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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

Highlights

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

John R:
Yeah. My pleasure Warwick.

Gary S:
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 S:
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 S:
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 F:
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 R:
Yeah. Warwick, I’m a lifelong learner. So, I need to create opportunities to learn.

Warwick F:
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 R:
Why don’t we start back at the beginning?

Warwick F:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

John R:
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 R:
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 R:
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 F:
Oh, no. That’s awful.

John R:
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 S:
Yep. Yep.

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

John R:
It was 100 feet.

Warwick F:
100 feet. Right. Right.

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

Warwick F:
Oh, no.

John R:
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 R:
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 F:
Wow.

John R:
I couldn’t even sleep that night.

Warwick F:
I imagine.

John R:
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 R:
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 F:
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 R:
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 R:
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 R:
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 F:
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 R:
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 F:
No.

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

Warwick F:
Right.

John R:
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 F:
Yeah.

John R:
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 F:
Your eyesight’s okay.

John R:
The double vision goes away.

Warwick F:
Oh, no.

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

Warwick F:
Yes.

John R:
… 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 F:
No. I mean-

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

Warwick F:
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 F:
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 F:
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 R:
Thank you.

Gary S:
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 R:
Yeah. Thanks for bringing that up Gary.

Gary S:
… 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 R:
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 S:
Wow.

John R:
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’t know any of this.

Warwick F:
Right.

John R:
And through that we ended up, just because there was this constant tension between he and I not only driving the company into the ground, but it ended up destroying that friendship, and by the way, that was the guy that I jumped off the cliff with back in high school.

Warwick F:
Oh my gosh.

John R:
So I mean, this was a close friendship. It was hard. I blamed him 100%. It was all his fault. How dare he, I’ll guarantee that he felt the same way. Now coming out of that train wreck because I was like, “Okay. What’s next?” Now there was a gentleman who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself and he wanted me to come on to a startup data mining software company to be head of sales and operations for North America. I felt like I had completely out kicked my coverage. Right? But I got to tell you what. So I figured, you know what? I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but I have my electrical engineering degree. I know how to learn and I can outwork anybody around me. So yeah, I put in 60, 70, 80 hours a week. For two and a half years, we took this from an idea to a million dollars a month in sales.

John R:
My personal net worth on paper was $17 million. My wife and I were doing the happy dance. We have our golden parachute. We’re already planning this amazing future, what we were going to do, what we were going to give away, and then the internet bubble popped and within 90 days we closed the doors on that company. So everything I’d put in, all my own personal money gone, starting over again, and I’m like, “What the heck?” I mean, come on, fighter pilot, my first attempt, my second attempt, it’s like, man, I just didn’t get the entrepreneur gene, but I got to tell you it was in that moment as I’m really picking up the pieces, I’m like, “You know what? I’m not going to be an entrepreneur anymore. I’m just going to get a job.” But that’s when that understanding of really connecting to having a worthwhile destination, that goal to really understanding not only who I was, but who Christ sees when he looks at me. What is my true identity? Because there was a gap.

John R:
There was a huge gap between who I was, who I wanted to be and who others saw me as, but I also had a connect to that True North, and for me that was really reconnecting to my faith, and what happened is I ended up getting a job at a Fortune 100 technology company just as a sales rep. I did not want to have people reporting to me. I wanted to show up, punch in because I was hurting. I was licking my wounds, but what happened was, I think when you’re kind of wired to leadership and you have some good people skills, I kept getting promoted into district management, area management on and on and on, and it was in that period of time I also was seeking out mentorship. In the beginning, I was really connected to these concepts of keeping my goals and dreams focused in front of me. What’s important, that True North and who I was. Over time as I started getting promotions and more pay and accolades and things like this, I started giving myself the credit instead of giving God the credit and I drifted away from these.

