"Burn the Ships!" - A Leadership Lesson from Cortés - Travis Robertson

“Burn the Ships!” – A Leadership Lesson from Cortés

In 1519, Captain Hernán Cortés landed in Veracruz to begin his great conquest. Upon arriving, he gave the order to his men to burn the ships. As I imagine it, someone then laughed and Cortés promptly thrust his sword into the man’s chest. After which, the rest proceeded to get hammered on rum by the glow of the blaze. Almost like a bloodier version of The Pirates of the Caribbean with Cortés played by Johnny Depp.

Here’s the lesson: Retreat is easy when you have the option.

Let that ruminate in your brain for a moment. I had to.

We all cling to something that acts as our escape hatch or our exit strategy (in the negative connotation). It’s our safety net “just in case…” What we fail to do is honestly complete that sentence. We lie to ourselves. If we were honest, we would say, “This is my safety net just in case I get scared.”

We postpone action until we no longer feel fear. Either that, or our actions are shallow attempts never designed to succeed. In reality, we must learn to act decisively in spite of our fear.

Burning Things that “Make Sense”

“That doesn’t makes sense.” We love that phrase. We love to hide behind it. We tell ourselves that certain things don’t make sense. It would have “made sense” for Cortés to keep a ship or two if not his entire fleet. But Cortés was on a mission and he knew that the only way to keep himself or his men from quitting on the mission was to take that option off the table.

What Cortés did was force himself and his men to either succeed or die. Retreat was not an option. I believe that to truly achieve the level of success we each desire, there are times when we need to “burn the ships.”

The question we have to ask ourselves is this: What are my ships? What am I afraid to let go of?

I can’t answer that question for you, but I can give you some areas to consider as you ponder the question, “What ships do I need to burn in my life?” Take a look at them, then feel free to add your own in the comments below.

As you consider each one, if it jumps out at you, ask yourself why. What is it that makes it hard to burn? Is it a false sense of obligation to it? Is it fear of the unknown? Is it fear of being perceived as a failure? What is it?

  • Your Current Job – Are you afraid of trying something new? Are you comfortable? Are you convinced that this is as good as it gets?
  • Your Field of Employment – Have you been dreaming of a career change? Does every ounce of your work drain you? Are you a people person stuck behind a computer screen? This is one I had to wrestle with.
  • A Bad Business Deal – Why is it a bad deal? Why can’t you let it go? Do you feel obligated to the relationship?
  • An Unrealistic Dream – Sometimes this is the toughest one to spot. I enjoy watching TV shows like American Idol because you get a chance to see people who are willing to put it all on the line in front of a national audience for their dreams. During the tryout rounds, you’ll witness as people who are ill-prepared give what they believe to be a stellar performance. Unfortunately, they don’t recognize the lack of skill in themselves. It’s sad because they are neither willing to put the work into accomplishing their dreams nor willing to modify them accordingly. Instead of dreams they have fantasies and that is a sad state for anyone to live in.

What are other “ships” that often need to be burned? What “ships” have you burned? How did it feel at the time? How does it feel now?

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Leave a Reply 44 comments

@BenAldern Reply

Cool analogy. It's handy to use it on a smaller scale as well. You should definitely burn your snooze button, for example. If you burn distractions (blocking Facebook for an hour, or turning your phone on airplane mode), you can get more done. Little things add up.

    Travis Robertson Reply

    Thanks, Ben! You're absolutely right. The little things do add. If we think about it, I'm sure we all have a lot things we could stand to cut out in our drive for success.

@BenAldern Reply

Cool analogy. It's handy to use it on a smaller scale as well. You should definitely burn your snooze button, for example. If you burn distractions (blocking Facebook for an hour, or turning your phone on airplane mode), you can get more done. Little things add up.

    Travis Robertson Reply

    Thanks, Ben! You're absolutely right. The little things do add. If we think about it, I'm sure we all have a lot things we could stand to cut out in our drive for success.

Super Fan Reply

From “Conquest of Mexico”
Cortes told his men —> To be thus calculating chances and means of escape was unworthy of brave souls. They had set their hands to the work; to look back, as they advanced, would be their ruin. They had only to resume their former confidence in themselves and their general, and success was certain. “As for me,” he concluded, “I have chosen my part. I will remain here, while there is one to bear me company. If there be any so craven, as to shrink from sharing the dangers of our glorious enterprise, let them go home, in God’s name. There is still one vessel left. Let them take that and return to Cuba. They can tell there how they deserted their commander and their comrades, and patiently wait till we return loaded with the spoils of the Aztecs.”

    Jose Reply

    This is a novel. Obviously there is no records of his words in that moment. They did not know Aztecs at this stage so it was not possible for him to mention them.

