Marketing strategies for growth: Here’s why Cortés burned his boats

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By Mark Overbye

If you are subject to a management team that identifies and potentially leans on having a Plan B, run away. They’re not committed and will be outrun and gunned by those competitors more devoted to their own success. They doubt. There are lots of stories about doubters, famous even, like Doubting Thomas. Doubt is the opposite of being committed. Doubt shines a light on the path away from success. 

The Spanish explorer Cortés, it’s said, burned his boats when he reached Mexico in 1519. Watching the boats burn, Cortés’ men were effectively pledged to their plan. Cortés didn’t say, “Hey, park those over there in case this doesn’t work.” No, there was an explicit objective and Cortés didn’t want his leadership questioned either.

Cortés wasn’t the first. In the year 49 B.C. Julius Caesar forbid the return of troops once they crossed the Rubicon River in their pursuit of establishing the Roman Republic, threatening execution unless they triumphed.

At the Battle of Julu in 207 B.C., Commander Zhang Yu ordered his men to destroy more than three days of provisions as well as their cooking equipment. Yu sent the express message that his troops’ survival was in jeopardy unless they prevailed against their enemy.

Steve Jobs was surely a modern-day conquistador. His mission was clear; he set a trajectory and rallied his believers. His followers understood Apple’s mission “to challenge the status quo” and anyone who didn’t want a seat in that boat was set adrift.

Absolute transparency is the radical battle cry in today’s business world. Transparency establishes the truth, creating a mission so well defined that contemplated deviation is reduced to an amusement.

“All progress starts by telling the truth,” opines Dan Sullivan, a respected business coach and strategist. By suffocating any reason for Plan B, the true endeavor is clarified. That clarity of mission is crucial.

Doubt is an evil seed. By opening the door to fear, all sorts of troubling thoughts rush in. Are we on the right path? Will our customers like this? Do the expected margins sustain us? If there are doubts, it means the homework is incomplete to drive actions that garner faithful crusaders. Eliminating the confusion of doubt, doing the homework, sanctifies the clarity of mission.

How do you move forward with such obvious purpose that you sleep comfortably? The answer is embedded within a formula for success tested through the lens of experience and data that smothers any potential for mutiny.

If all the rowers in the boat work in harmony, the boat gets to its destination most efficiently. If there’s dissent, and some rowers are not committed, direction and speed and ultimate success are all compromised.

What do you do when Plan A fails? You pivot. If you’re paying attention, you know more since your journey began, your perspective is wiser and you have experience you didn’t have when you chose between A and B.

So you pick a new direction and lead your teams. Using the rowing analogy, let’s say you and your team are rowing with purpose to a coastal city to collect rubies. You get there but find they don’t have rubies, they have diamonds. So you collect a few diamonds (your newfound knowledge) and row to the destination. Obviously, pivoting keeps everyone rowing with the same final objective in mind to a consistent beat.

The conundrum in having a Plan B suggests that you can move back to the point where you chose between Plans A or B. That’s ridiculous. Heraclitus famously said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Appropriately, you can’t go back to that A or B fork in the road. People, situations, information, the world, have all changed. Act accordingly.

Cortés’ life was filled with conflict, especially through today’s lens.  But it appears he was an inspiration master. He has success getting his enemies to join his ranks, he consistently won his detractors over, married into nobility and received from King Carlos his own Coat of Arms. Nearly 40 when he burned his boats, he was an experienced leader with deep knowledge about leadership and plan creation.  That bonfire was probably not a spontaneous action, but one with an outcome he already saw in his mind’s eye. Do you see your outcomes clearly?

Mark Overbye is the CEO of Anthem Marine, as well as the chairman of USA Waterski and Wake Sports Foundation. He is also the founder of Montara Boats and Gekko Sports.

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