John R:
Instead of being the person I wanted to be that was my true self, I started adapting to who I thought they wanted me to be, who I thought I should be, right? My True North became the priorities of the company versus my own and the goals were honestly just to get more recognition and make more money, and you can imagine that was a place instead of getting slammed off course, like kind of happened earlier in my career, that set myself up to just slowly drift because I went from this technology company to take a promotion, to go to a Wall Street. I worked on Wall Street Warwick, for a number of years, but I would tell you that during this period of time I drifted so much. Instead of taking my plane off to land in LA, I was ending up somewhere over Antarctica, just drifting aimlessly and I didn’t know how to get back.

Warwick F:
And this is again such an important point for listeners to realize there’s a book you may have come across called Mission Drift. It’s more of a faith based perspective, but just here, sometimes we get slammed in the face so to speak, or at least he literally did, but sometimes a bit like the analogy of a lobster boiling, it’s slowly dying. It doesn’t realize it and that’s very often what happens in life. Sometimes people believe that it’s a battle between good and evil and you can look at it that way more generally. It’s just easy to get off track. You have this goal, an ideal, and you get promoted and get more money and typically, you don’t wake up one morning and say, “Yep. The True North is going to go in the garbage can.” Right? “I’m going to ditch all that.” And you never consciously said that bit by bit, and so that’s all of us. We can all be that. We have to really on a regular basis, get in touch with what is our True North? What is our overall vision? Have people around us that’ll shoot straight with us.

Warwick F:
For me if I had those people, sometimes I ask, well if you could ask yourself all those tough questions because like you, I do a lot of executive coaching, back in my newspaper days, would that have helped? And I said, “Well, back then I don’t know that I would have listened frankly. Probably wouldn’t have.” But you never know. But anyway, that’s such an important point. I know, we want to focus a bit on just what you’re doing now and just some of what you’ve mentioned that last crucible experience, which is a huge one, was it 2010, 2011? You had a-

John R:
Yeah. 2011. So, I had drifted to this place over Antarctica, I call that the land of smoldering discontent.

Warwick F:
That’s well said.

John R:
Right? I think I was in a crucible moment, yet I didn’t realize it Warwick, right? Because everything from the outside looked great but I was so disconnected. I mean, I recently saw a survey, there was 83% I think of the Americans that on Sunday night before going to work have a mental or physical negative reaction just thinking about work. That’s where I was at, and so I was stuck. I actually just left the Wall Street firm to start another company with some amazing people. I figured this is what was going to fix my discontent, starting another company, amazing team. I’d been there for five months and I get invited to go to a business retreat up in Montana. I’m in Colorado up at this ranch and I get saddled on a horse.

John R:
We’re going to go for a docile trail ride to the back to have lunch and all of a sudden my horse had other plans. He started trotting away from the fence out into this big open area and all of a sudden he bolts and he takes off and I’m laying flat on my back and his rump is pounded me in the shoulder blade and I was scared to death. I was going to flip off the back of the horse and get kicked in the head. So, the only thing I could think of, and that was to squeeze with my legs as hard as I can. Now all the horse people in the audience know exactly what I just did. Are you horse people?

Warwick F:
No.

Gary S:
I’m not. I have a-

John R:
Okay. So when you squeeze a horse with your legs, you are telling him to go faster.

Warwick F:
Oh, no.

Gary S:
Ooh. I hadn’t known that.

John R:
I’m a guy, I didn’t read the owner’s manual, I’m just telling you right now. So-

Warwick F:
That’s so funny.

John R:
… so, he responded, man. He hit full afterburners. He launched and I’m just hanging on. I get my weight back up in the saddle and I’m looking straight ahead and there’s a steel corral fence about 60 yards in front of me and we’re heading straight at it. So I reached down and it’s clear to my left, I grabbed the reins and I pull him to turn. I’m like, “No big deal. I don’t like going this fast on a horse, but we’ll get him to turn.” And he pulled his head straight back and didn’t even break stride. I was like, “Oh. Oh.” So I grabbed the rein, I pulled even harder and he snaps his head back and goes even faster. I didn’t even know he had another gear. He did not break his direction. He was still at the fence. I literally started panicking like, “I got to jump off this horse. If I don’t jump off this horse, I’m going to break my neck. I don’t want to break my neck.” Literally. I mean, I’ve been in combat, I’ve raised three teenagers.

