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If You Have To Burn The Ships, You May Have The Wrong Team

Published March 30, 2015

In 1519 Hernán Cortés landed in Veracruz and as legend has it he issued the decree for his men to burn the ships to keep anyone from thinking about running back to the life they knew before. History has since said that the ships weren’t burned, but rather sunk…either way you look at it Cortés wanted to make sure that no one got any ideas about leaving. I don’t believe that qualifies as sustainable leadership!
There are 6 leadership lessons in this story that apply to anyone leading an organization.

  1. Start with building the right team first. A great idea is only a great idea if there are great people (other than you) alongside you to make it a reality. If you start with having all the right people on board you may choose to burn the ships but may not have to.
  2. Remove low performers. If someone does not have the ability to elevate those around them and you want your organization to thrive, you must remove them from your team. Keeping a low performer on your team will keep you from attracting top talent and will cause top performers to leave.
  3. When you lead even one person it’s not about you anymore. It’s about them and their ability to get on board with the vision you have and that requires you to stay committed as a leader.
  4. Your personal transparency as a leader is crucial to leading well. If you hide your fear, excitement, questions, or doubt you won’t be able to lead very far and take anyone along the journey with you.
  5. Clearly articulate your vision. You can rally the troops but you have to know what it is you are going after and include them in the process. People want to be a part of something special! They want to know what they are working for matters, and that who they are working for is clear on where they are headed.
  6. You have to remove all the obstacles. Your job as a leader is to clear the way for your team so that they are able to move swiftly toward the goals that have been set. Sometimes these are physical obstacles and sometimes they are emotional. Either way it’s up to you as the leader to remove those obstacles.

I have a friend named Paige Chenault who is Founder and CEO of The Birthday Party Project, a non-profit organization whose mission is to bring joy to homeless children through the magic of birthdays. I met Paige last year on a flight following a conference we both attended and it became clear to me after one two hour conversation that she was totally committed to her idea of building an organization that served homeless children in the Dallas Forth Worth metropolitan area.
Over this last year I have seen her vision grow beyond DFW to Detroit, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. Along the way she has had her share of challenges in building the organization but failure for her was not an option. She has built a team around her that shares her vision and is surrounding herself with leaders who challenge her to be better. There is a culture of accountability that keeps everyone honest about where the organization is headed. She doesn’t have to burn the ships because she is assembling a team of people who share the vision, and want to be a part of it.
I love the story of Cortés and his edict to burn (or sink) the ships. There is a lot of passion in that story and a certain Braveheart-esque swagger that makes everyone feel good. But in the reality of today’s world that really doesn’t work. The trick is to build a culture where everyone wants to stay and be a part of something amazing. And the way to do that is to build a team of top performers that creates a way to drive results and develops more great people that will carry your vision beyond yourself to the next generation of leaders in your organization.
So if you decide to burn the ships, do it because you want to, not because you have to.