Burn Your Boats

Burn Your Boats

Posted by in Leadership, The Leadership Coach™

When Alexander the Great arrived on the shores of Persia his army was overwhelmingly outnumbered. Yet he gave the orders to his men to burn the boats. As their only means of retreat went up in flames, legend has it that Alexander turned to his men and said, “We go home in Persian ships, or we die”. Not quite the stirring Braveheart speech, but certainly motivational in it’s own way! What followed was an astounding victory over an army that was in many ways superior. Win or die. Simple.

I’m more comfortable being the “options guy”. I like knowing Plan B (and maybe C too). I want to have contingencies for the worst case scenario. I get some security from having an exit plan. And history is littered with examples of times when just such a retreat plan would have been wise.

But…

There’s nothing like burning your boats to focus your mind on one thing, and one thing only- success. It’s extraordinary what we as leaders are capable of when we are in a corner, with no other option but to give our absolute best (and even beyond that).

I write this edition of The Leadership Coach from New York City. We moved here last week with our three kids under the age of 5. We’ve taken The Leadership Coach global (now with offices in New York and Sydney). Plus we’re launching our own not-for-profit, in the most expensive city in America during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. In other words we burned out boats. In poker terms we “went all in on the short stack”.

• How about you?
• What risks are you taking in your leadership that have put you and your team “all in”?
• Are your troops fighting with one eye on the battle, but the other on retreat?
• Is your desire for exit plans resulting in mediocre commitment?

Perhaps burning your boats is most important when the odds are already against you. There’s no “test and see” when you are outnumbered 5-to-1, you’ll waste what precious little resource you have. The only legitimate plan is to garner everything you have, and pit it against your competition in a way that circumvents their strength and leverages yours.

That requires 100% commitment. Really trying won’t do it. Giving it a shot won’t either. 100%.

“There is nothing impossible to him who will try”, Alexander the Great (circa 348 BC)

I’d love to hear your comments and feel free to use the links below to pass this article on

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35 Responses to “Burn Your Boats”

  1. Jason Leitch

    17. Jun, 2010

    Hi Paul,

    I love it! Burn your boat is such a phenomenal way to be. As someone who ‘burned his boat’ – aka quit employed job at beginning of GFC to pursue dream of building a business from scratch with no financial backing or guaranteed income for the family – I found it was a real liberating step, a ‘faith’ step if you will. I encourage all who are contemplating a ‘burn your boat’ step to absolutely go for it! You only live once and you don’t want to die regretting you never took the chance.

  2. Deepika

    17. Jun, 2010

    Dear Paul, Good luck to you and your family in the new big new city!
    Your writing is crisp and fresh, always a pleasure to read!
    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Daniel C White

    18. Jun, 2010

    Burning your boat definitely takes a lot of FAITH and a lot of CONFIDENCE in yourself. This is a great post that challenges us all to step out beyond ourselves. If we don’t, then we’ll only settle for mediocrity in our lives and may never ever know what we are truly capable of. I’m not sure I’m ready to settle.

    LOVE IT, thanks for the challenge and I’m glad to now be connected to your blog Paul.

  4. Paul Andrew

    18. Jun, 2010

    Great encouragement Jason – and you’ve lived it. You’re right… it is liberating when you pursue your dreams…

  5. Paul Andrew

    18. Jun, 2010

    Thanks Deepika – I’m glad you’re enjoying them. I’m thinking about moving to writing weekly instead of every other week….

  6. Paul Andrew

    18. Jun, 2010

    Hey Daniel – really glad we’ve connected!

  7. Henri Hawkins

    18. Jun, 2010

    Hi Paul, just wanted to share a bit of our story… we burnt our boats April 21st 2006. we left the UK to go to Hillsong College with 6 mths money (or so we thought) 4 children and 10 suitcases. To this day I have no idea how we got though that first year but God was faithful! And we certainly are not looking back, we have been blessed beyond what we could have imagined possible and God has done great things in opening up and reviving long lost and held dreams! It feels like we are on the edge of another moment of our story but we feel in a far stronger place because of what we have been though. Your emails have been a great inspiration and I also know God will speak to us though them each time they come in! By the way your wife has also had a huge impact in my daughters life, she was a big inspiration and our daughter did her first public speaking at Youth a month back! AWESOME!
    Thanks guys!

  8. Marise Morel

    19. Jun, 2010

    wow! this article? now?
    I have just signed up for the diploma course, which i was not going to do until next year…some time….hehehehe….
    my persians are inside…I choose not to retreat from them….and I am willing to keep on discovering how to make that happen. it’s already happening!
    I am encouraged by your article to keep on being courageous. who can say where courage will lead you?

    thanks!

  9. Paul Andrew

    19. Jun, 2010

    Congratulations Henri… that’s what it’s all about

  10. NIckey Andree

    19. Jun, 2010

    AWESOME!! That is exactly what I needed to read today. Fully inspiring.

  11. Paul Andrew

    19. Jun, 2010

    WOW – Marise that is a statement worthy of a movie quote, or a billboard or something…. LOVE IT

    “Who can say where courage will lead you?”

    Well said.

  12. Paul Andrew

    01. Jul, 2010

    “Cut the umbilical” – love it… thanks for the feedback Claire

  13. claire - the "Attitude Queen"

    30. Jun, 2010

    Hi Paul,

    Congratulations on your new start in NY. I watched your video in my email the other day & you looked SOOO happy & relaxed.

