Cultivate resilience. It’s not just about digging more deeply within to find fortitude, it’s also about reaching more widely to find friendship and resources outside of yourself. The Bible says a cord of three strands is not easily broken. The more support you have from your team, your family and friends and colleagues, the more equipped you will be to weather the crucibles when they come — and they will come. Young Walt Disney was swindled out of the cartoon creation he thought would allow him to make his mark, Oswald The Lucky Rabbit. But after the theft of his unscrupulous distributor, Disney simply created a new one: Mickey Mouse. Disney believed in his vision, and had the support of his wife, and over the course of his career, friends and colleagues who would help make his vision a reality.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Warwick Fairfax.
Warwick Fairfax is the founder of Crucible Leadership. He was only 26 when, as the fifth-generation heir to a media empire bearing his family name, he led — and lost — a 2.25 dollars public takeover bid.
The lessons of that loss, as well as his life’s principles and what he’s learned from family members who came before him and some of history’s greatest leaders, fuel his helping others learn from their “crucible moments” and emerge to live and lead with significance.
He is the author of Crucible Leadership: Embrace Your Trials to Lead a Life of Significance (Mount Tabor Media, 2021).
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born into arguably Australia’s largest and most respected media dynasty, a company founded by my great-great grandfather in the 1840s. I was the fifth-generation heir, and in the late ’80s, fresh from Harvard Business School with my MBA, I launched a 2.25 billion dollars takeover that succeeded in the sense — I took control but failed due to a mix of unwise decisions by me and economic circumstances of the time. My effort to restore the company to the vision of my great-great grandfather resulted in my family losing the company after 150 years.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Losing a century and a half of family legacy didn’t inspire a lot of laughs from me — but the editorial cartoonists had a good time with it, I must say.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It took me more than two decades after the takeover failed, years spent mostly in the U.S. after moving there with my wife, who is American, for me to focus not on the fact that my failure had happened to me, but that it had happened for me. I slowly began to reassemble the pieces of my life into a vision that was all my own — not inherited from my ancestors.
A key moment was the pastor of my church asking me to tell my story as a sermon illustration. I was amazed that for days, weeks, months afterward, people came up to say they had found hope and healing in my story. That surprised me — after all, there were no other ex-media moguls who lost 2.25 billion dollars in the congregation. That was the moment I realized my story could help others — and the impetus for my founding Crucible Leadership and writing my book of the same name.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Our mission is to help people live and lead with significance. By that we mean we hope to encourage and equip them to lead lives on purpose dedicated to serving others: from leaders of large organizations to community groups.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Authenticity and transparency are always important in leadership, but never more so than during difficult times. The men and women on your team must know that they are more than just cogs in a machine to you and your organization. Be a real person, not just a name on an org chart, to those you lead — and treat them the same way. Let them know, in appropriate ways, the challenges you’ve faced in your life and career and how you overcame them. This will help build trust with your team and commitment.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
All of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, have felt like giving up — whatever that might look like for us. But feelings aren’t actions, and we’re all more than how we feel on our worst days. The key to moving beyond what I call crucibles that can devastate us is to learn the lessons from those moments. Then we need to take small steps rooted in those lessons to begin a journey to a life of something more lasting and fulfilling than mere success: significance.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Identifying with and inspiring those who look to you for leadership. Think Winston Churchill in World War II, George Washington in the American Revolution, Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War. Their words and actions gave hope to others that better days were ahead — and made those better days possible.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
There was an old TV commercial for deodorant that carried the tagline “Never let ’em see you sweat.” As a leader in a crisis, that’s not good advice. It’s OK for your team to see you sweat — to see you concerned about the circumstances your business is facing — internally and externally. But never let them see you without hope. Always model a can-do — better yet, a will-do — attitude.