Fargo-based gaming startup launches The Abettor's Letters Reply

[…] get it done. I joke around, and call it our “Burn the Ships” period (in reference to Hernando Cortez burning his ships, that there’s no turning back). The team buckled down and within a couple months had all the […]

Small Changes = Better Life Part 5 | faith2max Reply

[…] a bloodier version of The Pirates of the Caribbean with Cortés played by Johnny Depp.” (from http://travisrobertson.com/leadership/burn-ships-succeed-die/). The Captain left no choice. Either they succeeded, or they died trying. Sometimes you must leave […]

Rick Crossland Reply

Excellent summary of the leadership philosophy and discipline an A Player leader needs to have. What areas of business do you see this being most applicable? Personnel, marketing, sales, operations, capital investments? Would like to hear your perspectives #aplayeradvantage

Anoop Singh Reply

I’m too, burning my ships .

FWB Reply

Hard to say how many times the “burn your retreat” strategy failed. Those guys all died and didn’t get to tell us.

    Joe Reply

    So in your opinion, there is no evidence that this (proven) strategy sometimes fails… that’s not really adding any value to the topic.

    TDK Reply

    I don’t think that this strategy will ever fail, this grabs the soul and whole energy of the soldiers and puts out against the enemy which I think is essentially what we need to succeed , burning the ships -is mistaken by the average individual as a CRAZY approach to battle, they only see the present -situation (oh what will happen, all the ships are burnt ,we are all gonna die now ) but they don’t see the possible long term goal ( we can capture this whole island and then we are going to enjoy the ownership of the whole island cause no body would think to go back -WE ARE ALL IN -lets do this!!! )

      purplelibraryguy Reply

      That’s fine and all, but has it occurred to you that there are OTHER people you are going up against in this scenario for whom it is ALSO succeed or die? Both sides can’t win, so it has to be a failure for someone. Being determined is nice, but I’d keep some attention towards “having a better plan than the opposition” and so forth rather than thinking “I can’t fail because I’m committed 100%, optimistic, have self-esteem etc”.

      Metaphorically burning your boats is ONE edge. Try for many, and suit them to the situation.

    Alex Reply

    I chuckled at this one too, as well as people who are like “be like Braveheart.” Dude got gutted. I’ll pass personally.

Jeff Barkell Reply

Travis, I teach a leadership class and came across this article. Would there be a way to get a pdf or download so that I can share it and have discussion with my students?

    Peter Parkorr Reply

    Get a screenshot tool for your browser (e.g. Fireshot) and use it to save the page as a PDF, assuming Travis doesn’t object.

SomehowStumbledHere Reply

Meh. Cortes was also a ruthless, manipulative tyrant who began a legacy of colonialism that devastated much of that region, the implications of which can still be seen today. Maybe he shouldn’t have burned his ships. Maybe there’s something to be said for leaving options open just in case your dreams turn out to be disastrous.

    Jose Reply

    This is a myth. You should read about Cortés before making such a statements. For instance the book written by John Wilkes or many others from reputed sources. On the other hand, there is no evidences that Cortes actually ordered his men to burn the ships, though this idea has transcended as well as the negative vision of Cortés.

scl Reply

Considering the disappearance of the indigenous people of multiple countries by the Spaniards, I have trouble using anything from them as a leadership lesson. Just heard a pastor use it, but left out what they did and how they treated others, especially considering they were illegal aliens in those countries.

    Jeff E. Reply

    You don’t have to agree with their mission, but the tactic is still valid. Only a fool would disregard the successes of the enemy and chose not to learn from them, just because you didn’t like what they were trying to accomplish.

      TDK Reply


    andy Reply

    Since there was no law stating they couldn’t be there, they were literally, by definition, not “illegal” aliens. Also, the Aztecs were one of the most satanic cultures of all time. They sacrificed hundreds of thousands of people to their gods by the high priest cutting their beating hearts out of their chest and pushing them down the temple stairs to the people, who canobolized them. Cortez recognized this evil and knew it could not be allowed to exist, in a certain sense similar to the world rejecting Adolf Hitler. It’s really an interesting story. He burned his ships knowing that his few hundred Spaniards were against millions of these people and would probably all die, but he felt he had to try, retreat wasn’t an option without his ships.

Laurens Bon Reply

I’m either burning a 100 ships for my dream, or I’m on the ship that needs to burn, a very unrealistic dream that I want to realize.

Sku Reply

I remember as a kid going out as an exchange student to Brazil taking a number of English magazines and CDs with me to keep me company while trying to learn the language. After a few days I remember gathering everything that had any English on it, throwing it in a pile and lighting it on fire with a bunch of gasoline. I really took the approach that I was going to learn Portuguese if it killed me. That was 25 years ago and I still speak relatively fluent Portuguese b/c I was so fluent at the time. Point being I mentally made a change the day that I burnt all of that crap and never turned back. I still think about that experience & how it formed who I am today!

The King Reply

I burned a ship, my bitch of a wife and our marriage. Now, 2 years later, I find myself recovering financially with a bullpen of numerous younger women.
That ship is ten thousand feet under the sea and Im living the dream!

