The burning platform metaphor is perhaps one of the most pervasive in the world of business. It was coined by consultant Daryl Conner more than 20 years ago, and popularized by Professor John Kotter of Harvard. It comes from the true story of Andy Mochan, a worker on the Piper Alpha oil rig when it exploded in July 1988, killing 167 of his colleagues.

In the story, Mochan is awoken by the explosion. He runs up on deck to see that the platform is on fire. He is now faced with a choice; does he stay on the platform and burn alive, or does he jump more than 150 feet into freezing water? As the flames engulf the platform, he makes the split-second decision to jump. Somehow, he survives the impact and is rescued by a boat before freezing to death. When asked why he jumped he replies “better probable death than certain death.”

This is an amazing story of survival amid tragedy, but I have several practical issues with the burning platform metaphor as it applies to business change and transformation. The first issue is that it implies fear and extreme urgency are not only necessary, but somehow desirable motivators for change; the implication being that in order to change, we all need to have our arses on fire.

The Power and Danger of Metaphors

From interviews I have seen recently, Conner intended the burning platform to be interpreted as a metaphor for commitment. Unfortunately, the power and danger of metaphors is that they are autonomous and uncontrollable. The mental picture most people create when they hear this metaphor involves fear and anxiety – not commitment, and anxiety is the single most contagious human emotion. It encourages many physical and psychological consequences, none of which I have found particularly conducive to change – either personally or in my work.

In our doctoral research, while we did find that some urgency helped motivate the leaders to commence a journey of transformation, it is not what enabled them to sustain their journeys over time. What we found is that aspiration is a far more important motivator; sustainable change requires the fire of a ‘burning ambition.’ To bring our research findings to life, and to explore this concept a little further, check out the animation above. The ‘Fire’ is one of seven metaphors that came out of our research on how leaders transform, and is also the first chapter of my upcoming book.

So how do you tap into your burning ambition?

Asking yourself these questions is a great start;

  • What does success look like for me/us?
  • What gets me/us out of bed in the morning?
  • What do I/we want to be remembered for?

In my next blog post, I will showcase one of the CEOs in my research, Tim Castree, to illustrate just how powerful the shift from burning platform to burning ambition can be. Tim, by the way, was one of original founders of Earth Hour.

What’s Your Opinion?

In the meantime, I would be very interested to hear your take on the burning platform Vs burning ambition debate. Which of these have you found to be the most powerful motivator? Have you ever been burnt by a burning platform?

You can share your stories below.

Want to keep reading? Here are some quick links to other blogs you may like;

Snowball is loose!
7 Metaphors for Leadership Transformation
3 Reasons Why Metaphors are Powerful

7 thoughts on “From Burning Platform to Burning Ambition

  1. Here’s my two cents .. A "burning ambition" suggests an individual motivation. Someone with a burning ambition may (or may not depending upon their leadership skills) be able to translate that into something meaningful for others. However overly ambitious individuals can undermine team work. A "burning platform" does suggest fear but that can motivate many people (temporarily) to forgo their individual preferences and ambitions to collaborate more effectively. So either metaphor is useful descriptively but need the combination with other leadership traits to be effective in practice.

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  2. Thanks for your thoughts Nick. Actually, either the burning platform or burning ambition can be individual or collective – like a four quadrant matrix. In so much as one encourages more of an individualistic stance than the other, our research suggests that it is, in fact, the burning platform that does this. It turns out that when we are anxious or fearful, we become more security oriented. And when we are security oriented, we generally look after number 1.

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  3. Like Nick, I would be inclined to think of ambition as an individual metaphor and the platform as a group. By introducing a third option, the burning mission which is derived from purpose, one might be better able to tie this to the leadership context.

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  4. Thank you Peter – I shared this article with a number of my clients and it generated a great deal of interest e.g. "for the first time I realized that ‘my fire has gone out’ " and "as a ‘slow burner’ I think ambition alone cannot result in meaningful change. Better really to have directed ambition – strong motivation plus a clear rational plan of how to get there and bring people along with you". For me then it almost doesn’t matter what the preferred metaphor is as it is a great platform (sorry to repeat the picture but it works for me!) to help leaders become aware of their thinking and behaviour and relate it to how they are leading their teams.

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  5. Pingback: The Questions You Didn't Know to Ask for Achieving Team Alignment | Paul Keijzer

  6. Great article, thank you. As Donna Brighton (Brighton Leadership Group) puts it, "The ability to influence others to change through attraction rather than force is the secret to lasting change."

    If the burning platform genuinely is the result of something beyond anyone’s control, possibly there will be a positive response; but if the individual and/or team can see the platform has been lit on fire by a senior member of their own team… Well, I expect the responses will be negative; freezing up and burning, pushing others out of the way to clear a path for individual escape/survival etc.

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