I interviewed a woman on my podcast, Stacey Copas — a successful resilience coach — and she shared a great metaphor. Hard times, what I call crucibles, are like a trampoline: the lower down you go, the higher up you can launch yourself. That’s a powerful truth to communicate to those you lead.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
As soon as possible and without pulling any punches. Sugar is a good coating for strawberries — not truth. This doesn’t mean, of course, you adopt a the-sky-is-falling attitude. It just means you share the reality of the situation along with your commitment to work with them to tackle the problem.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
With 100 percent commitment, even boldness. Victory is not for the timid. Plan for victory and reality in equal measure: invest emotional energy into your team to let them know you believe the vision you have for the future is achievable, and you need their help to make it so.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
A shared vision has a better chance of being a successful vision than a stand-alone vision. Get buy-in from your team on the journey you’re taking; give them the opportunity to really speak to and even help shape the plans you’re making.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Not being willing to adjust a vision is a big one. That’s what doomed Blockbuster. Companies have to be willing to adapt to market and corporate conditions as they change. Trying to soft-peddle or sugar-coat realities, especially hard realities, adds fuel to an already damaging fire. Be straight with your team about the challenge you’re facing and clear in your vision for how to overcome it. Inauthenticity of any kind stops forward progress on anything — a corporate goal, a bounce back from a crucible — in its tracks.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Keeping in mind that, yes, there’s something bigger and more fulfilling than the bottom line can keep morale high even when, say, sales fall. Cast a vision with input from your team that acknowledges not only that hard times don’t necessarily condemn us, they can be fuel for us to take our lives to the next level. To achieve success, yes, but — more importantly — to achieve significance.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Embrace life’s and your business’s crucibles: From the ashes of even the most devastating setbacks and failures can come lessons that set you and your business onto the road to true significance. My great-great grandfather, John Fairfax, who founded the family media company I lost in my failed takeover bid, could have given up before he got started on his vision. He was sued by an unscrupulous lawyer on a libel charge — and even though a judge ruled in his favor, John Fairfax was bankrupted. But he kept his vision top of mind, moved from England to Australia to change his fortunes, and bought the newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald, that started the Fairfax media empire.
- Discover your purpose, and act in light of that. Pursue those things you are off-the-charts passionate about, that are grounded in your fundamental beliefs and linked to your skills and talents. Your vision might be forged out of the ashes of your crucible. If you crafty your vision around something that is anchored in your fundamental beliefs, in line with your design and will serve what you believe is a higher purpose, you will not just have a greater chance at being successful — you’ll have a greater chance of leaving a legacy you’ll be proud of. Winston Churchill is a great example here. Churchill might have wanted to be Britain’s prime minister, but he found a higher purpose than just political success. In the 1930s he raised the alarm in warning the British public about the dangers of Nazi Germany, at a time when few wanted to listen. In 1940, amidst one of the darkest times of the war, Churchill finally did become prime minister. But he had a higher goal, to save Britain from destruction in its toughest hour.
- Craft a vision that is uniquely yours. I inherited a vision as the fifth-generation heir to my family’s media dynasty — and after the company was lost on my watch, I realized I was ill-suited for the role. I am not a take-no-prisoners executive leader; I am more of a reflective adviser. Crucible Leadership is my vision. It seeks to help leaders in business and in life realize they are not defined by their worst day. That there is hope in coming back from their crucibles to lead lives of significance. This the vision that I am indeed off-the-charts passionate about.
- Seek advice from a few you can trust. The solitary hero can make a memorable movie hero, but an unsuccessful business leader. Surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals, key ones with skills different than your own, who are not afraid to speak truth to power, is an excellent recipe for being refined by your crucible, not destroyed by it. Franklin Roosevelt is considered one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history. He likely would not have been if he did not have an adviser with the skills, character and honesty of Louis Howe. All leaders need to have men and women behind them who will both support them but will also give them advice they may not want to hear.
- Cultivate resilience. It’s not just about digging more deeply within to find fortitude, it’s also about reaching more widely to find friendship and resources outside of yourself. The Bible says a cord of three strands is not easily broken. The more support you have from your team, your family and friends and colleagues, the more equipped you will be to weather the crucibles when they come — and they will come. Young Walt Disney was swindled out of the cartoon creation he thought would allow him to make his mark, Oswald The Lucky Rabbit. But after the theft of his unscrupulous distributor, Disney simply created a new one: Mickey Mouse. Disney believed in his vision, and had the support of his wife, and over the course of his career, friends and colleagues who would help make his vision a reality.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
We do not have to be defined by our worst mistake or our worst day. Out of the ashes of our crucible can come hope, hope for a life that is on purpose dedicated to serving others. We should not be timid and “lead lives of quiet desperation,” as Henry David Thoreau said. We should instead be the leader who dares greatly, as Theodore Roosevelt said. Let’s live lives of loud significance instead.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can listen to my podcast, BEYOND THE CRUCIBLE, read my blogs and sign up to receive regular newsletter updates on our work at www.crucibleleadership.com
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!