Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Messages: It’s not about Garcia, it’s about being Rowan or McKinley, as necessary

"Garcia" is not solely a paean celebrating subordinate initiative, but also a testament to effective leadership.

A_Message_to_Garcia_1936_poster
A_Message_to_Garcia_1936_poster

 

By Tom Clarity
Best Defense guest columnist

Marine veteran Peter Lucier, in an article for Foreign Policy, reflects on the sad demise of Elbert Hubbard’s A Message to Garcia, an enduring tale of initiative and instant obedience no longer featured on the commandant of the Marine Corps’ reading list. Who among us has not heard Garcia referenced by a senior to a subordinate in relation to mission accomplishment? Yet even while the Marine commandant no longer requires his newest Marines to read Garcia, the more senior members of our services may want to grab their copies off the shelves.

 

By Tom Clarity
Best Defense guest columnist

Marine veteran Peter Lucier, in an article for Foreign Policy, reflects on the sad demise of Elbert Hubbard’s A Message to Garcia, an enduring tale of initiative and instant obedience no longer featured on the commandant of the Marine Corps’ reading list. Who among us has not heard Garcia referenced by a senior to a subordinate in relation to mission accomplishment? Yet even while the Marine commandant no longer requires his newest Marines to read Garcia, the more senior members of our services may want to grab their copies off the shelves.

Garcia is not solely a paean celebrating subordinate initiative, but also a testament to effective leadership. While Hubbard presents Rowan, the messenger, as a paragon of subordinate virtue, contrasted against the imagined failures of the reader, what message can we take from the actions of President William McKinley? McKinley charges Rowan with a task and leaves him to determine the best manner in which to accomplish it. McKinley presumably does not tell Rowan to take a train to Florida and then charter a boat to Cuba. McKinley does not detail the dangers of the task or provide Rowan with guidelines as to how best to avoid them. Instead, the well regarded Rowan enjoys McKinley’s implicit trust to accomplish his mission.

The essential point to take from Garcia for leaders is not only a subordinate’s initiative, but a senior’s trust. To develop one while neglecting the other is ultimately destructive. Yet while Garcia can be read as a case study in both, the example provided by McKinley may prove more challenging for military leaders to emulate. McKinley demonstrates the importance of trust within the senior-subordinate relationship by essentially doing nothing, while the thought of inactivity is anathematic to military professionals. Trust displayed by non-interference has no metric. It doesn’t turn a stoplight chart from red to green. Finally, the negative impacts of failing to develop trust within the senior-subordinate relationship do not always manifest as quickly as more quantifiable or immediate failures, but often have more significant and lasting impacts on our people.

While the simplicity and directness of Garcia has ensured its endurance, we should not discount its relevance to a mutable audience. As Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen or Marines, we sometimes serve as Rowan, sometimes McKinley. The message we send to Rowan is equally as important as the message he takes to Garcia.

Commander Tom Clarity is an EA-18G NFO who currently serves as a squadron executive officer. He has deployed in support of Operations Southern Watch, Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and New Dawn.   graduate of Villanova University and the Naval War College, his previous thoughts on the relationship between technology and micro-management throughout Naval history were published as, “Hardware, not Humans: The US Navy’s History of Technology and Micro-management,” by the Small Wars Journal. The views expressed here are his own, and not necessarily those of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense. 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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