Entrepreneurs are always told to never burn their bridges.
At some point, however, you do need to burn your ships.
Burning your ships may seem extreme but has been employed by leaders for hundreds of years. As I read and discover more about leadership, I’ve found a common thread that runs throughout – all successful people have one thing in common; they burn the ships.
What does that mean in today’s day and age? It means that without a burning desire to make it work, most often people won’t. When we provide ourselves with an out, a way of reverting back to previous behaviors, habits or business practices, often we will.
We find comfort in the familiar and solace in knowing what will greet us the next day. However, in a society where things move fast and the best way to make your mark is to do something different or to add your unique spin, we are at odds with our natural inclination.
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.
But comfort is the coward’s path. When you embark on life-changing missions, you can never go back. You must keep moving forward until the mission is complete.
Knowing you have no safe place to return to, you devote 100% of your energy to accomplishing your goal. You cut out all weakness, all doubt, all temptation, all excuses. Your eyes are fixed forward because you know that behind you nothing remains.
The Columbus Effect
If you are a history buff, you may know the story of Hernán Cortés and the burning of his ships. In the year 1519, Hernán Cortés arrived in the New World with six hundred men and, upon arrival, made history by destroying his ships.
This sent a clear message to his men: There is no turning back. They either win or they perish.
Although you might assume that Hernán Cortés’ men would have become despondent, with no exit strategy in place to save their lives, they instead rallied behind their leader as never before. Within two years, he succeeded in his conquest of the Aztec empire.
As leaders taking our people into new territories as unknown and potentially hazardous as did Hernán Cortés, we need to ensure those we are leading that there is no turning back. He knew how to be a great leader. We need to be certain there is no off-ramp our people can use to avoid the challenges of our own new business worlds. We need to burn the ships.
The Flight Of Icarus
The legendary Alexander the Great built an empire that, at its height, stretched from Ancient Greece to India.
One of his strongest and most formidable enemies was the Persian Empire of Darius III. In 334 BC, Alexander led a fleet of Greek and Macedonian ships across the Dardanelles Straits and into Asia Minor. When he reached the shore, Alexander ordered his men to burn the ships.
Hebrew tradition teaches a similar value.
In ancient times, Israelite armies would besiege enemy cities from three sides only, leaving open the possibility of flight. They understood that so long as the enemy saw that they had an escape route available, they would not fight with utmost earnestness and energy. In most cases, this played right into the besiegers’ hands.
Never Go Backwards
We’re long past the days of conquistadors, but the story of burning the ships is as relevant as ever.
I bet you’re already thinking of some aspect of your company that needs attention right now, that needs your leadership. If you leave the ships in the harbor, your people will see that you’re not fully committing to the transition needed. If you’re not fully committed, why should they be?
By burning the ships, by removing any available path back to the previous way, your team will become as fully committed as you obviously are.
Burning your ships doesn’t mean you can’t ever change course or decide that a current pursuit is not working. But no change process has a chance of working if your team has an off-ramp.
Today, most historians agree that Hernán Cortés did not burn his boats but instead scuttled them to eliminate the option for retreat and thwart attempts of mutiny. Regardless, the lesson of his commitment to his mission should not be lost.
The Turning Point
A business owner will make many commitments along his/her journey to building a successful company. The first, and foremost, compromise is often leaving somewhere, or something, behind and venturing out on their own to follow their dreams and passions.
All companies start with an idea of taking prior knowledge and skills and turning them into direct business ownership to “run things their way.” However, sometimes, that initial dream and passion will become harder to accomplish.
As the business owner encounters more problems in which they do not possess the necessary skills to overcome, they may start to second guess themselves and perhaps even regret opening the business in the first place.
These fears often force business owners to retreat with planned growth opportunities, and not push further ahead, when the company experiences financial hardships or operational concerns that they had not anticipated when they first began the business.
Retreat seems easy when a business owner does not believe solutions exist or are not sure where they can seek advice. It is during these struggles that further commitment is required, along with additional business advice.
Commitment to change can be challenging. To be genuinely fruitful, equipped with the necessary changes for business improvements, business owners and leaders must follow the notion of “burning the ship.”
A “no turning back” mentality against old habits or a desire to retreat to the old ways of doing business which caused the company to steer off course in the first place.
Four Geek'n'Hacks For Entrepreneurs
Share the Vision
You need to believe in and share your vision with those around you.
Devise a Committed Team
Now that you’ve shared your vision, find those that are adventurous enough to cross an ocean with you.
Foster Leaders Within the Group
ou need trusted people to help you make your vision a reality. You likely already have a budding superstar on your team just waiting for the opportunity to put all they’ve learned into action.
Eliminate Dead Weight
Remove people who are standing in the way of the organization moving forward.
Too often, we see examples of would-be entrepreneurs holding onto their jobs while trying to set up a business. This communicates a lack of faith in their own business model for them to take the leap of faith. Other entrepreneurs operate different businesses with the belief that if one business fails, the other will save them. Although these might make sense from the perspective of holding on to a life preserver, they minimize the likelihood of success.
I believe that to truly achieve the level of success we each desire, there are times when we need to “burn the ships.”
Whether we face a true crossroads or simply want to achieve great things in our careers, personal lives or both, we must approach our decisions with a level of commitment that will drive us definitively forward. If you lead others, find a way to gain their commitment to ensure that you work together toward common goals.
The same holds true with business decisions, especially at times of market and/or organizational change. Kodak, for example, had to burn their boats to reinvent their business model from selling film products to offering digital services, too.
For most entrepreneurs, failure will not have the same outcome, but it can seem like it at times. In the end, you can survive and even recover and eventually thrive from failure, but you will never be able to grow the business you want without a no-fail mindset.
If you have a tremendous mission ahead of you, one you know requires more effort, courage, discipline, knowledge, vision, creativity, and sacrifice than you are prepared to give, you must Burn Your Ships and never look backwards.
You must go forward and you will succeed, giving it your 100%, or you will perish. Either way, there is no return, no home, no previous life waiting for you to welcome you safely before your mission is done.
Never go home until you have accomplished what you set out to do.
Burn Your Ships. Never Go Backwards.
Digital Dandy. Hacker From Heart. Workaholic. Coding Artist. Self-made.