Crisis and The Question That Changes Everything

Over the years, it has been argued that if you seek to change an organization, you need to create a burning platform. This means you create or fully unveil a crisis, so people have a common cause and a sense of urgency. Change can then happen.

My friend did a session with the top management team of a large organization. He told me he was impressed by the CEO who rejected the notion of the burning platform. The CEO indicated that the burning platform notion is about getting people to collaborate so they can survive. It is about collective sacrifice driven by the temporary suspension of self-interest. Afterwards the system returns to the original culture that is governed by conventional self-interest.

The CEO said he was not interested in bringing change by creating a crisis. He was interested in creating an authentic, higher purpose, a shared vision of the common good. He wanted all his leaders to see collective possibility, then selflessly show concern, inspire action, and empower people to act, learn, and grow. When this unusual pattern occurs, leadership becomes distributed, everyone leads while aligned to the common good.

I was impressed. Few authority figures come to this elusive perspective. I call it “learning to ask the question that changes everything.”

When people live through an organizational crisis, they often feel a sense of awe. They briefly see the power of their people unified in purpose and co-creating impossible outcomes. It leaves such an impression that they never forget the experience. Yet, despite the awe, most to do not “squeeze” the experience, and derive proactive insights. The very few who do, tend to then ask the question that changes everything. What is that question?

“If crisis can create social excellence without leadership, can leadership create social excellence without crisis?”

When people witness social excellence due to crisis, they may ask this question. If they do, they are embracing truths that are normally too painful to entertain. The painful truths are highly functional. They lead to a rebirth, an expansion of consciousness, a transcendence of the conventional mindset. This rebirth is empowering and tends to turn managers into leaders.

What are the painful truths? (1) The people making the inquiry, have not been leaders in pursuit of excellence, they have been managers in pursuit of conventional, incremental outcomes. (2) The organization is full of potential that they have not before imagined. (3) It is within their power to become leaders who create social excellence without crisis. (4) To become such leaders, they must engage in deep learning, realize the untapped potential in themselves, and move from a conventional reliance on authority to unconventional reliance on inspiration.


  • How and why does crisis produce change?
  • Why do so few people ever ask the question that changes everything?
  • When you ask the question, how does your ego respond, how does your conscience respond? Why is there a difference?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?