John R:
I mean, nothing has prepared me for this moment and all of a sudden I had this moment of clarity. Everything slows down. Full speed. Wind in my hair, hooves thundering 20 yards in front of the fence, and I remember thinking very clearly, this is not going to end well and that’s the last thing I remember. The horse goes into the fence and he drops his butt, he bucks so hard, he flips over and he slams into the fence. Rump first, hurts himself, but when he does that, he launches me Superman face first into a three inch steel beam that hits me across my skull from my teeth up through my left eye socket and I lost eight teeth.

Warwick F:
Oh my gosh.

John R:
I broke every bone in my skull virtually except for my jaw and my right cheekbone. I broke my neck, I shattered my shoulder and then the second bar down hit me in the rib cage. I crushed the entire left side of my rib cage. I broke four ribs and punctured my left lung and we found out later from multiple doctors at Level 1 trauma center, “That what happened to you is not survivable and even if you had survived, the best case scenario you should have been like Christopher Reeves for the rest of your life.” In their estimation.

Warwick F:
So they thought that you-

John R:
So what happened was-

Warwick F:
… should either be dead or a quadriplegic?

John R:
Dead or quadriplegic. Absolutely. Just the damage that was in my head, neck, skull, everywhere. I woke up on the ground in more pain that I can even put into words. The people around me were holding down my head, my shoulders, my hips. I could feel their hands. I could hear them talking, praying, event with Dr. James Dobson from Focus on the Family. I didn’t know that I was just screaming and yelling and riling around. I was trying to get away from the pain. You know that saying, God won’t give you more than you can handle?

Warwick F:
Yeah.

John R:
It’s not true. That’s my opinion.

Warwick F:
Yeah. I hear you there.

John R:
That’s where I was and all of a sudden in that moment of being beyond what I even could conceive, that I could endure, I was in God’s presence and it was the most intense and unconditional personal between father God and me, John love. It was almost like the fabric of the universe was made out of this love and I got to touch it. I didn’t even know how bad my body was crushed. When I felt God’s presence, the first thing I thought was, “I am not worthy of somebody loving me like this.” That was the first thought I had and then I felt this peace, you know that peace that passes all understanding that you hear about?

Warwick F:
Yeah.

John R:
It was washing over me like being at the edge of the beach and you’re right there at the edge of the sand and the waves are coming in. It had a weight to it, it almost had a color to it. I almost want to say purple, but that’s not right, but as this washed over me, all that pain and panic and fear was completely gone. It wasn’t even a memory. I mean it was just gone and then God spoke to me, but one thing I do want to share with you in that moment, one of the things reflecting back on it was that relationship that he already had with me, that he was inviting me into, everything I’ve ever done in my life, good, bad, ugly, whatever, was not even relevant to his love for me and the relationship he has for me. That was a profound revelation for me was that this isn’t something I could have earned or had a better relationship if I had done things maybe differently in my life.

Warwick F:
Oh.

John R:
The other thing that was profound for me too was understanding in that moment the true nature of God, because somebody asked me, “How would you have described him in this moment?” And I said, “The first word that pops into my head is a friend.” And my whole life I always thought of God like the commanding general, right?

Warwick F:
Sure.

John R:
He’s got your back, he’s got your best interest in mind, he sets everything in order, but you don’t go up to him and say, “Hey sir, I’m having a bad day. Can I have a hug?” It just doesn’t work that way in the military. That was how I viewed him. Anyway, so then all of a sudden he spoke to me and it was words that came from everywhere and nowhere, and it wasn’t to my ears. It was just flowing through me, and what he said was, “All things work together for good for those that love the Lord.” Which comes from Romans 8, and then he said, “John, I’m going to heal you and use this for my glory. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

John R:
As soon as he said that, I knew my left eye was permanently blinded. It still is today. All the bones behind the eye sockets shattered and severed the optic nerve, and then I woke up and I just said calmly to everybody there, I said, “God’s here. You don’t have to worry. It’s going to be okay.” And they’re like, “Ah. Wah.”

