John Ramstead Podcast

John Ramstead: How Crucibles Led Fighter Pilot and Millionaire Entrepreneur To Help Others Find Significance #7

Warwick Fairfax

January 8, 2020

Devastating crucible experiences robbed him of his lifelong dream to be a Top Gun Navy fighter pilot and bankrupted the multi-million-dollar business he created years later. Then, just when John Ramstead thought he had his life back on track, a freak horseback-riding accident left him with crushed ribs, broken bones in his neck, a punctured lung, and a torturous 23 surgeries during a a 20-month stay in a traumatic brain-injury hospital. In this interview with Crucible Leadership founder and BEYOND THE CRUCIBLE host Warwick Fairfax, Ramstead shares that as physically and financially shattering as those moments were, the emotional toll was even more painful. It was only after finding hope through his reinvigorated faith that Ramstead was able to find his life’s calling: not striving to raise his profile, but working to raise the profiles of others. He now helps other leaders find their purpose through his coaching practice Eternal Leadership, hailed by Inc. as one of the top leadership voices in the country.

To learn more about Eternal Leadership, visit www.eternalleadership.com

Devastating crucible experiences robbed him of his lifelong dream to be a Top Gun Navy fighter pilot and bankrupted the multi-million-dollar business he created years later. Then, just when John Ramstead thought he had his life back on track, a freak horseback-riding accident left him with crushed ribs, broken bones in his neck, a punctured lung, and a torturous 23 surgeries during a a 20-month stay in a traumatic brain-injury hospital. In this interview with Crucible Leadership founder and BEYOND THE CRUCIBLE host Warwick Fairfax, Ramstead shares that as physically and financially shattering as those moments were, the emotional toll was even more painful. It was only after finding hope through his reinvigorated faith that Ramstead was able to find his life’s calling: not striving to raise his profile, but working to raise the profiles of others. He now helps other leaders find their purpose through his coaching practice Eternal Leadership, hailed by Inc. as one of the top leadership voices in the country.

To learn more about Eternal Leadership, visit www.eternalleadership.com

Hightlights

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • The three big lessons Ramstead learned from his life’s many crucible experiences (3:42)
  • How friends and mentors gave him the inspiration and direction to find his road to significance (10:54)
  • How moving past crucible experiences in a team sport (15:09)
  • Why you have to be willing to seek and heed advice to learn and apply the lessons of your crucible moments (18:53)
  • How Ramstead came to discover his true identity after several failed attempts (23:29)
  • The danger of mission drift (25:40)
  • The horrors of the horseback riding accident that nearly killed him (29:38)
  • The importance of leaving a legacy of significance (36:34)
  • How Ramstead found hope in the midst of his toughest crucible (42:07)
  • Why a significant life is the most worthy goal after a crucible experience (48:25)

Transcript

Gary:
Well, welcome to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Gary Schneeberger, your cohost and the communications’ director of Crucible Leadership, and we’re really thrilled that you’re here with us today for what’s going to be, we think, a very enlightening, very inspiring conversation. With me as always is the founder of Crucible Leadership and the host of Beyond the Crucible, Warwick Fairfax. Warwick, we’ve got a good episode today.

Warwick:
Absolutely. Very much looking forward to it and thanks John so much for being here.

John:
Yeah. My pleasure Warwick.

Gary:
The John that Warwick referred to is John Ramstead, and I’m going to introduce him in a minute, give him the introduction that he deserves, but we have a little form that we use here at Beyond the Crucible to ask people their background and experience and one of the questions we ask is what has been the crucible experience that has most shaped your life? That’s one of the questions we ask, is we focus on crucible experiences and overcoming those. Learning to leverage the lessons of those who live a life of significance. We asked John like we ask everyone what has been the one crucible experience that has most shaped your life? And John’s first answer was, “There are many.” With a smiley face emoji.

Gary:
So, that will give you a just a little bit of taste, listener, for what we’re going to hear today. John’s had some robust crucible experiences and we’re going to unpack those and talk about those and I think you’ll find some great insight there for your own efforts to move beyond crucibles, to live a life of significance. So, let me tell you who John Ramstead is. John has been married for 30 years to his best friend, Donna and has three incredible boys. It has been eight years since a near fatal accident changed the trajectory of his life. Without the incredible support of God, his family, and amazing friends he would not be the person he is today. As he recovered, John sought discernment as to why God saved him and what he now wants him to do. God gave John a clear new calling, pour the life he’s been given into others, leaders to equip and inspire them for work in his kingdom.

