Burning the Boats and Crossing the Rubicon

Kevin O'Toole, former senator from the 40th Legislative District, advises current and future politicians to have the courage to surround yourself with strong staff that are willing to stand up and tell you when you are wrong. Otherwise, they risk becoming disconnected from reality.

I am told by friends thatI use the phrase Burn the Boatswith some degree of frequency and it is usually said with some trace of annoyance.  

The term needs some explanation and historical reference. Sun Tzu, in the “Art of War” (a bible for some), writes that once a military leader lands or arrives at a new frontier, or a new conquering point, they must burn the boats that they arrived in and focus with maniacal adherence on the next feat – winning. As there is no method for returning home, a steely focus and steadfast resolve is required. Simply put, failure is not an option.  

In 1519, the Spanish Explorer Hernan Cortes landed in Veracruz and upon hitting dry land he ordered that all the boats be burned. All efforts were to be put towards conquering and survivingin the unknown and new frontier. There can be no room for buyers remorse. With the boats burned all energy is put towards fulfilling the leaders objective, there can be no wasted time. What an interesting motivational tool Tony Robbins has nothing on these two gentlemen.  

The term “Crossing the Rubicon” is used more generally, but few understand or appreciate the reference. In 49 B.C., Julius Caesar was serving as an appointed Governor over a region, as his term was coming to a close, he was ordered by the Roman Senate to disband his army and return to Rome. The important part was that he was told to DISBAND his army. We can argue as to the why, but apparently Caesar ignored the Senate and brought his army towards Rome. In those days, it was rare for any leader to be allowed to bring their army to Rome, some saw it as a threat that could lead to instability or fuel fears of a potential overthrow of the current regime. From this event, the Crossing at the Rubicon River, a phrase was coined that became the rallying cry of what constitutes the making of a life altering decision – the point of no return.  

Modern day translation – many of us in campaigns or corporate battles were trained by the older generation with the “Burn the Boats” mentality. We were weaned and nurtured and eventually hardened on the theme of Sun Tzu, and like Cortes, once we arrive on a plan we move forward with no hesitation, no regret, zero wavering to succeed. In the day that some in my generation worked or ran campaigns, it wastowin at all costs and failure was not an option occasionally sacrificing some for the greater good. For better or worse, sometimes this human conditioning can also spill over into the corporate world, how one governs or portrays themselves for potential future warsor battles.  

Campaigns are a tough business and it is interesting to see some operatives and candidates, alike, adopt this mentality to win-at-all-costs and arrive squarely on the point of Crossing the Rubicon. 

As campaigns have evolved and social media has changed the way we interact and run campaigns, the “it” candidate and “hot” campaign no longer requires deep roots in the constituency to be successful. As such, the operatives no longer need to rise from the “municipal coordinator” level to one day be a campaign manager. The data analytics of campaigns has created a “nomad” existence for operatives around the country, going from cycle-to-cycle, campaign-to-campaign, state-to-state. While there is nothing wrong with keeping an eye on the future, it can be hard to foster a “Burn the Boats” mentality when by next year’s filing deadline you’ll be in another state.  

Now, before professional campaign operatives start emailing me, I am not doubting your desire to win or your commitment to your candidate. I am merely pointing out that when there are other options on the horizon, your attitude is a little different.  

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, staffers and operatives, as well as unpaid volunteers, would usually take the candidate and campaign as a live or die proposition. They came from the community, they worked their way up locally, they had nowhere else to go after Election Day. I’m sure there are many modern-day warriors who would fit the profile sought by Sun Tzu, but in my mind, that would be the exception and not the rule, as compared to what we witnessed in the days of yesteryear. 

It’s hard to “Cross the Rubicon” to win if you’ve still got one boat left in the harbor to escape on. 

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Chairman Kevin O’Toole is the former state senator from the 40th District.

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