Warwick F:
“How can you possibly say that?” That’s what they were thinking.

John R:
The EMT didn’t think I was going to survive till life flight showed up.

Warwick F:
Wow.

John R:
But here’s what I learned through that was I’ll never forget, I ended up spending five weeks in ICU and then 20 months at a specialty hospital here in Denver with a severe traumatic brain injury. I had 23 surgeries. I had my skull taken off a couple of times for some craniotomies. I mean, it was a mess. My wife was my caregiver. I mean, there’s so many things we could probably talk about, but here’s one thing that really was transformative for me was laying in the hospital bed, the neurosurgeon walks in and says, “We need to do an emergency craniotomy. All right. John’s just not going to make it.” He’s explaining all the reasons. Here’s what I heard, even though I just been in God’s presence, what I heard was, “The chances of John making it are very low.” What he told my wife is also, “The chances of him being the person you remember are not very good.”

John R:
And then he asked my wife if I had a current will and living will and we had just redone it. I was supposed to sign it literally after I got back home from this trip from Montana, she explained that to the neurosurgeon. He goes, “Well, we can wait. It’s important. We can put off the surgery till the morning. Can you go call your attorney and see if we can have it FedEx up here.” Which is what they did. I actually signed it. I don’t even know if it had been legal. So they leave the room. I’m laying in my bed, even though God had just told me he’s got a plan for me. What I’m convinced in that moment is next weekend’s my funeral.

Warwick F:
Oh my gosh.

John R:
And I started playing the whole movie. I’m 45 years old. I’m like, “Hey, everything they say at the front of the church…” I mean, people say nice things. That’s what you do.

Warwick F:
Right.

John R:
I started, “Well, what would they say at the back of the church when they’re all rooting around for the roast beef sandwiches and potato salad?” Right? “What would they say a year later or two years later.” And I started thinking of inheritance. That’s what I would leave to my kids. Would they be okay financially? Would they be taken care of? And I figured from that perspective, we’re in good shape but now I started thinking of legacy Warwick.

Warwick F:
Right.

John R:
I started thinking, “What have I left in my wife, in my boys, in my friends? Have I lived a life? So the use of my life, what I’ll live my life?” I mean, think about, Jesus said the number one commandment, if I boil everything down is love God with all your heart and love others, that’s not how I’d been operating. That is why I had drifted into that land of smoldering discontent and that’s when I’m laying there, I resolved, I’m going to live my life according to that in service of others and here’s what I’ve found because when I’m coming out of this accident, because of this brain injury was so severe, eight years later I still cannot do what I used to be able to do before the accident. Cognitively, I’ve recovered, but my energy, ability to communicate when I’m tired, things are very different.

Warwick F:
Right.

John R:
But before as an entrepreneur, right? I told you my edict was, I’m just going to outwork people and I’m like, “I cannot operate that way anymore. That lit physically, I can’t do it.” When I came out of the hospital after two and a half years to start what I’m doing now, I could literally work eight to 10 hours per week.

Warwick F:
Wow.

John R:
And here was my whole attitude is, you know what I’m eight to 10 hours per week, God said he has a plan, he’s going to use it for his glory, in partnership with the father, trusting him for each small step versus making my grand plan. I bet I can do more with him on a few hours a week than I ever did on my own 80 hours a week and it was with that mindset that I moved into this future and that’s what’s happened.

Warwick F:
So, but before just touching on that, as that horrific experience happened, do you feel like from your perspective and I guess mine, that God had a purpose in that? What would you say the purpose was with that accident, because it seemed like it changed the trajectory of your life at least in some sense?

John R:
It’s an interesting question to ponder. These things that happen to us, these crucible moments, does God create and engineer them or does it happen because it happens but he is there to walk with us? I’ve thought about this a lot. I’ve been in prayer about it a lot because I felt it was important for me to come to an understanding. What I understood for myself was I don’t believe he caused the accident. He could have prevented it, there’s no doubt about that. Right?

Warwick F:
Right. Sure.