Gary:
John’s deep faith in his many years as a Navy fighter pilot, entrepreneur, Fortune 500 leader and board chair have been redirected into an amazingly successful coaching practice and popular leadership podcast. He has been named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 12 leaders to listen to. That is very impressive, John. So Warwick, take the reins and let’s dive into John’s story.

Warwick:
Yeah. I mean that really is impressive from what you’re doing now with the Eternal Leadership and Navy fighter pilot, software company. I mean, you’ve done a lot and you’ve had a number of crucible experiences. You’ve almost run the gamut from business challenge to challenges in the Navy and then more recently horse riding accident. I mean, you get the whole concept of crucible experience. You probably understand it more than you’d like to, I’m guessing.

John:
Yeah. Warwick, I’m a lifelong learner. So, I need to create opportunities to learn.

Warwick:
I think you’re probably saying, “If there’s somebody out there, I’ve got it now. Okay. No more lessons, please.” But, yeah. Have you wanted to start… Tell us a bit about your story in particular, your crucible experience/experiences.

John:
Why don’t we start back at the beginning?

Warwick:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

John:
I just remember, growing up it was really interesting. I guess one of the big things I’ve learned, if I actually would look at this thread that runs through everything and how I’ve been able to keep moving forward I guess is really these three areas. The first one is always being able to have worthwhile goal or dream, a destination that I’m striving toward. The other one was trying to really understand who I truly was, not who everybody else thought I should be or even the person I saw in the mirror relative to maybe who God saw there often was a big gap. I really think the bigger the gap in our life between our real self and our ideal self, the more stress and anxiety that we feel. In aviation also it is impossible to navigate or even make course corrections unless you have a True North.

John:
You have to have something that allows you to either set a course or make a correction if you get off course, and there’s been times in my life where I’ve been in touch with all three or I’ve let them go, and I think that’s where I’ve gotten off in challenges, but just early on Warwick, it was absolute dream of mine when I was a little kid to be a fighter pilot, but I’ll never forget it. As I was four years old, I was crawling up the stairs of… My folks had just bought a new house. It was under construction. I’m halfway up the stairs to the second floor and I can see through the stairs all the way down into the basement, and I was convinced I was going to fall through the gap in the stairs and crash into the basement. I absolutely froze, my dad sitting there encouraging me, and I started shaking.

John:
He comes down and carries me to the top of the stairs. That made such an impact. Even when I was in middle school, when the house was finished and they’re closed in and carpeted, I’d have to run up those stairs two at a time to get to my room. I had this crazy fear of heights to the point where I didn’t even want to play with any of the kids in the neighborhood. They even just stopped coming to play with me and so how I internalized all that is, I’m just this loaner, this outcast. Nobody likes me, and so that’s where I started and I have this dream of being a fighter pilot. I’ll never forget. It was my senior year in high school, I didn’t have a lot of friends because how I saw myself and our class trip we decided we’re going to go cliff jumping. I’m like, “Oh my God. No.”

Warwick:
Oh, no. That’s awful.

John:
I’m like, “That’s the last thing I want to do, but this is going to be the last thing I do in high school.” So I get to this Taylors Falls, Minnesota. Gary might be familiar with it on the other side of the State.

Gary:
Yep. Yep.

John:
And I’m at the top of this 100 foot cliff. My fear is keeping me totally away from the edge. Nobody is going to jump off this thing. I’m like, “Okay, good. I’m not alone.” I look at my one good friend and I said, “Dude…” I was kidding by the way. I said, “Dude, we should jump off the cliff.” He goes, “Great idea.” Grabs my wrist and runs toward the edge, dragging me all the way. The next thing I know, I am airborne, I am weightless, I’m terrified. It was two and a half seconds till I hit the water. It felt like eternity.

Warwick:
How high do you think those falls were? I mean, it was-

John:
It was 100 feet.

