Hernan Cortes was a Spanish Conquistador that led a famed Spanish Expedition that led to the fall of the Aztec Empire. This conquest would lead to the eventual formation of the country we now know as Mexico.
There is much to be said about Cortes and his conquest of the Aztec Empire, but the most legendary tale of the conquest was perhaps the stark example of leadership that he demonstrated on the shores of Veracruz.
In July 1519 Cortes, accompanied by five hundred men on eleven ships and a small amount of artillery, landed on the coast of Veracruz. A long political battle including an all out mutiny of his direct superior, the Governor of Cuba, led him to this expedition and he was by no means interested in the possibility of it going awry. Not knowing how his men may respond to warfare with the Aztecs and to eliminate any possibility of the thought of retreat, Cortes gave an unexpected order once they stepped foot on Veracruz soil.
Burn the ships.
Cortes was sending a clear message that there was no turning back. That there was nowhere to go but forward. It’s not known if Cortes actually set his ships on fire, but it is universally accepted that he certainly scuttled (sank) them in some form or another in effort to push his men forward.
This surprisingly brash style of leadership has been employed by numerous men throughout history. Historical lore tells the tale of Alexander the Great giving very similar orders. Sun Tzu’s ancient book of military strategy, “The Art of War”, reveals burning boats as a primary strategy to prevent retreat.
While this tactic may seem extreme, the principles behind it hold a lesson that we can learn from today. “Burn the ships” eliminates an obstacle that stands in between you and your goals. That obstacle is a thought. The thought that if things don’t work out, you’ll always have something you can turn back to. This thought pattern prohibits you from giving 100% to the goal that lies ahead of you. By “burning the ships” and destroying this thought pattern you enable yourself to completely focus on the task that lies ahead. You either succeed or you fail. You win big or you lose completely. It’s easy to dream of how you want things to be, how you’d like them to be or even how you think they’re going to be one day. But until you pull those dreams out of the clouds and put legs under them they will never be a reality.
The biggest problem you need to solve in order to reach your goals is to force yourself to do the work. The best way to force yourself to do the work is -- you guessed it -- burn the ships!