John R:
He could have had the horse turn. He didn’t prevent it. I don’t believe he caused it and I got to tell you just reading through the scripture, what I’ve come to understand is he does not promise us an explanation, but he does promise that he will walk with us through everything we go through in life, every step of the way. In that, honestly for me is what I had to lean into, is that I might never understand the purpose behind it. I think I can see it now because it’s brought me into… I got to tell you, if somebody said, “On a scale of one to 10 are you living life fully alive? Do you experience joy and peace?” Before the accident I probably would have told you if I was being honest, a two or three, if you’d told me that networking meeting, maybe I would have told you a nine because that’s what I wanted you to believe, but today it truly is a nine plus. I would have never gotten here had it not been for the accident.

Warwick F:
Yeah. I mean from my perspective, God doesn’t cause bad things to happen. Maybe he allows it and at least we’ll never know the true purpose, but sometimes we give little glimpses and for me, because duty, loyalty is such a big thing, I never voluntarily would have gotten out of the family company. It would have felt like I was betraying my father, John Fairfax, my great, great grandfather. There’s no way I would’ve left. It wouldn’t have happened. But because it happened, it really allowed me to pursue who I was, not have my identity all in Fairfax media. So, in some weird way the tragedy that happened was almost grace. As painful as it was, things like that always leave a scar. Now for you, you’ve got both physical, emotional, you’ve got the gamut of scars, I’m afraid.

Warwick F:
For me it was more just emotional, but as I look back on that, for me it was grace. I’m not glad I had to go through it, but it led me on a trajectory whereas like you, I feel like I’m living a legacy more that’s on purpose, a life of significance, focus on others. Yeah. So, I think there can be a grace in that. I mean, I don’t mean to say tragedy should be seen as grace. It’s not, but somehow it can be used for good even when it was so painful.

John R:
No. I agree grace, and I think the other thing that thread that, because you guys asked me what’s that one big takeaway for you through all this and only one word came to my mind and that was hope because when I was there in God’s presence, think about it. The first thing he said to me directly, right? He said, “All things work together for good for those that love the Lord.” And then he told me he was going to heal me for his glory. What that said to me was even though I figured, honestly Warwick, I was going to be healed. I was in the hospital bed in ICU telling my business, that new startup company, I’m like, “Guys, God told me I was going to healed. I’ll be back at work in a week.”

John R:
Like no, I was back and two years later, I could not work enough to even go back. I couldn’t go back, but what I saw at Craig Hospital with all of these people that had severe head injuries and spinal cord injuries, the difference between the people that really improved and I think got back to whatever their new life was going to be and the people that spiraled down into a place that really scared me. The place where I was right after I got out of the Navy, that dark place before I met those three gentlemen was having hope. Even if it’s the tiniest smallest little ember that guess what, tomorrow might be better.

John R:
There’s no guarantee it might be better than today. The next month is going to probably be better than this month. The next year will be better, and then over time I will get through this and just even holding onto the idea that maybe there is a purpose in this and this could serve as something in the future I look back on and be grateful for, even though I couldn’t even conceive of gratitude personally. Right. I’m just not that mature while I was there recovering from all these surgeries, but honestly, that is what got me through, that little bit of hope, each day trying to move forward mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally through that crucible time. As I looked back, because you guys asked me that question, the thread in each of these I think that allowed me to not only move through it, but to almost learn from it versus be defined by it or have a victim mentality because of it, which allowed me to shift into something that over time became beneficial.

Warwick F:
So talk about, I mean, you mentioned purpose and hope being the threads through these crucible experiences. Talk a bit about where that’s led you in your current vision and mission and just the amazing things you’re doing with Eternal Leadership and your coaching. Talk about the purpose you feel you’ve been given now and the hope that you want to impart to others.

