There was a well-known shogun who at one point was considered one of the most powerful men in the country. He built his empire swiftly and, he would be the first to admit, ruthlessly, and in the process ran over a lot of people and burned a lot of bridges. Like many feudal warlords, he rarely left the security of his own castle, letting his efficient minions roam far afield to do his work. Then he made a single miscalculation: He decided to change castles. There was one just over the border much more attractive than his, or maybe it was just that he was bored. With great pomp and an entourage of musicians and entertainers he marched to the new castle. After he settled in, he sent for his minions and warrior chiefs. Not one returned. Instead, they occupied his old castle and proceeded to chop his empire up among themselves. In a short while the shogun was surrounded in his new castle by enemies. When he tried to think of someone to ask for assistance, not a single name came to mind. He had offended everyone. That night he left the castle and retired to Aspen.
My story, of course, is a parable of what recently happened to a well-known Hollywood figure whose spectacular rise has now been eclipsed by his collapse. I’m not going to dwell on his misfortune, other than for what it can teach us about business. But I will say that I have never known anybody in our business who had more people saying bad things about him, than this deposed Man Who Would Be King.
At one level the tale is quite simple: Here’s a fellow who burned all his bridges. Like most cliches, this one is so obvious as to be useless. Hidden in the word “all,” however, is the implication that “some” bridges must be burned in life to get ahead. A cliche with real value will tell us which bridges can be burned, and which should be preserved.
Anyone in business knows how much depends on relationships. This is especially true for the personal services area: Anyone who manages, advises, brokers, consults, and so forth. In this or any field, when you burn a bridge, you’re deciding to risk sacrificing a relationship.
This sounds cold, but at least it isn’t hypocritical, and hypocrisy is what usually turns a hardball into a beanball one. The fact is, people can deal with an up-front announcement of competition; what they hate is someone going behind their back.
The first rule: If a bridge has got to burn, do it openly.
The second rule: Don’t burn bridges to your closest competitors.
This may seem counterintuitive. What many people don’t seem stop to consider is that if you are in frequent contact with your rival, you may find you have more in common than a so-called friend who you have no business dealings with whatsoever. In my business we have rivals with whom we are often engaged in complex and hard-nosed competition. Yet it is of paramount importance to most of us in this business to remain cordial, decent, and even helpful to each other. This is a good thing, and not just for the prevention of ulcers and the avoidance of messy scenes in restaurants: The web of deals and media opportunities and endorsement situations that athletes or models or celebrities may find themselves in often forces us to work together. If it’s in our clients’ best interests that we do so, professionalism and self-interest require our sincere cooperation with our erstwhile competitors.
So, someone might ask, if you won’t even burn a bridge with a competitor, who will you risk cutting off? I would reply that since we rarely use that particular bridge, there can be little or no point in burning it. Think of it as the hot line between Washington and Moscow.
The third rule: Before you burn a bridge, you had better have a good enough reason.
Do the spoils justify the risk? Not if you’re doing this as a whim, a vanity project, or an ill-thought-out exploratory foray. If a coup is what it takes, then go forth boldly. But be sure you aren’t acting out of cheap motives, such as payback, revenge for an accumulation of slights, envy, or, worst of all, indifference.
The fourth rule: Know what you’re losing.
To throw down a gauntlet or greatly embarrass a potentially superior rival may not be wise. Better check how much of your credibility and support pass across this particular bridge, then test your alternate routes to make sure they can carry the load.
The fifth rule: Remember to ask yourself, what will the world think?
Never underestimate what a public breach of trust or partnership can do to you and your company’s reputation. Similarly, you ought to consider whether your action may be taken as a gesture of larger intent and provoke an all-out response from a third party, or waken a sleeping giant (such as the SEC or state regulators).
The sixth rule: Choose the right bridge.
If as a manager or owner you are committed to aggressive growth, then you may as well accept that the odd bridge or two will get burned. The question is, whose? Your job is to exercise due diligence not just in the narrow zone of confrontation — sales turf, market share, area of expertise and so forth — but at the outer edges, where the ripples lap at the shore. Your aim is to make sure this burned bridge doesn’t someday strand you on an island, alone and defenseless. To do this, one thing you certainly must know is who your rival’s allies are: Their loyalty, and their ability to hurt you by active moves or passive denial of cooperation, could spell success or failure for you.
Finally, take a look far down the road, to the day when you are the big success that you envision. Is there a point at which you might need this company’s cooperation, even partnership? Don’t shrug this off — many are the consolidations that begin in rivalry, so long as it has been friendly. Don’t ignore how your own distributors or clients might feel about your aggressive moves. Will they read into them the eventual end of the relationship, or a conflict of interest, or a sign that they no longer are integral to your success (which may cause them to look elsewhere)?
There is an art to burning bridges, in other words. You can compare it to the Rules of Engagement that the military follows, codified by centuries of conflict, written into actual law on several occasions. You may be surprised to know that professional soldiers are fierce defenders of such a code, one that includes strict regulations on the violence they must employ. But they know, from long experience, that he who breaks the rules of war never knows peace.
That’s what happened to the one-time wonder boy of Hollywood.
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