Burn Your Boats – When Leaders Go “All In”

When Alexander the Great arrived on the shores of Persia, his army was overwhelmingly outnumbered.

The odds against them were terrible. Turning away and getting back in the boats seemed like an option to let them regroup and come back another time. But rather than having an emergency escape plan available, Alexander gave the orders to his men to “burn the boats.”

As their only means of retreat went up in flames, legend has it that Alexander turned to his men and said, “We go home in Persian ships, or we die.”

Not quite the stirring Braveheart speech, but certainly motivational in it’s own way! What followed was an astounding victory over an army that was in many ways superior. Win or die. Simple.

I’m more comfortable being the “options guy.” I like knowing Plan B (and maybe C too). I want to have contingencies for the worst case scenario. I get some security from having an exit plan. And history is littered with examples of times when just such a retreat plan would have been wise.


There’s nothing like burning your boats to focus your mind on one thing, and one thing only- success. It’s extraordinary what we as leaders are capable of when we are in a corner, with no other option but to give our absolute best (and even beyond that).

Coming to Shore in America

I write this article from New York City. We moved to America recently from Sydney Australia with our three kids under the age of 5. We’ve taken my business global. Plus we’re launching our own not-for-profit, in the most expensive city in America during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

In other words we burned out boats. In poker terms we “went all in on the short stack.”

• How about you?
• What risks are you taking in your leadership that have put you and your team “all in?”
• Are your troops fighting with one eye on the battle, but the other on retreat?
• Is your desire for exit plans resulting in mediocre commitment?

Perhaps burning your boats is most important when the odds are already stacked against you. There’s no “test and see” when you are outnumbered 5-to-1. When the numbers are stacked so high against you, quick decisions like burning your boats is a must. Time is of the essence in this type of situation and you’ll waste what precious little resource you have if you stall.

The only legitimate plan is to garner everything you have, and pit it against your competition in a way that circumvents their strength and leverages yours.

That requires 100% commitment. Really trying won’t do it. Giving it a shot won’t either. 100%.

There is nothing impossible to him who will try” ~ Alexander the Great (circa 348 BC)

So how are you doing at burning your boats? Are you playing it safe and keeping your emergency hatch in your side-view mirror? Or are you taking the right risks when it is time to “go all in?” I’d love to hear your stories of courage when you were backed in a corner!

Paul Andrew is Founder of The Leadership Coach
He is a Keynote Speaker and Management Consultant based in New York
Email | LinkedIn | Website | Blog | Twitter | +1 212 726 1479


3 responses to “Burn Your Boats – When Leaders Go “All In”

  1. Ah, I wasn’t aware that Alexander the Great had done that as well. The story I always use is Hernan Cortes, who did a similar thing when landing in Mexico.


  2. They’re both great illustrations of the power of burning your boats. It’s quite a challenge to live that out


  3. Pingback: Tie your Coach to the Goalposts | of Photons, Protons, and Proteins·

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