Know When To Burn Your Boats

In 1519, Hernán Cortés, with about six hundred Spaniards, sixteen or so horses, and eleven boats, began the conquest of Mexico. Now, regardless of how you view this historical event, one leadership example of his has echoed throughout the years.

 He burned his boats.

And he was not the first to do so. In 711 A.D., Tariq ibn Ziyad did the same thing on the Iberian peninsula. Alexander the Great utilized this strategy during his conquest of Persia. In the Far East, in 207 B.C.E, Xiang Yu of China also chose this option. As far back as the Roman myth of Aeneas, we’ve heard stories of leaders burning their boats.

This raises a few questions. Namely: why use this tactic, and what can we learn from this as business leaders?

Well, first, let’s figure out the strategy behind this maneuver. The obvious explanation is that it removes the option of defeat. Oh, of course, you can still lose!   But, when loss equals probable death, this simplifies the process considerably. Retreat? Retrenchment? Off the table. So that’s a pretty motivating approach. Right?

Well, maybe.

This approach may not always work. Even though most of us are going to be leading within an organizational context in the business world, and not on the field of battle, we really need to understand what this option looks like in our modern environment. Frankly, we need to ask ourselves how many times we can try this and have it fail. We probably can’t fail too many times using this option and expect to remain viable in our modern environments.

So first, let’s ask ourselves if burning our boats is the appropriate move. Sometimes it’s OK to fall back and regroup. Other times, it’s imperative that, if we’re not ensuring success with this maneuver, at the very least, we’re removing the option of all other possibilities – which may be critical to a strategic implementation. We also need to consider the context and timing. Are we in a rapidly changing situation where, what seems to be a strategic decision now, may prove to be moot, irrelevant or plain wrong in a few days, weeks or months because of the fluidity of the situation?

We also need to consider what we really need. Do we need a total win? Do we need a delaying action? Do we simply need to get someone to the negotiating table so they’ll consider our point of view?

You also need to understand your people. Are your people behind you, or are they with you? If your people are behind you, they may have no problem watching you fail. They’ll follow the new leader and new regime just as easily. But if they are with you, they’re more likely to dedicate themselves to going to the mat and assuming all of the consequences of the decision with you.

Also, we need to be honest about the reasons for which you are even considering burning your boats. Is this about achieving the goal, or is this about you? Is it about machismo, being the top dog, the head honcho, the big Kahuna? Is it about proving your skill and your decisiveness as a leader? Or is it about honestly accomplishing that which propels your organization forward towards the next milestones and success?

Here are some examples. Let’s say we’re in a situation where our organization is adopting new processes and new tools in the workplace to support new relationships and responsibilities. For a context like that, you ideally need 100% compliance, you need everyone on board, and you also need to ensure that all options and optional pathways are foreclosed. We can’t use your processes if we don’t have 100% compliance, because we will spend considerable resources correcting the willful noncompliance. Our tool set cannot achieve full value if we are not fully implementing it in a consistent manner. Therefore, without complete compliance, we would be committing ourselves to ongoing additional O&M expenses unless we get everyone on board.

In such situations, I think I might want to burn my boats. I may want to remove all old process documents from our corporate process library. I may want to shut down my old tools and services in order to force the new services – again, assuming a reasonable and well thought-out migration strategy is part of this.

But what if I’m trying to accomplish a goal like culture change? If I’m trying to take our organization from who we are to who we want to be, maybe incremental change is what I need to be seeking. Perhaps I need to look to influence my key thought leaders and have them amplify my message. Now, I don’t want this to go on forever. All good change is time bound. But I also may have very little credibility in saying, “This is who we were yesterday, and this is who we are today.” Organizations – like large ocean going vessels – do not turn quickly. In this case, I am better off not using my boats as kindling.

So there you have it. Something to think about. If drastic action is critical to your organization’s success, burn those boats. But remember this: as the leader, burn your own boat first.   If you can’t bring yourself to do that, then maybe it’s not time to burn the boats at all. Maybe you need to consider other pathways to success.