Throughout an officer’s career, there will be inevitable exposure to a plethora of reading lists. Although a myriad of different lists exists, one essay that finds its way to a majority of junior officer reading lists is Message to Garcia, a story that describes a young second lieutenant’s initiative and tenacity in accomplishing the mission. I understand why this is such a popular read – it aims to instill a sense of drive and go-getter mentality in junior officers. This essay has even been touted as an example of effective tenets of mission command, especially disciplined initiative. Certainly, we want to see those positive traits in our junior officer ranks but in my personal experience as well as other officers I have spoken to, I have seen leaders use their interpretation of Message to Garcia to essentially pass the buck under the guise of development.
When I was a platoon leader, one of my company commanders directed all his lieutenants to read Message to Garcia and would often use the phrase “Message to Garcia that sh*t” in lieu of saying “figure it out”. During a five-week gunnery field exercise, he did not produce any sort of guidance stating what the hip-pocket training focus would be and instead told his platoon leaders to develop a day-by-day plan for the duration of our time in the field. Although we would report to him daily, there was no feedback or refinement from our commander. Instead, we were told this was good “development” for us and would make us better platoon leaders.
After we returned from this field exercise, the trend continued. On multiple occasions, I was tasked with developing an OPORD for a training exercise with no guidance in relation to what Mission Essential Tasks he wanted to train and what the desired end state was. When I back briefed him an outline for a plan and asked for feedback, he would merely say “I’ll know when I see it.” My company commander at the time was the first person to use that phrase with me and certainly not the last. Over time, I realized that his notions of “subordinate empowerment” were really a cover up for his lack of vision and understanding of necessary doctrine. He was not actually developing us, he was simply passing the buck under the guise of development.
How do we remedy this? For starters, those who choose to include Message to Garcia on their reading lists can take time to discuss and contextualize what Hubbard’s essay actually means. Taking initiative is an essential leadership trait but that initiative needs to be guided by mission command principles such as clear intent and mission orders. Without shared understanding, unity of effort will be lacking which oftentimes leads to duplication of effort. Time is one of our most precious resources, if not the most important, and we cannot afford to duplicate and waste effort if we want to achieve mission success. I do not think Message to Garcia should be removed from professional reading lists but I do think leaders need to ensure their subordinates understand why they are reading it. My biggest takeaway from Message to Garcia is that subordinates should be biased towards action and not just rely on their leaders to give them all the answers – that is how they learn and grow. However, their leaders are responsible with providing them a clear end state and the necessary means to achieve that end state.
Howard Zhou is a military intelligence officer in the US Army who has served in a variety of leadership and operational roles, both stateside and deployed. Previously he was an armor officer at Schofield Barracks, HI and is now transitioning out of the Army at Fort Bragg, NC.