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Effective Leaders Burn the Boats!!

Legend has it that on the heels of a long and treacherous journey across the Atlantic Ocean in 1519, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, in his conquest to capture the Aztec Empire, did something very unexpected prior to engaging the enemy. Some might even argue he had completely lost his mind. With absolute certainty, Cortés commanded his six hundred soldiers to “burn the boats!” Though certainly a highly risky (and arguably reckless) move, Cortés drew a hard line in the sand that day, with crystal-clear implications: either win the ensuing battle or die trying. There would be nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. Needless to say, the act of destroying their only means of escape had the intended impact, and the highly motivated Spanish contingent emerged victorious.

This military mission underscores the importance of senior leadership in any endeavor, including the world of business. The courage and conviction of the few set the cultural one for the larger enterprise. Great corporate cultures are fundamentally seeded, cultivated, and harvested within the leadership team. Safety nets and backdoor escape routes can protect us from potential short-term pain and suffering, but they also tend to water down the focus, effort, and commitment we invest into a passionate cause. If you want to be exceptional, dispose of plan B when it comes to remaining true to your organizational culture. No hedging your bets. No turning back when things get tough. As famous boxer turned philosopher Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth!” Do not deviate from the bigger picture. Burn the boats!

Note that I am not advocating you resist modifying company goals or strategic direction when market changes or customer requirements dictate that you should. Stubbornly standing pat in such cases poignantly illustrates the often-cited definition of insanity, which is “doing the same things you've always done and expecting different results.” What you do not want to deviate from, however, are the fundamental beliefs and guiding principles that make your organizational DNA uniquely different from your competitors. So stick to your guns on the important stuff, but remain nimble with regard to evolving processes, patterns, and strategies. As a person of great influence within your enterprise, ask yourself this important question: Am I committed, or am I just interested?

Consider the most venerated corporate cultures of our day. Behind each one, you will find leaders (past or present) who boldly established the culture by regularly communicating a well-defined purpose and vision across the enterprise and by personally modeling expected behaviors with every interaction. Leadership requires a willingness to stay true to a larger cause, even when doing so might seem uncertain or frightening in the moment.

What steps will you take as a leader in your organization to burn the boats today?


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