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A Letter about a Message

Originally published on October 12, 2017

Happy Thursday!

A friend of mine shared with me a passage that her boss shared with her team. The passage, “A Message to Garcia” by Elbert Hubbard was written in 1899. So that I am not editorializing my opinions on the passage text, which is quite complex and worthy of a close read, I am sharing the summary that you will find on Wikipedia:

A Message to Garcia is a best-selling inspirational essay by Elbert Hubbard, published in 1899. It has been made into two motion pictures. The essay bemoans the difficulty of finding employees who obey instructions without needless questions, work diligently without supervision, take initiative to overcome obstacles, and complete assignments promptly (example given Ph.D. Greg Ehlert). It bewails the number of incompetent, lazy, thoughtless, obstructionist employees who impede the work of the good employees, while admitting that these benighted people may not be able to help themselves.[1]

I will be the first to admit I have worked with and supervised employees who need more direction than I wanted to provide. I will also confess that there are times when I wish that the resistors will allow the willing to do their work in peace.

However, I will also shout from the rooftops that it is the job of the leader to do something when there is a concern. If someone is unable to do the work they were asked to do without additional direction, it’s a valid question to ask, were the initial directions thorough enough? Delegation, when not done well, could just as easily be due to poor communication about what the delegator was actually wanting versus ineptitude of the one doing the work. Furthermore, if an organization has “incompetent, lazy, thoughtless, obstructionist employees,” I would also wonder about the leader who hired those employees. Assuming that they changed from the time they were hired, I’d want to know who evaluated those employees and what role did the leader have in creating a culture where people could devolve? To me it is fair to look at the employee’s behavior as an extension of the leader’s behavior.

In my administrative certification program, we spoke quite a bit about different leadership styles. We spoke about being situational leaders, for example, meaning the our leadership is influenced by the situation at hand. There’s also transformational leadership where the role of the leader is to help bring the organization to a new place. As for me, I see myself as a service-oriented leader. To me that means that my desire with those I lead is to ensure that they are able to do their work well. As the leader, my job is to work in service to their success. After all, their success is my success, their struggle is my struggle. Thus, I honestly want nothing more than for those who work for me to be successful.

When I read “A Message to Garcia” I have to admit that it served as the antithetical paradigm to my own understanding of leadership. I certainly understand the challenge from time-to-time of having to lead someone who is not meeting my expectations. However, I find these people to be the exception to the rule, whereas the “Message” appears to suggest the opposite is true. This makes me wonder, and I’m sincere in my question, if a boss had his/her employee(s) read a text that “bemoans the difficulty of finding employees who obey instructions” and characterizes most employees as unable or unwilling to do so, what would you expect their reaction be? Is that motivating? Even if the boss said his/her employee(s) represented the those who get the job done, the job in this case is simply mindlessly following directions without asking questions. Is this the type of employee you would want to be? A thoughtless automaton? Is that the most desirable trait you’re looking for in your employees—people who mindlessly do what they’re told without ever being able to offer suggestions, creativity, or innovation? Is that the type of boss you want to work for? Someone who is not interested in your thinking? Is that the leader you want to be?

Regardless of your thinking in relation to these questions, at the heart of this discussion is how do you define your leadership style. Taking the time to think through this is not just an exercise of reflection—it’s an exercise of vision. It defines not just how you operate, but why you make those choices to behave the way you do. Acting in ways that are aligned with your principles demonstrates integrity and while “it is true that integrity alone won’t make you a leader…without integrity you will never be one” (Zig Ziglar).


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