Though I have read a little about history and a little more about business and leadership, the first time I heard the expression, “Burn the boats,” was just a few weeks ago. It prompted me to look into this theory a little further. The phrase is most attributed to Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez when he landed in Mexico in 1519 with only one objective – to seize the great treasure owned by the Aztecs. Warriors had tried for six centuries to accomplish this feat, none had succeeded, but they all had a fallback plan to take the path of least resistance when the going got too tough. Cortez had a unique advantage; he had complete and total commitment from his men, as failure would result in death.
Though some in the military will face a “succeed or die” scenario protecting our freedoms, most of us will not. We will, however, be faced with a similar decision to burn our metaphorical boats so we can move only forward. Commitment is one of the foundations of success. We can all cite outliers in every theory but for the bulk of the bell curve, commitment is required to succeed. You saw it in Super Bowl XLVIII just recently as those men were completely committed to coach Pete Carroll’s game plan. Companies like Kodak, Kimberley-Clark and Dell burned their boats to reinvent their business models in an effort to stay relevant.
A boat I have seen not burned a lot as a commander is in regard to making the military a career. Often times, Airmen delay making a career commitment and do not prioritize physical fitness, professional military education, advanced degrees and Weighted Airman Promotion System tests. These are not areas in which a lack of time is a friend. Deliberate planning and commitment to the results are required to succeed. Without the commitment to take care of Air Force requirements, the Air Force often has no choice but to force you back to your fallback plan.
Burning a boat involves sacrifice and getting rid of something you love for something you love more. Sacrifices of time, resources and effort are part of what we input into the equation to receive greater output. The correlation will vary depending on how much you can sacrifice. The contestants on “The Biggest Loser” are able to sacrifice all their time to get fit and lose weight, and their results are pretty remarkable. Full-time Airmen can’t make that sacrifice, so you shouldn’t expect similar results in a week, but those fitness, educational or promotional goals can still be attained over the long haul.
What great treasure are you looking for? Take some time to examine what boats you have in your life that are keeping you from being 100 percent committed to being an exemplary Airman, parent, spouse, volunteer or friend. Figure out what you are passionate about and go all in.