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The Center for Sales Strategy Blog

Burn Your Ships: A History Lesson About How to Be a Great Leader

ship at seaIf you are a history buff, you may know the story of 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.

Two years later, he succeeded in his conquest of the Aztec empire. 

As leaders taking our people into new territories as unknown and potentially hazardous as did 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.

What Does Burning the Ships Mean Today? 

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.

Here are some examples from the organizations we work with: 

  • Commit to a New Sales Structure. When you commit to a new sales structure, commit to it in every way and make sure everyone on your team can see that you are.
  • Update Sales Talent. If you need to upgrade your sales talent, select the right tool, use it fully and consistently, and don’t waver in your use of it.
  • Eliminate Dead Weight. Remove people who are standing in the way of the organization moving forward.
  • Embrace New Training. If your team is adopting a new training program, be sure they’re fully immersed in it and they are implementing the practices.

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.

Where can you burn ships in your business? In your life? Look inside yourself and see where you’re having a hard time committing. Is it because the ships are still in the harbor? Burn ’em. Force commitment. And see what happens.

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Editor's Note: This post was originally published on April 23, 2014 and has been updated.

Topics: sales performance