    I agree that burning boats is often the only way to go – it means that you can’t get back into that comfort zone. My biggest successes have always occured when I threw myself in & cut the “lifeline”, or umbilical cord, to my comfort zone.

    Thanks

  14. Bolaji Asimi

    28. Dec, 2010

    What a word to end a year and start a new one. It stirs in me the determination to hit the mark. Thanks

  15. Paul Andrew

    29. Dec, 2010

    Thanks Bolaji, it’s probably timely for lots of people this time of year!

  16. Patrice White

    21. Sep, 2013

    WOW!! I have to be honest, I only ready up on this because it was an extra credit assignment my instructor gave. I really did enjoy reading this and to find out how it relates to me. I recently started my own company Caring Touch Home Care Service, LLC I started the company based on a personal experience I encounter 3yrs ago. My mom was murder and I had to take own the responsibility of my developmental disable sister. This was an abrupt change for the both of us. Granted, I’m was aware of her condition but never knew to the extent of what it required because my mother dealt with it. I just did what a older sister does when I went home to visit. That is take her shopping, go to the movies, go out to eat, and just spent time with her overall. Never knowing the ins and outs of what other things that had to be done. So relocating her to Georgia with me and my son exposed to me to a whole other world of caring for someone full time with a developmental disability. Instead of feeling like what I was left to deal with was unfair, I found good in my situation. I wonder how many other people who are caring for a love one with a disability needs an extra help like I did when I was going through all I had going on. That’s what inspired me to start my company. I “Burn My Boats”! I knew nothing about nothing about running or starting a company. Nor do I have the financial means however I truly believe it was something GOD put in my heart due to what has happen. I started the company a year ago it’s still a challenge however I’m trusting GOD will open up doors especially when my reasons are from the heart and for the good of others. Thanks for the article!!

  17. Scott Wolf

    04. May, 2014

    Awesome

  18. Heyya i’m for the first time here. I came across this board
    and I find It truly useful & it helped me out much.
    I hope to give something back and help others like you helped
    me.

  19. Paulie

    04. Apr, 2015

    Hi, i’m just wondering if the photo you posted (burn-you-boats) is copyright, if not, I would like to use the photo for a project.

  20. GUL M. GUL

    21. Sep, 2015

    Paul Andrew, It affects one’s credibility, specially when is talking about leadership, yet fails to verify some of the very basic facts. It is even worse when someone’s achievement (who actually deserves the kudos) is being to attributed to a writer’s (coach) favorites.

    Alexander the Macedonian never burnt any boat during his attack of Persia. THE PIONEER WAS THE ARAB BY HE NAME OF TARIQ IBN ZIYAD (BERBER RACE OF MORROCCO). His ‘Point of No Return’ (PNR) strategy was emulated by the Spanish army in the 16th Century:

    One such incident was in 711 AD, when Muslim forces invaded the Iberian Peninsula. The commander, Tariq ibn Ziyad, ordered his ships to be burned.
    Another such incident was in 1519 AD, during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Hernán Cortés, the Spanish commander, scuttled his ships, so that his men would have to conquer or die.

    I think, it is your responsibility as a a coach and specifically one coaching on Leadership should be ‘man enough’ to be rectifying his mis-step and correct this blog and future representations. Just curious, are you called Paul Andrew at home too or you go by another name that is quite different? Look forward to your response on my comment.

  21. Matt

    09. Oct, 2015

    This is an amazing philosophy if you are a coach or player of a sport. Being a football coach going up against a very tough team that clearly out numbers out team in size this will be a great message to philosophy to share with the defensive backs that I coach that tonight its all or nothing and creating a spark tonight is the only way burning our ships will happen.

  22. Lou Serrano

    30. Nov, 2015

    Although this post is a few years old, it was exactly what I was looking for. I recently made the decision to burn the boats in my own business. I realized that many of things i’ve been doing to to keep the income flowing has actually hindered me from growing. I’ve burned the boats uncertain aspects of my business and it’s forcing me to commit to the actions that will force me to grow (or fail miserably). 2016 will either be my best year ever or one of the worst, but at least I’ve made the decision to carve a new path, and I’m excited about it.

  23. Augustus

    13. Jan, 2016

    I thought it was Cortes who ordered his boats to be burned when he arrived in Mexico in 1519. There is no evidence of Alexander ordering his troops to scuttle their ships

  24. Abdulfattahu R.o

    08. Jul, 2016

    I have forgone many things several times to achieve things even though i pass through depression, ups and down i still those things with time… I have always burned my boat to achieve most things in my life and i never knew.
    Right now am so afraid of working on my innovation the inner fear of failure is holding me back but yet emotionally i think am ready…
    I would that boat and take my dream my storm to achieve my future.. It s all i have its my hope for survival am going for it..

  25. Jonathan Powell

    20. Nov, 2016

    The information that is going on around here is so mindbogglingly painful.

    The first person (who we know of) to give the order to burn their ships was Tariq ibn Ziyad, a Muslim commander in 711 AD.

    Then it was a Spanish commander named Hernán Cortés who gave the order to scuttle their ships in 1519 AD.

    As GUL M. GUL pointed out.

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