There will come a time when, as the CEO, you will have to make a hard and unpopular decision, which on the surface may appear counter intuitive to the broader prevailing opinions within your company. You may be faced with the option to position the whole company on a specific and uncharted path, one that might be painful but could lead to greater success. It is your duty as the CEO to make a choice and in the process remove all other options except the one believed to be best for the future of the company.

The concept of limiting options to a single one is not new and has been exercised numerous times in history. During the Battle of Julu in 208 BC, between the troops of General Xiang Yu and the Qin Kingdom’ soldiers, Xiang Yu ordered his troops to “Break the kettles and sink the boats”. By enacting this order, without tools to prepare food and boats to transport troops away from the battle field once the river was crossed, there was no way for the troops to retreat. The only option, short of surrendering and subsequently being executed, was to keep on fighting. The soldiers fought until they defeated the enemy and won the battle.

There are other occurrences in history of military leaders using this ancient Chinese phrase to motivate their troops to fight to the end by removing all options except “succeed or die”. During the Spanish conquest of Mexico circa 1519 AD, Spanish leader, Hernan Cortes, followed this mantra and ordered his troops to destroy their ships forcing them to either conquer new land or die.

Relating these stories to your current day role of the CEO, you may have to make a decision to choose between two painful courses of action. The first, one being the status quo, appearing to offer your employees more comfort even though it has severe limitations. The second option offers a radical change with an unknown outcome. Your team’s fear of the unknown may have them clinging to the path that they know best. However, it is your role as the CEO to encourage your team to take the leap of faith with you. By removing the escape hatch and leaving only one option you have the ability to focus the energy of your entire company towards a new course of action.

Jack Welch, Chairman and CEO of General Electric (GE) best exemplified the burning of the boats mantra with his burning platform process which he defined in one sentence as a mission to, “make GE the most competitive company on earth.”

When Jack Welch became the CEO of GE in 1980, he ordered a review of the 350 business units that were part of the GE’s empire to determine how the business units were measuring against their competitors around the world. He then made a decree that GE would only stay in businesses where the company held the number 1 or number 2 positions. GE got out of all other businesses where they were not performing as well as their competitors in the market place. In the face of opposition and concerns about his new plans, Jack Welch nonetheless forged ahead with, including divesting in noncompetitive businesses. During his tenure as the CEO of GE from 1980 until 2001, he transformed GE, from $25 to $130 billion of annual sales, and from $1.5 to $14 Billion in earnings.

While I believe that this approach is highly valuable, it must actioned selectively. We are in an age in which unlimited individual choices are available in every aspect of one’s life. In my previous blogs, I identified two BizRules that encourage the individual to commit to a course of action: “Are you a chicken or a Pig” and “Did you cross your Rubicon yet?” However, burning the ships instigates a macro level of change that, if done well, will transition your entire company onto a single path to success. Just remember, with this decision, there is no option to go back.


Written by

Eli Fathi

Eli has been a technology entrepreneur for the past 30 years and has founded or cofounded a number of companies with a few successful exits. Currently, he is the CEO of a company offering automated fraud detection platform. Eli was the cofounder of Fluidware Corporation, an Internet software company offering Software as a service (SaaS) online applications based on collaborative feedback. He was the co-CEO from inception until the acquisition by SurveyMonkey.

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