When Risking it All Means Gaining it All

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Lessons in Leadership from Hernán Cortés and Batman

Hernán Cortés was a Spanish conquistador and explorer, born just over a decade before the start of the 16th century. In his world, the empires of Europe dispatched their ships, soldiers, and merchants to conquer the planet and its riches.

In the Americas, the mighty Aztecs had been flourishing since the 1300s, building their civilisation in Mexico. And it was to this part of the world that Cortés set his sights to seek out his fortune.

By 1518, he was to command his own expedition to Mexico, but his superior, Diego Velásquez cancelled the mission. But the flames of ambition burnt fiercely in him, and so Cortés defied the orders of Velásquez and later he secretly sailed off to Mexico with 11 ships and 500 men.

They reached the shores of Mexico in February of 1519. By now, some of the men have become aware of Cortés’ deceit. A few rebellious voices rose, and dissent grew amongst the men.

Smelling the danger, he took the brazen step of destroying all the ships on which they had sailed to Mexico. With this suicidal act, he burnt the only bridge they had to get home. He pushed his own men with their backs against the wall.

All they could do was fight. Fight till the bitter end. Retreating was no longer an option.

Eventually, in 1522, after much bloodshed, Cortés and his men conquered the Aztecs and Mexico and King Charles I of Spain appointed him governor of Mexico.

Of course, today we can reflect on this terrible chapter in history with horror.

But, there is a valuable lesson in leadership to be learnt from the evil Cortés.

When people have their backs against the wall, their instinct is to fight. When we have everything to lose, we give everything we have to win.

The Dark Night Leaps

In the third installment of Christopher’s Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – featuring Bruce Wayne’s Batman, there is an amazing scene that is reminiscent of the Cortés approach.

Wayne is jailed in an underground prison that is virtually impossible to escape. There is only one way, and that is to climb up a wall, towards the sunlight and then jump across a chasm. Everybody who had tried to cross had failed, except one.

Wayne tries a few times. He attaches the safety rope and climbs up the wall. Each time he fails and comes dangling down the rope, scraped and bruised. But then, an old prisoner befriends him and reveals to him the secret about the only one who has ever made the escape: Do it as the child did. Make the climb, without the rope. And fear will find you again. Leap, and if you don’t make it, you fall back down into the void to sure death. But if you get to the other side, you can clamber out and taste freedom.

So this is what Bruce Wayne does. He climbs up without the rope, leaps, and makes it across!

Again, like with the Spaniards under the command of Cortés, Bruce Wayne risks everything and uses the inherent fear of losing it all to make it across the impossible.

Burning the Ships in Our Modern Organisations

Today, in leading our teams and organisations, we need some of Cortés’ management strategies. We need the fear of Bruce Wayne. Because too often, teams are paralysed by the indecision of moving forward. Responsibility is divided and nothing of value and meaning happens. What would it look like in our modern institutions if we burn the ships? What is that safety rope that is holding us back?

The secret lies in framing the context. As a leader, you have to set an expectation and free people from the constraints of their everyday thinking. You have to implicitly, permit them to think ten times bigger than their day-to-day process. This is what JFK did when he announced the moonshot. He created the context for people to think bigger, to risk everything for fear of losing it all.

As a leader today, your challenge is to frame the context for your team. Make them feel the wall against their backs, and free them from the paralysis of indecision and fear of trying. In order to help people think bigger and give their all, we need to do the following.

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Remove the Fear of Failure

Promote a culture of creativity and trial. This is the most visible way of cutting the safety rope. A team that is used to experiment is a team that is happy to try bigger and bigger things, building confidence, and winning consistently.

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Smother the Blame

Never allow the blame game to steer meetings and conversations. Allow people to vent, but ensure everyone understands that what we’re doing is for the team and for reaching the goal: because failure is not an option.

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Frame the Moonshot

Give purpose to where we’re going. To set the ambition, it’s all about the why, and less about what and how.

In summary. If anything stands in your team’s way that looks like a safety, burn it. Break it. Because humans are at their best when they have everything to lose.

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