Warwick:
100 feet. Right. Right.

John:
It was 100 feet. There was a plaque there.

Warwick:
Oh, no.

John:
So when I hit the water, because I went back and calculated it was 52.7 miles per hour, and here’s what happened. What started to shatter this identity that I had built that I can’t make big choices, I can’t do cool things, it just started to change things. So, when I was in college on a ROTC scholarship, I took a huge bet on myself to be able to go and apply for Navy flight school. I was on a ROTC scholarship. You’re there outside of Annapolis with the Naval Academy as I got into the Naval Academy, but what I found out is they don’t have beer there Warwick. So I went to college on a ROTC scholarship.

John:
I ended up getting into flight school and it was a very long process, put in a ton of work, but I ended up getting orders to fly the F-14. You can see the picture up here behind me and went and flew in Desert Storm. It was the end of my cruise, we’re coming back toward where I was stationed in Japan. We pulled into Australia, Sydney, and Perth a number of times. I’m walking out of my commanding officer state room. I’m absolutely on cloud 9. I’ve never been more fired up my life because he told me that, “You John, are getting the orders to go to Top Gun. You’re the guy.”

Warwick:
Wow.

John:
I couldn’t even sleep that night.

Warwick:
I imagine.

John:
Now the next weekend I’m playing softball and I hear somebody yell, “Watch out.” I turned, and a line drive was coming screaming straight at my head. I couldn’t get out of the way and it hits me in the right eye. I have a blowout fracture to my eye and nerve damage gives me double vision. I lose my medical clearance and within 12 months the Navy had processed me out and here I am. This is my first real big crucible moment. I can’t find a job anywhere. I’m a pilot who can’t fly. I’m an engineer, I have electrical engineering degree and I don’t know how to engineer. So I got a job selling cell phones.

John:
So I’m knocking on doors in the neighborhood near the Navy base hoping somebody’s at home to sell them a cell phone and the sounds of my dreams are roaring overhead and I’m looking up there going, “That’s where I should be.” I think that was one of the lowest points in my life. When your dreams are ripped away, your identity, because being a fighter pilot was my identity. That was ripped away. I didn’t know who I was. I had no idea how to set even a next goal. I was functionally depressed. I wouldn’t say I was suicidal, but man, I was probably about as close to that depth as you can get and I had to rebuild my entire life and I didn’t know how to do it at that point. That was my entry into my first crucible moment.

Warwick:
What were you feeling? I mean, were you angry, depressed? Like, “How could this happen?” Were you thinking to that guy that said, “Hey, watch out.” “If he hadn’t said watch out, the ball might have hit me on the side of the head. Maybe it would’ve had a concussion, but it wouldn’t have hit my eye.” I mean, what were the thoughts that were going through your mind when this happened?

John:
Oh yeah, I blamed him, but then he actually perished in an accident. It was a very dangerous profession, but I did realize that, that’s not his fault, but let me tell you, so this is the power of just being in community, I think even a podcast like this because I know a lot of people might feel like, “Man, I’m in the middle of the storm right now.” There was a gentleman who reached out to me during this time who didn’t know me and just took an interest in me and he started mentoring me. He introduced me to some of his friends that had mentored him, so now I have these three amazing guys that are all successful. One is a doctor, one is a lawyer and one is an education and they just on their own started spending time with me. What am I good at? What do I want to do next? Starting to connect to who I am.

John:
You know what? These guys were all Christians, they’re all believers, because at the time I’ll tell you this, I would have never stepped foot in a church. I was mad at God. I was mad at life. I was mad at the Navy. I mean, what do you do? You’re in denial and I had no idea what was next, but they started getting me help just to get some clarity on what are some of those things that I’m passionate about because you can’t fly anymore. What are those things that you’re good at? What would be fulfilling? I couldn’t think long term at the time but just in the short term other than making a paycheck and these three guys helped me absolutely reconnect at the time to the best I could to who I was, and that’s when I moved back to Minnesota from San Diego because I was in the Navy in San Diego, to start a company with my friend, and it was these three guys because they had helped me so much that actually led me to my faith and I got to tell you, they are still in my life, Warwick.

