Fast Company

Loose Lips Burn Ships

Consultant Debunking Unit

In its unending search for truth in consulting, the Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit dedicates this installment from the CDU Files to nipping a consulting fad in the bud.

First, some early sightings. In 1993, then-Los Angeles Kings coach Barry Melrose sought to motivate his players. "When Cortes landed in North America," Melrose told the Kings, "he burned the three ships and his soldiers marched -- no going back to Spain."

In 1994 business writer Richard Luecke launched his book "Scuttle Your Ships Before Advancing: And Other Lessons from History on Leadership and Change for Today's Managers." The cover art depicted a victorious Cortes in a business suit and armor, with his ships sinking behind him.

And when businessman Tom Herskowitz left his job as a corporate vice president, moved his family from Dallas to Mexico City, and risked "130% of all I own," to obtain exclusive marketing rights to I Can't Believe It's Yogurt Ltd., he called it "the 'Cortes Theory of Business.'"

Here's how Herskowitz tells the story. "Cortes landed in Mexico off the coast of Veracruz with three or four ships of conquistadors. He had his troops take all the supplies off the ships and then he burned the ships. His people had to move ahead. He made sure there was no way back, except as heroes. He was a hell of a motivator."

Explains author Richard Luecke, "The Cortes model makes it clear: companies that want their people to start new ventures, invent new products, and create the future can't leave them an escape route back to safety. Cortes was a great team leader. He knew that when people are in a desperate situation, the only way to survive is to succeed." Says Luecke, "You could start a whole new consulting business around this idea."

All right, hold it right there! Time for the CDU to burn a consulting fad before it gets launched! If the Cortes style of management offers important business lessons, they're not on motivation and leadership. To get to the truth, the CDU took a crash course in Mexican history.

Fact: Cortes didn't burn his boats. Technically, he didn't even scuttle them. He did order the captains of nine ships to run their vessels onto the sand. But that left him with three other vessels -- and a master shipbuilder among the crew.

Fact: Cortes wasn't "motivating" his men -- he was protecting his backside. According to Hugh Thomas's "The Conquest of Mexico," Cortes grounded the ships to win at palace politics in Spain. Cortes's Mexican mission revolved around his intense rivalry with Diego Velazquez, the governor of Cuba. When Cortes obtained his first boatload of treasure, he dispatched it to the king with three letters pleading his case for more power.

Among Cortes's own men were some of Velazquez's supporters who disapproved of Cortes's actions. They plotted to steal one of his ships to take a message of warning to Velazquez, who would then have time to overtake the treasure ship and seize the letters.

Cortes learned of the plot and captured the four ringleaders. He hanged two of them, cut the foot off another, and let the fourth, a clergyman, go free. Then he ordered the nine ships run aground. According to John H. Coatsworth, director of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, "Cortes beached the ships to prevent anyone from heading back to Cuba to report to the Spanish nobilities that he was engaged in an utterly unauthorized and illegal expedition. He was running for cover."

Lisa Pinsley (pinsley@fas.harvard.edu) is a recent Harvard graduate.

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