by Stephen T. Messenger
April 19, 2022
“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity”
– General George S. Patton, Jr.
I recently assigned a task to an employee. It was neither simple nor complex. It did require a little bit of thought and effort to complete, but nothing out of the ordinary for their position or experience.
After I explained what needed to be done and why, I immediately received a barrage of questions about the assignment. They wanted to know where to start and who to contact. They were curious where the information could be found and if the deadline really needed to be that short. They continued asking probing questions to fully understand what they needed to do.
All these questions by themselves were reasonable, of course. However, they collectively inferred a question that no employee should ask: “How do you want me to do it, boss?”
The U.S. Army frowns upon telling people how to accomplish tasks. Instead, it uses a concept called Mission Command defined to empower subordinate decision making and allow soldiers the ingenuity to complete the job appropriately (full definition at the bottom).
My simplified definition: It’s telling people what to do, not how to do it.
This concept is a two-way street in which many struggle. You as a leader must assign tasks and let your subordinates have the freedom to complete it the way they want. You as a subordinate must receive a task and execute it efficiently.
In Elbert Hubbard’s 1899 short story Message to Garcia, based on true events, President William McKinley needed to quickly deliver a letter to the general of the Cuban insurgency during the Spanish American War. This man was located somewhere in the Cuban mountains and that’s about all the knowledge anyone had.
The staff summoned forty-one-year-old First Lieutenant Andrew Rowan. This man knew the location of Garcia no more than the President but was assigned one task: bring this letter to Garcia. Rowan didn’t ask how to do it but took the letter and started towards Cuba. He could have asked a hundred questions on how to do it, but he just went.
Shortly thereafter, he arrived on the small island and delivered the letter to the general. Hubbard characterized this leader as loyal, efficient, and focused on finishing the task.
If only all our employees were like that. If only we were like that!
When assigning or receiving a task, it’s tempting to give or ask for more information. Often, it’s important to get as many details as possible. But in the military, there’s a definitive line where questions cross from “what to do” into “how to do it.”
“An order should not trespass upon the province of a subordinate. It should contain everything that the subordinate must know to carry out his mission, but nothing more” (U.S. Army, Tentative Field Service Regulations, Operations (1939).
This type of leadership requires a level of trust with subordinates. It’s a trust that you as an employee are required to build with your boss. It’s a level of trust that you must develop first, and then communicate with them based on that level of trust.
Elbert Hubbard sums it up in his book:
“The man who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly take[s] the missive, without asking any idiotic questions…never gets “laid off,” nor has to go on a strike for higher wages. Civilization is one long anxious search for just such individuals. Anything such a man asks shall be granted; his kind is so rare that no employer can afford to let him go. He is wanted in every city, town and village- in every office, shop, store and factory. The world cries out for such: he is needed & needed badly- the man who can carry a message to Garcia.”
Every single time you read, think, discuss, write, and practice leadership, you get better. Make this a daily habit! Every week, we’ll post a new 3-5 minute read for you to exercise your leadership muscles. I want to encourage you to continue on your journey – it’s worth it!
Mission Command Definition: The Army’s approach to command and control that empowers subordinate decision making and decentralized execution appropriate to the situation using the principles of competence, mutual trust, shared understanding, commander’s intent, mission orders, disciplined initiative, and risk acceptance.
One thought on “Message to Garcia”
Great thoughts here, mission command is truly a beautiful and complicated approach.