Small Wars Journal

Enabling the Message to Garcia

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Enabling the Message to Garcia

Chris Townsend

Rare is the businessman or military leader who has not heard the triumphant story of a man named Rowan who when tasked to deliver a message to Garcia set off and accomplished the mission. In a “Message to Garcia,” Elbert Hubbard hails the simple heroism of a man tasked with a job who completes his mission. It highlights the importance of the operator, the person at the tactical level who is expected “to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies; do the thing.” While the story highlights the doing of the thing, if you look deeper you find the enablers operating in the background supporting the doer in his or her task.

I work within a labyrinth of a building at a cubicle in a sea of cubicles tasked daily to plan, coordinate, integrate, and synchronize operational and strategic level efforts in peace, crisis, and wartime to support the mission. I am not Rowan, slogging through the wet jungles of Cuba, gritting my teeth against the effort of the mountainous climbs, or brushing the sweat from my face as I battle the bugs and other denizens of the jungle; yet, I have a part to play in the success of his mission. You can find me in an almost throw-away line in the story of Rowan wherein he is “landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side.” My job is to make sure Rowan has the message, a ride to the fight and the tools in hand to survive and ultimately achieve success.

Enablers at every level of staff must be Rowans within their daily tasks. It’s not easy. The very nature of joint and coalition operations means there is a lot of bureaucracy that can complicate the very ability to “do the thing” even creating difficulty in distilling “the thing” from all the noise around it. The lessons of Message to Garcia are important up and down the enabling process, from the leader at the top to the lowest cubicle dweller setting the conditions for operational and tactical success.

“Message to Garcia” highlights what is needed from leaders at every level of the fight. Rowan is given a clear directive and total flexibility in completing his assigned task. Provide a clear directive so that those tasked know exactly what you intend for them to accomplish. Additionally, leaders need to give the job to the right person, give them freedom to operate, and provide them top cover.

Finding the right person is the first step and requires the leaders know their people. What are their skills and weaknesses? Obviously the person at the top of a 79,000 member organization cannot know every person. His or her job is to choose great leaders at the secondary level who in turn select great leaders below them and so it goes until a strong chain of leadership can quickly identify the right person for any task that may arise.

Next, the person tasked with the mission must be given the space to succeed. I’ve been on every side of the fence as a Soldier, Non-Commissioned Officer, and now Officer, and I’ve always held to General George S.  Patton’s adage “Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” Your job as a leader is to decide what tasks are important and follow up to ensure they were done. If you are down at ground level micromanaging the task, you are not looking hard enough at what the next steps should be. Get out of the weeds and look at the bigger picture.

Finally, as a leader you have to provide cover for your people to accomplish their tasks. Mistakes will happen, and things will go sideways. Your subordinates need to know that you will be supportive when they stretch the limits of their operating environment in accomplishing the task you assigned and stumble into trouble. Barring negligence, outright criminal or unethical behavior, make sure those you task know that you will be there if things go wrong.

Those of us at the keyboard’s edge are not without responsibility to positively contribute to the fight. No one told Rowan how to deliver the message, nor did he ask. Operational ingenuity and creativity should be your bread and butter. Know your left and right limits but be inventive in how you approach problems. Your job is to ensure the mission is accomplished and to feed information to the leadership so they can stay focused on the big picture. Like Rowan, we must be independent actors. If I am constantly bugging my supervisor on how he wants me to do a task, I am inviting micromanagement. Dedication to the cause and loyalty are essential elements as well. Hubbard urges mission focus over working hours “limited by the whistle.” There is no work whistle in tactical operations. We have a responsibility to those we enable to be available and to always be working with them foremost in our minds. What we do enables what they do.

A Message to Garcia was written over one hundred years ago but it is just as true today. Even here in the bowels of a concrete monolith, sheltered from the sweltering heat, and bathed in cool air, the focus must be on getting the thing done, whatever that thing might be. Leaders have to set the conditions for the success by clearly directing the action while giving those tasked room to succeed. Those tasked must take to the mission at hand with enthusiasm, imagination, and independence of action. We have a responsibility to those we enable to be available and to always be working with them in mind. What we do enables what they do. Look beyond the walls of the cubicle and understand the ground truth: you are what ensures that Garcia gets the message.

About the Author(s)

Chris Townsend is a Middle East Foreign Area Officer with 20 years of service in the U.S. Army. He served as section sergeant, platoon leader, and company commander during operations in Kuwait and Iraq. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.