Great leaders burn the ships

I was speaking with a friend of mine recently about some frustrations she was having at work. Her organization is at a critical time in their history. The pressure is on to produce better results and jobs are on the line. This organization is struggling to retain quality employees and the overall health of the culture is negative and dysfunctional. Some changes need to happen if this organization is going to be successful.

My friend’s boss is in a role of position power but he certainly isn’t leading like a leader. Great leaders understand that they must be responsible for making big decisions and they must stand by those big decisions. Great leaders are thoughtful in this process, they have done their research, they know their organization and they are able to make big decisions that will move the organization forward. But in this case my friend has a boss who isn’t willing to stand by his decisions. He will unveil a new policy, or a new procedure, or a new product and when it isn’t an overnight success he pulls the plug and they start over. The employees are well aware that every decision he makes come with a safety net attached.

He could better serve his people if he would simply burn the ships. That phrase comes from the decision that Captain Hernan Cortes made in 1519 when he and his men arrived in Veracruz. Captain Cortes had his men literally burn the ships to the ground, which removed any plan to retreat, indeed success was the only option. I believe that great leaders had a unique ability to know when to burn the ships.

The inability of my friend’s boss to stay the course has brought his competence into question. The employees have lost faith in his ability to successfully lead them, they second-guess everything he says and does and wonder how long this “new way” of doing things will last before he will once again retreat. The employees are disengaged and aren’t committed to anything new because they believe change will once again be right around the corner.

Great leaders understand that making big decisions are a critical part of their job but making the decision is just the first part of the process. Great leaders who have earned the trust of their employees stay the course and burn the ships believing that retreating is not an option.

Are you willing to burn the ships?