In 1519 Hernán Cortés the Conquistador led a flotilla of 11 ships to the eastern shores of Mexico against the direct orders of his superiors. You see, power and hubris had driven Cortés mad, and whether he realized it or not (everyone else did), his mutinous power quest, fueled by bloodlust, was indeed insane.
Cortés’ fleet would be badly outnumbered by the entrenched hordes of Aztec warriors. It’s suicide and he knows it, the men thought. Sensing he was losing the will of his men, which would lead to the unthinkable failure of his mission, Cortés resulted to an extreme and now infamous tactic.
Exactly how he destroyed the ships behind his men – burned them or scuttled the hulls – is perhaps lost to history. What is known today is the effectiveness of the tactic. Cortés burned or sank any hope of retreat to the bottom of Gulf of Mexico, and he forced the men to face the terror of their two remaining choices – victory or death.
And so began the slaughter of the Aztecs and downfall of the great Aztec empire at the hands of Hernán Cortés the Killer.
I was reminded of this parable while taking this free online Stanford course on Game Theory.
Before I get to the value of this intense little story, allow me to say that Cortés was a murderous villain, so this post is not about emulating him as a leader per se. This post is about learning from the strategy behind the act of burning the ships behind the men.
The story of Cortés helps me think about business strategy in the following ways:
- Frame a strategy for the future in terms of others actions, not mine. To use game theory terms, what are the likely strategies and actions of the players in the game, and what are my best guesses as to the probability of each action? What will their best responses be to my actions? What are my dominant and dominated strategies? I find it’s important to play games out at least three moves down the tree – for example if he plays action 1 and I respond with action 2 and he responds with action 3, what will I do?
- As I learned from reading Tolstoy, the X factor in strategy is the “Esprit de Corps” or the spirit of the troops or morale. Not to be confused with happiness, high morale means the players on my side must have a resolute will to achieve a common goal. As Cortés teaches us, a resolute morale can overcome all kinds of long odds.
- Create an environment of accountability, responsibility, and discipline, and be sure to not create an environment that allows for shirking.
- Discover what ships I have behind me that are tempting me to retreat or not give 100%. Do I have the strength to burn my own ships behind me?
More to come on strategy and game theory. I hope you find this line of thought as interesting as I do.
Bonus: Watch Neil Young’s awesome live performance of his song Cortez the Killer here.