John:
My wife and I a few months ago, because this was, oh my goodness, this was in ’94. So what’s that? 25 years ago. We flew back to San Diego just a couple months ago and me and the three guys, their wives and my wife. So the eight of us all spent a weekend together and I just wanted to celebrate with them that the fact they took their eyes off themselves and focused on me when I needed the most, they changed the entire trajectory of my marriage, my faith, how I parented my kids, how I started to get a sense of self worth. So, I’ll tell you this, at the time I didn’t realize it, but two of those guys at the time were going through some pretty hard stuff. That’s also something I’ve learned is when you’re in a crucible moment helping others that are in that moment too helps you focus outside of being in your head, and I got to tell you, that has been a big deal for me.

Warwick:
I mean, what you’re saying is so profound because I’ve certainly found as I’ve used my own crucible experience of losing 150 year old billion dollar family business, which was really more than the money, just losing a business that was founded by a strong believer. I mean it was just devastating, and it took me years, probably a lot longer than it did you, but to think of it that way and begin to help people, but when you think about those three other guys, it feels almost like a miracle. You should probably ask yourself, “What would have happened to my life if those three guys hadn’t come in to my life?” I’m sure you’ve probably thought about that, right? I mean, what would the trajectory of your life have looked like without them?

John:
That’s a tough question. Well I’ll tell you this though Warwick, because it definitely still took years. I mean there was times even 10, 15 years later, that question that people love to say, “Hey, if you could change one thing…” And I hate the question because guess what? You can’t.

Warwick:
No.

John:
I might be able to go back and say, “Okay. Did I learn something different?”

Warwick:
Right.

John:
But I got to tell you that decision to get out of the Navy because they did tell me if you stay in and it gets better, here’s insult to injury. So take the crucible moment and go out of the frying pan into the fire.

Warwick:
Yeah.

John:
They said, “If you stay in the Navy, you can’t go back into a flying job right now because you have double vision, but you can stay in and we would put you as part of a ship’s crew for a year. Now, if the day you got those orders your vision came back, you’d still have to finish up the year.” Okay. So I chose to get out. I actually made the choice instead of giving it a go. Six months after I get out, what do you think happens?

Warwick:
Your eyesight’s okay.

John:
The double vision goes away.

Warwick:
Oh, no.

John:
So if I had stayed in, I would’ve had a career as a fighter pilot. I’d probably be an Admiral today, and that was just always haunting me. What I realized as I got older, I had to start looking at, I guess life circumstances, right? And realize that it’s not a success or failure. I didn’t fail in making that decision. I had to start saying everything has a context. Everything has a reason. Everything is actually preparing me. This is how a lot of growth and maturing you can tell, is preparing me to do today. If some of those experiences had not happened, I hadn’t had to work them through, I know for a fact, there’s people that I’m coaching and working with today, I would not be able to serve as well had I not gone through something like that.

John:
Now it’s a lot easier to look at some of those things in hindsight versus when you’re going through them, but when you’re going through them and even makes it like harder, but I got to tell you those three guys reaching out to me, you know what? And if you don’t know anybody who’s out there listening, nobody’s ever reached out to me and said, “Hey, let’s grab coffee.” How about this? Because I’ve had to do this in some other moments is go find somebody at church, somebody who might be in your rotary group, an old friend and just say, “I need to talk. I need somebody to help me just process through some of these things.” Because what I’ve found is going through crucible moments, it is a team sport and if you don’t have somebody there with you, I don’t know how I would’ve done it, trying to do it alone, if that makes sense.

Gary:
And this is an interesting point that you both just brought up in the anecdotes that you were sharing. Warwick, you said that your crucible experience and you had an aside, you said it probably took longer than you John. John, you then said that this happened a couple of decades ago and you’re still going through it. It’s important for listeners to hear that when you’ve had a crucible experience, as Warwick says, it changes the trajectory of your life and that is often, maybe frequently, maybe most of the time, not a quick, easy, it’s over and done after a little bit of a process. One of the things that we talk about at Crucible Leadership is a refining cycle. Something that you go through as you assess what your vision is, how to make your vision a reality. Those are things that are constantly in churn as you’re going through experience, and it sounds John, like that is exactly what happened to you. It was not, “Okay. My health has been restored, guys who helped me out, let’s go do something different.” You’re still in some ways walking in that aren’t you?

