One afternoon, in 2006, Sam Cawthorn was driving down a road and fell asleep behind the wheel. With his car hurtling at 104km per hour, he collided head-on with a semi-trailer. He would later find out his heart had stopped for a few minutes, and was actually pronounced dead at the scene.
He was successfully resuscitated and put on life support for a week. After waking up, he remained in hospital for five months and spent a year in a wheelchair. His arm, from the elbow down, had to be amputated; his right leg wasn’t working at all.
His doctor told him he would never be able to walk again. The whole focus of his rehabilitation team was to get Cawthorn’s life as close to normal as possible and back into the same job.
“But you know, something changed.” It was a journey of self discovery, he says. “Do I go back to my full-time job or do I see what other possibilities are available for me?”
A local youth group asked him to speak about his experience, so he went. Then another school asked, and another, until he realised he could start charging a small fee for speaking.
“It was at that time that I realised: human beings [are] hardwired to lean into narrative. We love going to the movies to hear a story, we love reading a book to hear a story.
“And I realised, cool, I've got a pretty cool story now. It's not like a shark attack, or a climb to Mount Everest; it’s just a normal everyday person having a tough car accident [who’s] learned how to navigate through that. I learned how to communicate it in a really effective way.”
The insight would be the first of many to come. Cawthorn became so good at telling his story, he’s not only mastered the art of communication, but teaches it through the two organisations he founded and leads, the Speakers Institute and Speakers Tribe.
The 41-year-old regularly captivates crowds – including sharing a stage with Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, and the Dalai Lama – and has presented to the United Nations and companies like Google.
With nearly a dozen books under his belt, I would have never guessed he’d never sat an exam before.
“I never finished high school, I’ve never studied at university, I failed English,” he told Yahoo Finance. “This is my 11th book now, which is very ironic.”
Lessons from an accidental entrepreneur
In today’s world, Cawthorn believes any organisation or business seeking influence needs to have a face behind the name.
Research he undertook on the 1,000 most-followed things online revealed that, eight years ago, 50 per cent of names on the list were governments, organisations or logos.
Now, it’s just 8 per cent of the above, and 92 per cent people or individuals. This shift is something Cawthorn has dubbed the ‘profile economy’, where “people follow people”.
The concept is also the driving force behind the influencer industry, worth an estimated $18 billion globally, where brands have realised they have more success reaching their target demographic through influencers and micro-influencers who are personally connected with their audience.
“If you want your company to be heard, to be noticed, to be seen and ultimately to grow, you must have a face to that company … rather than a logo, or icon.”
The ‘face’ doesn’t have to be the CEO, either; it can be a founder, director, HR leader, or a media spokesperson for the organisation, he added.
The reason is because people are attracted to personalities, not logos or brands, for opinions and thought leadership. “So if you don’t build a profile, then you’ll find yourself behind the curve.”
Cawthorn’s latest book, People Follow People, outlines the 12 essential characteristics he believes a leader needs to have.
But the most important takeaway, he says, is that character comes before charisma.
Charismatic leaders are recognisable by the way they light up a room as soon as they walk into it, and their gravitational pull that seems to draw people to them.
But winning charm alone isn’t enough, Cawthorn says. “Can they back that up with morals, integrity, core values, ethics, truth?”
“If you want to be a leader worth following, you have to have character.”
Cawthorn’s observation strikes at the heart of the trust deficit that organisations and its leaders in Australia and around the world are currently grappling with.
According to Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer, COVID-19 has only accelerated the “erosion of trust around the world”. The phenomenon of ‘fake news’, highlighted during the US’ recent Presidential Election and often perpetuated by then-President Donald Trump, had a destabilising effect on the country and its democracy. Misinformation spread through social media also holds implications for global health as conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines threaten lives.
On a more local level, the Banking Royal Commission – and subsequent inquiries afterwards, such as into aged care – as well as countless underpayment scandals have further bruised people’s trust in institutions to be decent, self-regulating, and serve the community.
“It’s not about being a brand that we can trust and like – it’s about being a human being we can trust and like,” Cawthorn said.
Cawthorn reveals his biggest challenge
It wasn’t surviving a near-death accident, or getting through rehabilitation itself. It wasn’t losing half an arm.
“One of the hardest things for me, when I was going through it … was me growing up being a disabled father,” said the father-of-three.
Cawthorn had two children at the time of the accident, who were four and one years old, he recalls.
“The last time they saw daddy, I was throwing them up into the air with both arms, I was running and skipping. Suddenly, I'm laying on a bed with only one arm.”
Cawthorn remembers feeling unsure about how his daughter would react when she saw him after the amputation.
“At the time, I thought: I am disabled. I can’t now be a good father, I can’t be a good role model to my daughter. So that was a really hard moment in my life.”
But his children have never once said they wished he had two arms, Cawthorn says.
“They’re highly resilient, and we can learn a lot from that. It’s something I had to navigate within myself, and realise that my kids would just accept me for who I am, no matter what.”
Cawthorn recognises he’s lucky to have gotten out of his accident alive, and knows others have not been so fortunate. “I’m extremely grateful. My gratitude is so deep,” he said.
It’s another quality he believes leaders need to carry. Cawthorn cites a major poll undertaken by Myanmar-based KBZ Bank in 2018, in which employees were asked what the company’s core value should be.
An overwhelming majority – 85 per cent – picked “banking with metta”, a Sanskrit word.
“It was this. Loving kindness.”