The Message to General Garcia

In 1899, Elbert Hubbard published a series of essays to lighten the burden of businessmen.  The first essay was a case study entitled A Message to Garcia.  This work appealed to me when I first encountered it, because I am a film buff, and I was in the US Army at the time.

It was one of the earliest films made, having been produced by Thomas Edison in 1916, and then produced again by 20th Century Fox in the 1930s as a “talkie.”  The appeal of the story to me was that it was not fictional, and showcased military resolve and heroism. I used the original essay (republished by the University of Illinois) to train several of my staffs in effective communications over the years.

The story still has strong resonance today.  As the tale goes, during the Spanish-American War, President McKinley wished to contact a prominent Cuban Rebel General named Calixto Garcia.  The message would establish cooperative anti-Spanish efforts between US Forces and the rebels.  All that was known at the time was that General Garcia and his fighters were somewhere in the Cuban jungles.

President McKinley went to the War Department, and asked them to dispatch a message accordingly.  The task was given to a senior Lieutenant named Andrew Rowan, but the tasking seemed very “unconventional.”  Rowan was called in by a Colonel Arthur Wagner, who handed him the message, and simply said to get it to General Garcia.  Rowan reportedly saluted, affirmed the mission, and left with the message.

Three weeks or so later, Rowan, who had a special leather case made for the message and strapped it to his chest, met General Garcia in the Oriente Mountains of Cuba, and delivered the message.

One reason why this is an interesting case, lies in Rowan’s performance of this duty.  When tasked with the delivery, he did not react as most of us do–”Who’s General Garcia?” “Where is General Garcia?” “Why was I chosen for this assignment?” “What equipment and support can I expect?” “Am I in danger?” “What if I fail?” “Can you give me details?” “What does the message say?” “Will I get an award, recognition, or a promotion if I succeed?” “How soon do I need to get this done?”

Instead, Rowan took the message, formulated his own plan, and got the job done without creating any burden or logistical demands on “the boss.”  He had the intent and the basic information he needed, and the rest was left to his imagination and resourcefulness.

The two communicating parties have some commendable actions in this story–the War Department selected a trustworthy agent and allowed him to succeed by his own design.  They also used the least amount of resources in terms of manpower and administration.

Rowan, understood the mission, did not trifle with the details or “push back,” as many reluctant subordinates often do, and showed great initiative and innovation in carrying out his mission.  The sender and receiver had a strong and effective communication link–  to tie this in with my previous post, it shows another facet of the “power of minimalism.”  My closing thought is that if one allows trusted subordinates to do their jobs without micromanagement of even the most important assignments, they will come through with flying colors.  Simply and crudely put, tell them the egg must be sucked–not how to suck the egg…

MNS Olathe