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From burning platform to burning ambition; how leaders sustain change

There are thousands of books presenting dozens of lists on the attributes of great leaders, so I decided to focus my life’s work on a slightly different question. If I’m an ordinary human being, how do I actually become one of the great leaders I read about in these books? In other words, what is the pathway to greatness?

My obsession has taken me on a fifteen year odyssey that’s included working closely with hundreds of leaders around the world and speaking to many thousand more, completing original doctoral research, having that research published in HBR, making a documentary film, starting a leadership foundation for school students, teaching at university, and most recently, writing a book. I told you I was obsessed.

Here’s what I’ve learned on my odyssey above all else; leadership effectiveness is not a matter of intention; it’s a matter of impact. Why do I say that? I’ve never met the leader who aspires to destroy shareholder value, irritate customers and alienate staff. Yet often the unintended consequence of our leadership is to do just that.

The bad news is that in studying leaders who have actually bridged this gap between their noble intentions and their impact, my colleagues and I have found no magic formula to guarantee success. It turns out that leadership transformation is extremely context bound. Every leader’s journey is unique.

The good news, however, is that there are common threads in the experiences of those who’ve realized their leadership vision, and achieved a transformation in their organization. Over time, we’ve come to understand that the best way to share what we’ve learned is through metaphor.

Metaphors make complex stuff simple. More importantly, unlike lists, steps and formulas, which typically are rigid and don’t allow interpretation and personalization, the nature of metaphors is that they can be unfolded. They allow us to open our thinking, to inspire creativity, and to invite the audience to discover complementary and related meanings.

Ultimately we uncovered seven distinct, yet interdependent metaphors to describe how leaders transform;; beginning with Fire, which is the focus of this manifesto.

The Fire metaphor describes the motivational forces that start and sustain a transformation effort. The punch line is that leaders must shift from the proverbial burning platform to a burning ambition, and get underneath organizational reasons for change to make the journey very personal.

Download the white paper here.

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