John:
Yeah. Warwick, wouldn’t you say it’s almost like a grieving process because you lost-

Warwick:
Yes.

John:
… that opportunity, that part of your life, that piece of your identity and I don’t know, maybe others can, but I’ve never been able to just flip a switch and go, “Okay. Well, next.”

Warwick:
No. I mean-

John:
I’d like to be able to do that, but I don’t think that’s the way it works.

Warwick:
I think what you’re saying is so profoundly true. I mean, we’re very different. I’ve never been in the Navy, but that sense of, my whole life I was groomed to go into the family business, I did my undergrad at Oxford like my dad and other relatives, worked on Wall Street, went to Harvard Business School. It was all about preparing myself. It’s funny, I’ve never been in the military, but the whole duty, honor, country thing, I mean I’m wired that way. My life may be over in the process, but I will give it up for the cause. I mean, I don’t know if that’s a healthy or unhealthy way of thinking, but I’m certainly wired that way. So yeah, when I came to faith in Christ when I was at Oxford, the whole idea well clearly there’s a plan is to resurrect the company in the ideals that the founder who was a strong businessman for Christ, elder of his church, you could ever find.

Warwick:
So when that went under, it was a bit like you with the Navy. It was a grieving process, and one of the things you said, I think will be very helpful for listeners to reflect on is I’ve thought, because I’m a very reflective person, what if I’d handled things differently, hadn’t done the sort of ambushed take over, I talked to my family members, here’s what I’m thinking. I don’t know that it would have worked, but you never get to play out the what ifs. I think that for me, I’m not really wired to run a huge company. It was probably good that I wasn’t involved, but you never get to play out the what ifs. If I’d made different decisions, the person I am now would have handled things a lot differently than when I was 26 years old would have made different decisions, but you don’t know if it would have made things better or worse because there were inherent challenges there.

Warwick:
So, the first thing I think is really, you never get to redo all of this. So it’s important to reflect, but you can’t reflect in the sense of what could have happened. It’s unknowable. The other thing you said which is so profound is being willing to get advice. I know a lot of people, especially when I was that age, that don’t like to listen to older people. I never was like that. I had older folks who were mentors and over the course of my life, it’s so helpful. Input is so good. So, yeah. That’s so helpful what you said, John.

John:
Thank you.

Gary:
So, among the crucible moments that you listed John, when you said that there are many, first one was obviously your Navy experience and it’s fascinating to me because Crucible Leadership talks about overcoming crucible moments that are both failures and traumas, tragedies, things that happened to you. Clearly this accident was something that happened to you, it was a physical thing, but you go on to list some failure type situations that are more related to your business experience. You say that your first entrepreneurial venture with a friend imploded. That you started a software company working 80 hours a week to have it wiped out when the economy crashed. Listeners who have had either one of those experiences, you’ve had both of those kinds of experiences in your life. You’ve had failures-

John:
Yeah. Thanks for bringing that up Gary.

Gary:
… and you’ve had…. Well, but we bring it up only because it can help the folks who are listening in. So, you get beyond the accidents, you get beyond your career in the Navy, you launch into a career in business and crucibles find you there. What was that like?

John:
That was a really challenging time. My eyesight had come back. I could have gone and flown for the airline. So I actually decided to go do that and my first year as an airline pilot, I made $16,000. Think about that.

Gary:
Wow.

John:
Okay. That’s the guy flying you around and we had two kids and my wife wanted to be a stay at home mom. So, I moved back to Minnesota. My friend said, “Hey, help me start this company.” And what I decided to do is I didn’t know which one I wanted to do, fly or entrepreneur. I bid to fly only on weekends and I would work every week day at this company. So, literally for two years I did not have one day off because as a junior airline pilot, you get all the holidays. Now I started making more at this company. I was still healing even though I had this great mentorship. Warwick, you said it takes time. I was still not in a good place. I mean, I was still bitter, resentful. I would argue. I had my approach on how I thought things should go. He had things that he wanted to do. They were often at odds. Going into a partnership it’s like going into a marriage. I didn’