BURN THE BOATS
A Masterstroke of Military Genius
“The Skillful Warrior leads his men into battle, like a man climbing a height and kicking away the ladder, he leads them deep into the territory of the feudal lords and releases the trigger. He burns his boats. He breaks his pots…”
– Sun-tzu, “The Art of War”
Hernán Cortés, marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, was born in 1485. He was a Conquistador, Spanish for Conqueror. He overthrew the Aztec empire, and later won Mexico for the crown of Spain. He first set sail to the New World at the age of 19. King Charles I appointed him Governor of New Spain in 1522.
In the year 1519, Hernán Cortés, commanding a force of some 600 Spaniards, 16 horses and 11 boats, landed on a vast inland plateau called Mexico. He was about to embark on the conquest of an empire that was repository of one of the world’s richest treasure troves, with the greatest concentrations in one single geographical location, of Gold, Silver and precious Aztec Jewels.
But, with a force of six hundred ill-trained men, who hadn’t even a stitch of protective armor on, an attempt to subjugate such a vast empire could only have been considered, even in those capriciously violent days, an adventure of the most foolhardy proportions. Of even greater military significance was the fact that, for more than 600 years, conquistadors equipped with far bigger arsenals of men and munitions had failed abysmally in their heroic attempts to colonize the Yucatan Peninsula. Being only too aware of this fact, Hernán Cortés adopted a strategically different approach when he arrived the outer reaches of Mexico. Rather than engage in the conventional, full frontal charge through the Mexican cities, and propelling his men into the immediate hostilities of battle, Hernán Cortés remained on the beach, where he invested time in awakening the souls of his men by employing impassioned and emblazoned speeches of fiery exhortation.
His speeches were ingeniously designed and delivered to rouse the spirit of violent adventure, and invoke the thirst for unimaginable fortunes amongst his men. His emotional strategy, conveyed through uncommonly powerful oratory, yielded the desired result, as what was initially a near-routine military campaign had now taken on the semblance of an extravagant military romance in the fired-up imaginations of Cortés’ troops.
At the height of his exhortation, Cortés’ dramatically murmured three words that were to irrevocably alter the history of the New World. As they prepared to march inland to face their enemies, Cortés ordered, “Burn the boats.”
It was a remarkable decision, for if Cortés and his men had, at anytime, found themselves on the brink of defeat, their exit route had been totally eliminated. Remarkably, the command to burn the boats had an all-or-none effect on his men. Realizing that they were left with only two choices, die, or be victorious, they fought their bravest battle, and Cortés became the first man in 600 years to launch a successful campaign against Mexico.
But, in the annals of war, he wasn’t the first man to make such a bold, strategic decision.
A thousand years before Cortés’ invasion of Mexico, the world’s greatest empire builder, Alexander the Great, had arrived the shores of Persia in the year 334BC. Alexander was determined to achieve victory over the Persians, who far outnumbered his men. Furthermore, at that point in history, Persia had the distinction of running the most powerful naval fleet in the world.
Alexander the Great, who created an empire that stretched from his kingdom, Macedonia to India, immediately and ostentatiously ordered the burning of his ships on arrival at the shores of Persia.
“How will we get home?” asked one of his commanders, in obvious alarm.
“We will use their ships,” countered Alexander with the calm demeanor of a man who might just burn ships as a hobby.
Considering the formidable army Alexander was facing, the decision to destroy the Greeks’ only hope of retreat was a truly extraordinary one.
However, it was to prove to be a masterstroke of military genius.
Alexander conquered Persia.
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Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” illuminates the logic behind the propensity of history’s greatest generals to burn their boats, even at the risk of being eliminated by the enemy. The motivation for this totalitarian action lays simply in the absolute obliteration of the faintest notion of retreat from the minds of their troops, thereby committing them unwaveringly to the cause of non-negotiable victory.
The spirit of the meaning of “burn the boats” continues to inspire thousands, especially because it does present itself as a fine example of what unwavering commitment truly is. Certainly, it continues to inspire business innovation and reinvention. Companies like Kodak had to burn their boats to reinvent their business model, from selling only hard products, to offering digital services as well. Dell burned its “direct selling” boats by deciding to sell through retailers. These businesses had to do what they did to survive and thrive in a global economy that is fast rejecting selection bias.
When Darwin Smith, CEO of Kimberly-Clark made the strategic decision to sell the mills and invest the money in brands like Kleenex and Huggies, he was roundly ridiculed by the media. But, the cries of ridicule soon turned to songs of praise when Kimberly-Clark out-performed Proctor & Gamble and gained full control of Scott Paper. Darwin Smith burned his company’s boats, and like Cortés, found his gold.
Sometimes, and especially in our individual lives, to gain everything we must lose everything. If you burn your bridges or your boats, it means you have done something that ensures you cannot turn back. The Oxford English Dictionary credits Mark Twain as the first to use this phrase in print in 1892. But, it is widely acknowledged that the phrase comes from the military strategies of the likes of Alexander the Great and Hernán Cortés.
No action quite surpasses burning your boats as a means of focusing your mind on one thing, and one thing only; success. It is extraordinary what each of us is potentially capable of when we are boxed into a corner, with no other option than to offer our absolute best, and possibly beyond even that. Are you fighting with one eye on the battle, and the other on retreat? Is your fixation on your exit plans resulting in mediocre commitment and performance?
Without doubt, burning your boats assumes greater utility when the odds are already pitted against you. When you are outnumbered 5-to-1, the only viable option is to garner all resources at your disposal in such a way as to leverage on every possible factor that is to your advantage. That requires one hundred percent commitment. A half-hearted attempt will not make the mark. Simply giving the goal a shot will not either. It will have to be one hundred percent or nothing.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Yomi Garnett is a physician, author, public speaker, and a world-class Ghostwriter. He is HOST of the popular Internet Radio Talk Show, DREAM THE LIFE, LIVE THE DREAM, on the VoiceAmerica Talk Radio Network, in Phoenix, Arizona. Eminently regarded as one of the world’s most accomplished Ghostwriters, Dr. Garnett is President/CEO at The Global Institute For Human Excellence, Chancellor/CEO at Royal Biographical Institute, ROBIN, and Host of The Garnett Interview- America’s First Celebrity Newsletter Interview, an Online, High Profile and Social Media-propelled Interview series. He is Author : “365 DAYS OF WISDOM: A Daily Companion For The Soul In Search of Enlightenment.”
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