I lost $2.25 billion in a failed takeover of my family’s business, but I almost lost much more.

One of my highest values is authenticity, to be the real me no matter what. But this has
not been easy.

I grew up in a family with a large, 150-year-old media business in Australia, a company that owned newspapers, television and radio stations, and magazines. After graduating from Oxford, working on Wall Street and getting my M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, in 1987 I launched a $2.25 billion takeover of my family’s company. It is a story for another time, but I felt that the company was not being run according to the ideals of the founder — my great-great-grandfather — and was not being well run. This may or may not have been true; but that was my perspective. Three years later, the company filed for bankruptcy.

My self-esteem was decimated. I felt as if I had let my family, my ancestors, even God, down in some strange way. Embarrassed and ashamed, I pulled back on being the authentic me. In fact, I hid who I was when, a few years later, I tried to get a job in an aviation services company in Maryland. (This was just before the internet became prevalent; it would have been harder to do today.) I did not go to Oxford or Harvard Business School reunions; I believed my classmates would laugh at or ridicule me.

Over time, I became less ashamed of myself and began to use the lessons from my failure to help others. I decided to lean into my pain and write a book about my mistakes and the lessons I learned from my failed takeover bid of the family company. Crucible Leadership: Embrace Your Trials to Lead a Life of Significance comes out in October 2021.

The lesson here is that even if you are afraid to be your true and vulnerable self because you are ashamed — of past failures or what was done to you or your family or family heritage — don’t let that hold you back.

When I eventually did attend Oxford and Harvard Business School reunions (with some initial trepidation), my classmates did not ridicule me; they welcomed me. You see, I was not the only one who had been through challenging times — crucible experiences as I call them.

As I used my failures to help others, I became stronger and even more willing to be myself. This is an important truth in an era when the pressure to fit in, to be who others want and expect us to be, has never been greater. We see it affecting leaders at all levels and of all ages. Young leaders want to put their best foot forward; they want to look or dress the part and not do anything controversial to endanger their career path. Seasoned leaders at or near the top of their organizations don’t want to be seen as out of touch with current trends. They want to fit the image others — including shareholders, customers and employees — expect of them; they also want to be respected by younger leaders rising through the organization.

This intense desire to fit in squeezes out authenticity and originality; you can forget who you are. When asked for an opinion, you are tempted to inquire, “What do you want my opinion to be?”

So, can you be your true authentic self and be successful? In a word, yes! Here are some thoughts about how to achieve this.

Take a Stand

Decide on principle to be yourself. Of course, be respectful to those around you and dress appropriately for where you work. But you can have your own style. You don’t need to be the organization man or organization woman out of some 1950s movie. When you are asked for your opinion, give it. Stop trying to tell people what they want to hear. Be honest! That does not mean yelling or — if you don’t get your way — stomping off in a huff. It does mean being forthright in your opinions and recommendations. Decide today that you will be yourself no matter what. If the powers that be are going to fire you for being you, so be it.

Being Authentic and Vulnerable is Powerful

Here’s a secret: Being authentic and vulnerable may not hinder your success; in fact, it may enhance your chance of succeeding. Today more than ever, authenticity is valued. Younger leaders want realness and vulnerability. They want to be leveled with, not given the sugar-coated version of the “truth.” So seasoned leaders should quit trying to tell employees what they think the team wants to hear and tell them the truth. If your company is facing challenges, tell them. Also, be yourself; don’t try to act or dress like you are in your 20s to seem “cool,” if that’s not who you are. A lack of sincerity and authenticity will be apparent. For younger leaders, good senior executives want input; they want to know your perspective. It doesn’t mean they will agree with you and accept your recommendations all the time, but if leaders at the top don’t get good information and a diverse range of opinions, they will not be successful. And if you don’t work in an organization that values input and diverse perspectives, leave. Find an organization with authentic leaders who value that trait in others.

Being the Real You Can Be the Key to Success

In an era of sameness, conventional wisdom and fear of being different, being the real you can be powerful. Having unique opinions and perspectives makes you stand out — in a good way. Having the courage to express those opinions — whether to senior management or key stakeholders, including your board of directors — also makes you stand out positively. The key is to be clear about your opinions and recommendations. And if you don’t get your way, respond with grace and respect. Assuming the rejection is not a moral issue but a difference in, say, strategic alternatives, if you handle the situation considerately, leaders around you will respect you more. They will know the next time a decision needs to be made, they can count on you to share your honest perspective.

Have a Support Team

Being your authentic self is not easy. The winds of conformity can erode the best of intentions. Years can go by, and a well-intentioned desire to be the “real you” can fade. Like a lobster boiling, you may not realize you are drifting toward conformity until it is too late. So, how do you avoid being another faceless, bland cog in the organizational machine? Have a support team. Surround yourself with friends, family and mentors who will help you be you. Have the courage to ask them if they see you drifting from authenticity. Give them the freedom to tell you if they think you are “selling out” to what others want you to be. Ideally, you will have mentors who are further down the leadership track than you. If you can find mentors who will advise and support you in your organization, that can be especially helpful. But either way, find a support team that will fight for the real you.

Don’t let anything or anyone hold you back from being your true authentic self. Not other people’s opinions. Not failure. Not past mistakes. Not anything. Your authenticity is your power. Rather than authenticity holding you back, it can actually propel you forward.

Warwick Fairfax M.B.A.

is the author of Crucible Leadership: Embrace Your Trials to Lead a Life of Significance. At 26, he lost a $2.25 billion takeover bid of the family media dynasty he stood to inherit. He now helps others learn from their own “crucible moments” to live and lead with significance.