I am always amazed by the incredible capacity of the human spirit in the face of adversity - physical, mental, emotional. For the last few days, my friends Glenn and Mindy Stearns have been on Necker Island working with Virgin Unite for a truly captivating Leadership Gathering themed Surviving and Thriving. We spoke about personal and professional struggles, but even more about what it takes to emerge from the darkness to continue fighting. Two amazing musicians, Keith Harkin and Michael Johns, joined the group to remind us that although these gatherings have been established to listen and learn, sometimes we just need to enjoy the company of others and dance.
Captain Charlie Plumb, a retired Navy pilot who spent six years as a POW in North Vietnam, talked of the parachute packers whose invisible work deep inside his aircraft carrier had allowed him to survive after being shot down on his last sortie. Mountaineering legends Joe Simpson and Dr. Beck Weathers each shared riveting experiences of beating the odds and conquering the elements in their fights to survive in dramatic and tragic circumstances. Those were chilling stories, but it was also quite amazing (and comforting!) to hear that the will to live can be a powerful driver of (super)human feats.
Without a doubt the highlight of the gathering were the young, passionate Horatio Alger Scholars. Glenn is a member of this prestigious association, which awards scholarships to American students who have shown integrity and perseverance in overcoming adversity. Six remarkable Survivor Scholars recounted the harrowing hardships they had to face in childhood and adolescence from being born into abject poverty, to enduring homelessness and abuse, to taking on responsibilities far beyond their years. And despite it all, they thrive in their lives, excel in their studies and impress in their commitment to family and community. I really look forward to seeing what comes of each of these remarkable young people.
I walk away from this week with a renewed respect for strength of character and determination to succeed. All of our speakers are living proof that it is possible to survive, persevere and thrive with honor and respect, even in the direst circumstances. It is up to us to cultivate and nourish these essential traits, especially in the next generation of leaders. After Glenn and Mindys wonderful gathering, my mind has turned to the work Virgin Unite is doing with the Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship in South Africa and the Caribbean, empowering a different type of survivor to help themselves.
When thinking about surviving and thriving, the ultimate example is Nelson Mandela. Today on his birthday we celebrate his tireless struggle for human dignity and his lifelong commitment to pursue the greater good. This Mandela Day, I will be spending 67 minutes - one minute for every year of Madibas fight for human rights and social justice - mentoring a group of young entrepreneurs. You can join the celebrations too by making your own pledge and giving a donation to honour Nelson Mandelas legacy.
What are your favourite examples of people who have overcame adversity to survive and thrive?