    George Foley Reply

    Been there, done that too.

    I thought I had it made, but after a few years I found myself
    right back where I started.

    Then I met my wife, a widow who knew where she was going.

    We dated, moved in together and found happiness.

    We’ve been married for three years, now, and Im not lookin back.

    I wish you the best.

TDK Reply

Hi this I found because I am in a similar situation,
Im an international Student to NZ graduated

Ram Reply

Very good topic. Very well put by Travis. But only one thing I cannot accept. Unrealistic Dream? Any dream is unrealistic. If it is realistic it is not a Dream. If you can Dream it you can do it; and the if and only if is also holds good. You can do it only if you can dream it. Your task is to find a path to reach the dream. Not to question the dream itself.

    purplelibraryguy Reply

    I dream of having mental powers that allow me to fly and read minds. No sign so far of being able to do it because I dream it.

Nelson Reply

nice write up

William Acevedo Reply

Lovely, my father would always remind me this!

Frank Galea Reply

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asifashraf Reply

Tariq Ibn Ziyad was one of the first to burn his ships when landing on the rock of Gibraltar in 711. Cortes use of the burning of ships approach in 1519, so Tariq was ahead of the game by 800 years , but was also a Muslim, and perhaps that’s not as alluring for analogues aimed at a Western audience. Tariq’s speech was inspiring, and didn’t need the leader to thrust a sword into a dissenting voice. Tariq also faced huge odds stacked against him. With only 7000 soldiers, he was expecting to face a resistance of 100,000, which makes his actions and inspirational speech that much more impactful.
Why not swap the reference form Cortes to Tariq?

John Welch Reply

Unfortunately it’s not quite true.

Tariq ibn Ziyad was a Muslim commander who led the Islamic Umayyad conquest of Visigothic Hispania in 711–718 A.D. Once ashore on the coast of Spain (as it would later become) he gave the order to burn the ships in which his army had arrived. This was despite facing a defending army which considerably outnumbered Tariq’s attacking force. His men therefore faced a stark choice: fight on to victory or be martyred in the cause of bringing Islam to the Iberian peninsula.

It is sometimes said that Hernán Cortés did the same thing. In fact he achieved the same end by different means: he scuttled rather than burnt his fleet, forcing his men to go on and conquer Mexico.

Jose Reply

As usually happen from anglophone center perspective you depict here Cortes as a criminal. That is not true: he was a great captian whose acheivements are comparable to Alexander the Great. The story is, on the other hand, more legend than reality. Perhaps partially true. Cortes only had 300 men and it would have been stupid to kill his own men like you describe. I suggest you to READ and learn about History before writting about it based on your prejudices

Jose Reply

So I register here to be my comment censored? Why?

freedda Reply

One might call this motvational or inspiring it it wasn’t total nonsense. First, Cortes sank his ships, he didn’t burn them. Second, he didn’t do it because he was some great motivational leader of men. Instead, he had been ordered to return to Cuba by the new world governor, but was planning to disobey this. He knew many of his men were loyal to the governor and might rebel or simply return to Cuba, so to prevent this, he destroyed the ships.

So what is the ‘motivational’ message might we take away from this more true account of history? It would be that we should always follow our own self-centered, selfish instincts first, even if it means putting others at risk for what we want, or that we end up disobeying our leaders and bosses.

tam Reply

Profound!! Thank you

leslie Reply

I felt like a light bulb went off in my head. Especially when you wrote the definition of ” Is it a false sense of obligation to it? Is it fear of the unknown? Is it fear of being perceived as a failure? What is it?” I could honestly say YES YES YES & YES

burritolikethesun Reply

Yeah…they shouldn’t have wasted their time putting a launch escape system on top of Apollo…I mean, if they have an option to abandon why wouldn’t they just do that?

Or…maybe the more important factor is providing true leadership. Demonstrate to those you are leading that what you are doing has merit and that you are committed to mission with dignity. If it is truly worth accomplishing, they will follow.

The idea of burning the ships is leadership by the sword. That is what totalitarian dictatorships are built on. Free societies are based on mutual goals and a shared interest in moving forward together.

Omar Tarancon Reply

I recently burned my ships. I created a board game called – Safari Turbo. Instead of taking the safe approach, that is – ask for money on kickstarter, I took out a loan. Kickstarter is safe because if the game is not successful, it doesn’t get manufactured, I don’t lose money and no harm done. With a loan, i’m fully commited because if the game is not successful, I still have to pay back the loan with interest, so I HAVE to create a successful game. With this “burning of the ships approach”, you’re more motivated to succeed. The Safari Turbo will be launching on kickstarter April 8. Join our group at: facebook.com/safariturbo/

Freddy Reply

Cortez never actually burned the ships. This is a common misbelief. I think this post needs a rewrite.

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