Removing the option to go back: a key lesson for the innovative leader from Sun-tzu’s The Art of War.
[The Skillful Warrior] leads his men into battle
Like a man
Climbing a height
And kicking away the ladder;
He leads them
Deep into the territory
Of the feudal lords
And releases the trigger.
He burns his boats,
He breaks his pots…
– Sun-tzu 
One fall evening in 2010 my wife Melissa and I were sitting around our kitchen table talking about our hopes for the future. At the time we were living in Fresno, California, the city where we both grew up, moved away from, and then moved back to to get married. This was the place where we began our lives as individuals and it was the place we had decided to start our lives in marriage.
During those first couple of years after our wedding we found ourselves in good jobs, buying our first house, founding my first company (any entrepreneur’s spouse should be considered an honorary cofounder), and completing degrees at the university. We even adopted an american bulldog named Milly from the dog shelter. She was an exceptionally large and brawny dog, but nothing if not exceptionally sweet. It was probably the shock from the unexpected death of Milly that woke us up to the idea that we wanted to chart a different course for our early years in marriage. And charting this new direction was the topic of conversation at the kitchen table that evening.
Melissa had been reading the The Oz Principle, a book about personal accountability, and had recently shared a passage telling a story attributed to Alexander the Great:
When Alexander’s army reached the coast of what is now called India, he ordered his men to burn their ships. When the men hesitated at such a shocking order, Alexander responded, ‘We’re either going home in their ships or we’re not going home at all.’
-Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman 
It was the story of Alexander eliminating any option of retreat that profoundly influenced our decision to pursue our happiness by deliberately burning our own ships. With the belief that happiness for us was to be found exploring and learning about the world together we decided, right there at the table, to move. By renting out our house soon after this talk we took our first step to remove any option to stay put. The next steps were telling our employers that we planned to leave in the near future and to also preemptively commit to impart our cars to family members for after the move. Our final big step and deliberate action was selling our ownership interest in my first startup the spring of 2011. During this time of burning ships there was always uncertainty about the specific destination, but we trusted that things would work out if we continued solidifying our commitment to our growth as a couple.
Declaring our intent was the first step in a series of actions that eventually lead us to our new home in the Boston area. Though, I believe that it was our first trip to New York on Thanksgiving of 2011 that helped me to articulate the power of the story of Alexander burning his ships. Seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time on this trip opened my eyes to the courageous journey that so many immigrants undertook by leaving their homes behind to come to the United States. Standing there, both humbled and inspired, I shared in the view that for many was their first sight of their new country and home.
During a recent trip back to New York I read Sun-tzu’s instruction in The Art of War to burn an army’s boats and break their pots in order to remove any option of retreat. This passage inspired me to share the first time I had learned this lesson here in the Work of Start.
Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.
1. Sun-tzu (Sunzi); translated with an introduction and commentary by John Minford. The Art of War(New York: Penguin Group, 2009), 77-78
2. Connors, Roger, Tom Smith, and Craig R. Hickman. The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability. Rev. ed. (New York: Portfolio, 2010), 37.