“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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