In principle Featured

10:01am EDT July 22, 2002

The year was 1504, and a young Spanish aristocrat was biding his time in the southern ports of Spain. The wealth of the New World was pouring in from lands discovered by Christopher Columbus.

His attention seized, the young man, at the age of 19, set off for Hispaniola. Seven years later, he helped the Spanish conquer Cuba and was the first mayor of Santiago. Not content, he yearned to do more. So in 1518, at 32, he sold everything and acquired six ships and 300 men. Less than a month later, he set sail for the mainland of the New World. En route, he acquired more ships and men and landed on the Yucatan peninsula with 11 ships, 608 men and 16 horses.

Here, his men were welded into a cohesive force. But soon, fear and discontent grew among his men and they wanted to turn back. In their ships, they saw their escape to safety and comfort. At this point, Hernando Cortez committed to the unknown land, ordering the ships burned, cutting off their only escape. The rest is history. Cortez conquered the Aztec empire with his 608 men and 16 horses.

Cortez had three advantages over his much larger Aztec opponent: commitment, vision and leadership.

How committed are you to your company? Are you willing to burn the ships of your escape?

Cortez realized that a great empire, the Aztec empire, was within his reach. He committed himself and his men to conquest. Cortez, with the help of his new Indian allies, faced Aztec armies 100 times larger than his force.

The problem with many companies is not the lack of good ideas. It's the lack of commitment. With an escape route, we won't fully commit to our companies. We look at the opposition (competition) and give up, surrendering our plans. We want to go back to our ships and escape to comfort.

How many times have you had a great idea, only to find someone else had the same idea? The only difference between you is that the other person acted on it. Lack of commitment leads to mediocrity. We might succeed at the endeavor, but our success is never what it could have been had we been committed.

Lack of vision breeds lack of commitment. Without vision, it's hard to know what your commitment is. Without a target, how can the emotional, physical and spiritual resources of your organization be focused? Ask yourself, 'What am I trying to accomplish?'

Does your company have a mission statement? Do your people know that mission statement?

Once the vision is known, people choose to commit or not. Cortez, unlike many of us, forced his people to commit to his vision by burning his ships.

Leadership is key to vision and commitment. The sayings, "The blind leading the blind," and "A fish stinks from the head," fit this model. Great companies with dynamic vision and growth are not accidents. The leaders had vision and commitment, and welded their employees into a cohesive force to conquer their plan.

Cortez, before his march on the Aztec capital (present day Mexico City), drilled his troops into a fighting unit. Without a leader willing to lead, the company flounders. Success is haphazard and the result of chance rather than any concerted planned effort.

If your company has problems, look at yourself first. Employees tend to model their boss. If you won't believe in your company and products, you can't expect your people to. If you are not willing to commit, you can't expect them to.

Michael Dell, 35, has assembled the fifth largest computer manufacturer in the United States. Through his leadership, Dell Computer grew faster and smarter then its rivals.

So what can you do?

First, know that you are the head and your people are following your lead.

Second, know your vision.

Third make a commitment to your vision.

Lastly, be willing to burn your ships to reach your full potential.

Fred Koury is CEO of Small Business News. He can be reached at