John R:
Oh, well thank you for asking. I’ll tell you, I’m laying in my hospital bed, this is two years into it and I’m totally like, “All right Lord, I’m not the person I was.” Right? “I can’t do what I used to do. What’s next?” And I’m praying there in my quiet time. This wasn’t an audible voice like at the accident, but I just felt that my inner spirit, like this inner voice speaking. It just said, “John, I want you to use this life I’ve given you to equip and inspire leaders to work in my kingdom.” I’m like, “Okay. Awesome. That’s really broad. Is there a page two? Can I get the rest of the memo?” But here’s how he sent it to me, which I think is how God works like the three guys who brought into my life 25 years ago, this was on a Saturday.

John R:
On a Monday, I was meeting with a friend of mine, a CEO of a big company here in town, really going through some challenges and he goes, “Man, here’s what’s going on in my life, my family, what I’m trying to do in the community, my business. I have these three pillars. Whatever I focus on works and the other one’s just languish.” And he goes, “I feel like I’m just so close to pulling them all together.” He goes, “I’ve decided to hire a coach.” And he goes, “John, you would be an amazing coach and if you decide to become a coach, I want to be your first client.” I’m like, “Dude, that’s awesome. What’s a coach?”

Warwick F:
Exactly.

John R:
But anyway, through that I said, “You know what? I have all this experience building companies from scratch, being part of huge organizations…” Starting now, I’ve started two nonprofits before the accident happened, being in the military. So what happened was I started coaching leaders and that led to, at the end of my first year, I had 16 clients and I was still literally working eight maybe at that point, 10 to 15 hours a week. That was all I could do. That was maxed out and then now out of that with my podcast, we’ve been named in Inc. Magazine as Gary mentioned at the top. We’ve been named the preferred leadership trainer to the U.S. Air Force. I could not have done all this on my own, but I think those three things we talked about before, when you really put the work to close the gap on who you are and you become the best version of yourself, you set a worthwhile goal and dream, and for me that is to live a life so that life outlives my life. Right?

John R:
So, I guess my personal mission statement, right, is to equip and inspire leaders to accomplish what’s been inspired in them, to help them live on purpose, with a purpose and give them the exact tools that they need in order to do that. I mean, that’s what defines me. That’s my filter. I’ve been offered to do certain things, maybe work for a company, come on staff. I’m like, “Well, that’s not in alignment.” Even though that would be really nice to have that paycheck. It was a very easy decision for me now to say no and out of that, everything that we’ve done that my book is going to be coming out soon, I’m doing a lot more speaking to both Christian audiences and also business audiences. I just did the kickoff speech at the huge Silicon Valley tech company, how do we incorporate this into how we’re just creating a leadership culture so that organization can only do great business but also do good through doing business.

John R:
That’s a huge part about what I meant. That’s my litmus test for the clients that I do let into my world, is that they need to not only want to create an amazing organization that serves their people, but it’s also serving a purpose either in their community, for a cause in this world, because I want to marry those two together and I got to tell you I wake up every day of the week excited. This morning I got to work with a group of six different amazing leaders down in Rwanda that are helping, trying to reshape how business is being done. They’re all in their late twenties they’re amazing people and I’m just taking my time to sow into them so they can carry out what they’re excited to do and accelerate the results that they’re passionate about.

Warwick F:
That’s awesome.

John R:
Or in a week from now I’ll be doing some work with the United States Air Force. So, I would have never envisioned any of this when I started four and a half years ago when I got my first client who was a friend of mine, I think he hired me out of pure sympathy as my first coaching client and what happened was his company ended up growing massively and he became my best referral source to his peer group and that’s how it all started.

Warwick F:
Wow.

Gary S:
It’s very interesting to hear you both talk about your experiences and also talk about what you’re doing now because you both use the same word. Warwick, you talk about living a life of significance and inspiring people to do that. John, you talk about it’s a not about success, it’s about significance. As we wrap up John, let me ask you this question. What is it about significance that is the worthy aim? Why is that the destination you hope to chart people on a path toward?

John R:
I think the simple answer, this is just me and my lens. Okay, so just take that into account. I think the way that I’ve always defined success is me focused, arrows kind of in. Right? Significance to me is how many other people can I help be successful. If I’m the person that just succeeds on my own and then I would have died at 45 years old, would that have been significant? It might’ve been to my family who got a big inheritance, right? But what if I died at 45 years old, but hundreds of people at my funeral said, “You know what? I am where I am today, my marriage is solid, I have amazing relationship with my kids, my company’s thriving, and we’re doing this to help change my community because of John’s friendship, his mentorship, his coaching.” So, that’s for me what I see as significant.

