Lessons from "A Message to Garcia" never more applicable

  • Published
  • By Capt. Mark Graff
  • 65th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
"No matter how good times are, this sorting continues, only if times are hard and work is scarce, the sorting is done finer - but out and forever out, the incompetent and unworthy go." - 'A Message to Garcia' by Elbert Hubbard

Elbert Hubbard's renowned piece, "A Message to Garcia," is especially relevant in the face of challenging times for our Air Force. With force management program announcements rolling out seemingly daily, Airmen are all too familiar with Hubbard's concept of "a constant weeding-out process;" something disgruntled barracks lawyers would have Airmen believe is the Air Force's sudden, heavy-handed method for right-sizing our force.

But to the discredit of cynical advice givers, Hubbard (indeed cynical at times, himself) points out that survival of the fittest -- or in the Air Force's case, retaining the best-performing or most-needed Airmen -- is in the self interest of any employer. Unlike a comprehensive weeding-out process, Air Force force management programs are calculated and well-reasoned, ensuring that our future force will meet America's needs. Ideally, and as Hubbard would have it, those Airmen afforded the opportunity to continue to serve will possess a proven track-record for mission success and leadership of Airmen, and a proclivity for dogged self-improvement and meaningful endeavors in their communities.

Simply taken at face value, "A Message to Garcia" is a worthwhile reminder to appreciate virtues most Airmen demonstrate daily, such as courageous initiative, faith in one's chain of command, and laser focus on mission essential tasks. Sure, Hubbard is off-base when he deduces the cause behind underperformers' failures to oppressive employers and espouses the notion that 'when the cat's away, the mice will play.' But despite its critical take on the workplace, the short story can help a leader guide his Airmen during uncertain times.
When used as an introspective tool to consider one's own abilities, "A Message to Garcia" actually instructs a leader to question if he -- not his people -- can carry the proverbial message to its recipient. The piece's best utility is subtle, timeless and has more to do with the individual than his Airmen.

Now Hubbard's challenge to have any of "six clerks within call" complete a simple task is unmistakably geared towards hoping someone else will receive orders, demonstrate initiative, and deliver the mail. The author's skeptical view would have the reader believe that his Airmen would respond with "foolish inattention, dowdy indifference, and half-hearted work." But that's where the Air Force differs from Hubbard's hypothetical workplace. In reality, so long as an Airman's leader effectively communicates a vision and demonstrates its merit, Airmen will receive the task and execute accordingly.

Airmen of various duties and technical specialties ensure the Air Force's efficacy daily. Demonstrating initiative, Airmen recognize and correct problems within their means and up-channel those they cannot. Excellence in doing the job is ingrained into the American Airman. But ensuring an Airman's understanding of the "why" behind the vision or task is the true key to unlocking an Airman's initiative.

While often not explicit, but rather an implied expectation for leaders, "carrying the message" is not the ability to complete a task, but rather to thoughtfully develop and continually articulate vision and intent to Airmen. See, a leader's well-communicated vision is one tool that can be used to unleash an Airman's potential and initiative -- those intangibles that help ensure the Air Force's effectiveness. The ability to employ that tool is what separates true Air Force leaders from those who hold positions of leadership.

"A Message to Garcia" was penned 115 years ago during the Spanish-American War. Despite that, and the fact that America's military construct in 1899 was vastly different than today's, the lessons derived from Hubbard's tale still prove useful in evaluating one's own abilities.

As thousands of Airmen willingly or unwillingly face a future outside of the Air Force, it is incumbent upon leaders to channel their inner Rowan and "carry a message to Garcia" by clearly communicating what needs to be done by and for those Airmen worthy of continued service, thereby ensuring the United States Air Force is ready to meet all future challenges.