led great men to fall. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, for we are underlings, and all that.
Branson's brand of pride, though, is not excessive. It is, rather, a key trait for successful entrepreneurs. You need to believe in your idea -- at all costs. You have to drive your team, first to distraction, often to drink, and then to success. Your ethos has to be in every product you build, every service your provide. If something gets in your way, whether through internal intrasigence or regulatory roadblock, you find a way to blow past the problem. Along the way, you fail. This scenario plays out in every entrepreneurial ecosystem, from small app developers to Virgin Galactic. To put it in theological terms, it is our way of proceeding.
Related: Accidents Happen and Space Is Hard
Of course, when an app fails in beta testing, people don't die. But innovation often leads to tragedy. Look at our space shuttle program, which lost two of its four primary vehicles, and two full crews, in the pursuit of science. It wasn't NASA's "hubris" that caused those deaths, but more mundane, and rather slight, technological flaws, from which engineers learned much.
Yet Branson is the villain here, the modern-day robber baron putting lives at risk in the blind pursuit if his profit, critics say. He couldn't have faced more name-calling if he had actually flown the aircraft himself. (A disclosure is appropriate here: Sir Richard writes a column for Entrepreneur.com, for which we pay him. I don't personally know him, I've never spoken with him, but I freely admit I wouldn't mind being him sometimes.)
Trouble is, Branson is innovating at a time when, societally, capitalists are always the prime suspects in every dilemma. Among the biggest knocks on Sir Richard is that he is trying to commercialize space, trying to line his pockets in this endeavor. He is. Entrepreneurs know there is nothing wrong with that. Profit is a motive in innovation, as it should be.
Related: When Innovation Means Playing God
But, increasingly, we are being told that the pursuit of profit and capitalism itself are somehow wrong, particularly when it comes to large projects like space travel. We saw it with the other recent rocket failure, when Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket exploded in Virginia before its mission to the International Space Station. The corporate nature of these private, for-profit pursuits is what makes them inherently untrustworthy to some. Yet, government's management of similar innovations has been far from spotless. NASA failed often. There is irony that many of the advances made in rocketry that even allow us to reach space today came from the government-controlled projects led by Wernher von Braun. The "noble" government that originally funded that research was run by Adolf Hitler. Braun insisted his goal in developing the liquid-fueled V-2 rocket was to reach space. The government that funded it did so to bomb London, destroy the Allies and exterminate a religion.
It seems silly to even have to say this, but there is nothing wrong with an entrepreneur driving his people to create a better product that customers want, making profit along the way. At bottom, that is all Richard Branson has done -- and one hopes he will continue to do that. No business leader in the world wants the life lost of a single employee, contractor or customer. Branson is too smart to proceed "blindly," as some have posited, with disregard to safety. Safety is a key component of what Branson wants to offer. From a free-market perspective, it has to be. No one will buy a ticket on spaceship with a terrible safety record. Without real safeguards, your business would fail.
Branson knows failure. Everyone learns from failure, but Branson has turned that art into a science. If we let Sir Richard be himself, Virgin Galactic will succeed, tourists will visit space and the act will become so commonplace that tragedies like the failure of SpaceShipTwo, while honored in memory, will be seen as part of the natural evolution of innovation.
Make sure you blame the success of that on Branson's hubris, too.