John R:
So, that’s what I want to move toward. I guess I’ve shifted my role Gary, from wanting to be king, right? That was the quest I was on to want to be in the role of kingmaker and if I can be the guy in the background and I’m that catalyst for other people’s success, even if they don’t even give me credit, because that’s not why I’m doing it, I feel like I’m so in sync and in partnership with the Father, right? I am part of the plan that he might have for somebody else’s life, and I got to tell you, that was also kind of a maturing and the transition for me is being comfortable in that role in the background, and I got to tell you is I’ve moved closer and closer to just not only accepting it, but relishing that.

Gary S:
Yeah.

John R:
I got to tell you, it’s just unleashed joy for me, but that’s-

Gary S:
So for listeners who want to be made a king, who want to learn more about Eternal Leadership and learn more about your coaching practice, where can they find that information?

John R:
You can just go to eternalleadership.com or just reach out to me personally. I’ll give you my personal email address. It’s John, J-O-H-N, @eternalleadership.com. I answer all those personally. I will get back to you because I keep appointments on my calendar Gary, every single week, even with my schedule to just have conversations with people that reach out. So, that’s what I’m here to do.

Gary S:
This has been a very enlightening conversation. Warwick, let’s let you have the last word and then we’ll be done.

Warwick F:
John, that’s just amazing to listen to you and all of the crucible experiences you’ve been through. I feel like you have, I don’t know, 10 lifetimes worth of wisdom. It’s been harder. If it would’ve been your choice clearly to, you would have preferred an easier way than you’ve gone through, but I have the sense that maybe there are times when you were knocked off your purpose from your perspective. My sense is there’s a lot less chance of that happening now that you are laser like, clearly focused and we’re all frail and human but you seem to have a very clear purpose and much less chance of you getting knocked off these days. That would be my sense and I just commend you for your life, for your service to lead is really that phrase of being a king maker, being other focused, understanding what a life of significance is. I mean you’re a great role model for really what a life of significance looks like. It’s a great example. So, thank you for sharing what you’ve shared. It’s just, it’s an amazing story, really is.

John R:
Well, thank you guys so much and thank you for what you guys are doing with your lives and also this podcast because my story might help one person and somebody else might not relate at all and then you’re going to bring somebody else on who’s having a very different, but you know moving through these challenging times, we all have them and they are hard. I don’t want to make light of the fact that when you’re in it, it might be one of the most difficult things you’ve ever been faced with in your life and you’re creating a format and a platform and a podcast and the work that you guys both do to help people move through that, it is so critical, especially in today’s world.

John R:
To me, just as an observer, it just feels like there’s more that people are going through and I really think also some of the, I don’t know whether it’s culturally or what’s going on, but also the ability to go through it, I don’t know, it just feels harder, right? So having stuff like this is just, it’s a gift and I thank you guys for putting the time and energy to do it.

Warwick F:
Well, thank you.

Gary S:
Well. Thank you listeners for spending time with us at Beyond the Crucible today. When you have a guest like John who comes on and says, “Well, what has been your crucible experience?” And he writes, there are many with a smiley face emoji, you’re going to have a very action packed episode with a lot of information that we hope you will glean to John’s work. You will glean hope from this conversation. To find more hope through what Crucible Leadership is doing, you can find us on the web at www.crucibleleadership.com. You can also engage with us in social media. On Facebook, we’re at crucible leadership and on LinkedIn we’re at Warwick Fairfax. Warwick’s name is spelled with that silent W in the middle. It’s W-A-R-W-I-C-K @warwickfairfax. You can find us on LinkedIn. So until next time, thank you for spending time with us and remember that your crucible experiences are not the end of your story. They are in fact, they can be the beginning of a new chapter in your story that will lead to a true life of significance.