About 5 centuries ago, an ambitious 19-year-old Spaniard named Hernan Cortes gave up his studies in law and sailed for his country’s colonies to ‘the New world’. The journey would take them through what is now Haiti, The Dominican Republic and finally to Cuba.
While in Cuba, he soon heard about the promising land to the west called Mexico which was teeming with gold and untold wealth. From then on, he had only one thought on his mind: Someday he would conquer and settle in the land of Mexico.
Over the next 10 years, he slowly rose through the ranks, first becoming the secretary to the Spanish Governor of Cuba and then the King’s treasurer for the Island. After another 4 years of service, he was appointed the leader of an expedition to Mexico. His mission:- to find out what had happened to the earlier explorers who had never returned, find gold and lay groundwork for the country’s conquest.
His day had finally come and the conquest would be his crowning glory.
The Governor of Cuba, Diego de Velazquez, however, wanted to make the future conquest himself. He soon developed doubts about Cortes- who was clever, perhaps too clever- and he felt as if he couldn’t control him. Word quickly got to Cortes that the Governor was having doubts about sending him. Instead of waiting for the official command, Cortes decided to take matters into his own hands and slipped out of Cuba in the middle of the night with a company of 11 ships.
They soon landed on Mexico’s coast and over the next few months, Cortes formed alliances with the local tribes who hated the ruling Aztecs. Unknown to him, among the 500 men he had sailed with from Cuba, there were a handful placed in his company by the Governor to act as spies and make trouble for him if Cortes exceeded his authority.
Soon, there was descent among the ranks. Cortes was accused by some of the spies of mismanaging the gold he was collecting. When it became clear that he was hellbent on conquering Mexico for his own glory, they also spread rumours that he was mad and his authority to lead was soon brought into question. It was a convincing accusation too since he planned to lead 500 men against about half a million fierce Aztec warriors, known to skin their prisoners and wear their flesh as trophies.
One night, a few of the spies were caught as they attempted to steal a ship and head back to Cuba to tell the Governor about Cortes’s goal of conquering Mexico on his own. Cortes understood that he could only withstand mutiny for so long. Soon divisions would end his campaign. He could not conquer an empire with a divided and untrustworthy force.
This was the decisive moment of the expedition. Cortes made a bold decision, one that would redefine warfare for centuries to come.
He paid off some of his trusted pilots to drill holes in all the ships and announce that worms had eaten through the boards of the vessels making them unseaworthy. Pretending to be saddened by the news, Cortes ordered whatever could be salvaged to be taken ashore and the hulls to be sunk. However, not enough holes had been bored and only 5 of the 11 ships went down. The story of the worms was plausible enough and the soldiers accepted the news with equanimity.
A few days later, more ships went down and only one was left afloat. There was no doubt that Cortes had arranged the whole matter. When he called a meeting to address his men, their mood was murderous and mutinous. There was no time for subtlety.
Cortes addressed his men amidst disgruntled shouts, “I am responsible for the state we are all in now. I ordered the ships to be sunk, but now there is no turning back.”
“You might be angry, you might be disappointed, you might even be maddened by my actions. Some of you might even think to hang me”, he continued, “but we are surrounded by hostile Indians and we have no ships but one. Divided and without leadership, you will all certainly die.”
“But gentlemen, if you all fight with me, we will conquer the Aztecs. Only by conquering them, only by becoming the lords of Mexico, can we all get back to Cuba alive.”
To do so, they would have to fight with utter intensity. They would have to be united. Any division or descent would spell their defeat and lead to a terrible death. The situation was desperate but if the men fought desperately in turn, Cortes guaranteed them that he would lead them to victory. Since their army was small in number, the riches and glory would be all the greater.
Any cowards not up to the challenge could sail the one remaining ship home.No one accepted the offer to sail home and the remaining ship was sunk too.
Over the next few months, the grumbling, self-interest and division all disappeared. Understanding their dire situation, they fought ruthlessly. Some two years after the destruction of the Spanish ships, and with the help of some of the Indian allies, Cortes’s army finally laid siege to the Aztec Capital and conquered the Aztec empire.
Why you too must burn your ships
The human spirit is always burning for adventure, for some thrill, even among those who would claim otherwise. We love to conquer challenges, to rise to the occasion and as we all know, victories taste all much better after a grueling journey.
However, all too often, in our leadership posts, in our businesses or in our lives, a state of lethargy creeps in. We feel as if everything is alright, we come to love things the way they are, we coast.
The tragedy with this kind of attitude is twofold.
First, we fail to do the most we are capable of and by doing so, fail to reach our ultimate potential. When we are comfortable with the way things are, we do not exert ourselves to do better and things slowly deteriorate.
Then comes the second potential tragedy in feeling too comfortable where we are. It’s often in such times that we are caught unawares and soon, the undercurrent of change sweeps us off our feet. It may be in the form of a new competitor in our business or new technology or even a simple change in the rules of the game you are playing in.
Create a sense of ‘Death Ground’
What Cortes and his men were able to accomplish was only possible because they had to accomplish it. They were on ‘Death Ground’. For them, it was either victory or death.
Until you learn to make it a case of ‘you against the world’, a case of ‘do or die’, you may never accomplish the goals and dreams you desperately hunger for.
You, and you alone, are our worst enemy. You waste precious time daydreaming about the future instead of engaging the present. Since nothing seems urgent to you, you are only half involved in what you do. The only way to change is through action and outside pressure.
I challenge you to put yourself in situations where you have too much at stake to waste your time and resources. If you can’t afford to lose, you won’t. Allow yourself to enter new territories where your energy and wits will see you through. Place yourself on ‘Death Ground’, where your back is against the wall and you will have to fight like hell to get out alive.
The great poet and lyricist Bob Marley put it best when he said,
“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.”