“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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  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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

    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.”

  • Love this story!

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  • 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

    I’m too, burning my ships .

  • FWB

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

    • Joe

      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

      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

        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.

  • Jeff Barkell

    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?

    • 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

    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.

  • scl

    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.

      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

        true

    • andy

      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

    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

    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

    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

      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

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

  • Ram

    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

      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

    nice write up

  • William Acevedo

    Lovely, my father would always remind me this!

  • Frank Galea

    Travis, this is an old post but still popped in the search results – I tip my hat to you for writing relevant “evergreen content”. That should serve as an endorsement of any SEO advice you give clients. I had to honor it with a link on my blog post: https://www.ficlub.org/single-post/2018/05/08/FiClub-Franks-Trump-Tower-Las-Vegas-Lost-Weekend

    Best regards,
    FiClub Frank

  • asifashraf

    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?