Burn the Boats!

It is said that Cortez ordered his men to burn their boats so that they had no choice but to conquer or die.

This is not true. He ordered that the ships be sunk, not burned, to prevent a second mutiny of soldiers who were still loyal to their Cuban home (and conceivably wanted to return there).

Isn’t it fascinating how a major historical event has been romanticized and mythologized to the point that to “burn the boats” represents the ultimate metaphor for negative motivation to change?

And it’s a seductive one, too. “Burn the boats!” is so much easier than providing substantive, thoughtful, clear and consistent explanations for the necessity of change.

Maybe when you’re leading the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire, or parenting unruly children, negative reinforcement is the best way to go. Maybe.

I am comfortable asserting that professional adults who come to work each day hoping to engage their hard-won skills in support of something worthwhile deserve better than “burn the boats.”

Don’t you think?


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

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