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Why Great Leaders Burn Bridges

When it comes to burning your bridges the received wisdom is that you shouldn’t.

“Don’t burn your bridges behind you” is the full, often abridged, maxim. 

What this means to most people is that when you make a change you should ensure that you have a way back if things don’t work out.

But where does the phrase originally come from?

The phrase comes from military vernacular and refers to the literal burning of bridges.

When in battle the burning of bridges serves two purposes; it prevents the enemy from following behind you and it forces the regiment onwards, to commit to the decision made without recourse.

It’s the second part of that statement I want to look at in a business context. How can burning bridges help you to deliver the change you want to see in your organisation?

Let’s start by looking at a hypothetical scenario…

You’re implementing a new computer system in your organisation. Using the new system admittedly will add 30 seconds to each process but quality will increase by 60%. You have calculated that because of this change rework will be reduced and the overall productivity of your team will increase significantly.

You provide people with training and access to the new system, but keep the old system running in parallel for six months to aid the transition.

What do you think happens?

Well in this situation, everybody carries on using the old system because it’s familiar, so for them it’s quicker and easier. By the time you come to turn it off the training they had on the new system has been forgotten. Productivity takes a hit due to the skills gap and everybody complains about the new system and how they ‘wish we still had the old one’ and maybe, just maybe, down the line, you change to yet another new system because nobody liked this one.

But what if the bridge had been burned, what if the old system was removed much sooner, for example once everybody had been trained, it would encourage people to move forward with the new one. It might be uncomfortable for a while, there may be hitches and glitches but people would adapt, they’d get used to it and though challenging at first, they’d make it work because that’s what people do, that’s human nature.

Of course there can be real world consequences of being too hasty to burn a bridge but if you are committed to your vision and you have fully considered the implications of your change then removing the means of retreat for your people can be an important tool in making the change stick.

But change doesn’t just happen within our operational systems and processes – what about the big cultural changes you want to see in your organisations and that are necessary in today’s ever-changing environment.

The key to successful culture change is driven by three key elements; experience, belief and action.

This is how your drive your people forwards and help them to see the future as clearly as you do.

It starts with great leadership – clearly communicating your vision for change sets out the future that you’re aiming to create and helps your people to see their role within it.

Next your people need to experience the change. Behaviour can only be changed through people’s experience and their response to it. Create experiences that demonstrate the desired culture and show that those who engage with the new culture are rewarded. 

The next step in the process is belief. Belief that the change is real and is here to stay and belief in the direction that the change is taking you in. As individuals start to believe in the culture, they absorb the new cultural norms into their thinking. And when people begin to think differently, they begin to act differently.

As a result of their actions they experience something new and the cycle begins again, belief strengthens and further actions are taken which embody the change.

For true culture change only those who engage with the change should be rewarded and it may be that those who do not or cannot change are seen to move on.

Whether you’re a leader of people within your organisation or you’re simply leading the way during a period of change it’s up to you to identify the bridges you need burn; it may be a process you need to remove, a person you need to get onside or a team you need to build or break up. 

To return to the military vernacular, as your brave platoon marches onwards it’s up to you to lead the way and if you’re going to burn the bridges that would allow a retreat it’s important that you know the way forward and can clearly communicate this so your people are happy to follow.

What this means for you and your organisation is that you need to clearly demonstrate the new way of working so that your people can experience the change and start to believe in it. Your commitment, vision and example will create a positive pull towards the future and your effectiveness in burning bridges will keep your people behind you all the way.

For information on how we can help you to deliver operational and cultural change through your people, get in touch.