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A "Message to Garcia" and Its Impact on My Career

A Message to Garcia’ was the most-repeated message of my plebe year at the Naval Academy.  Any time we failed to come up with the answer to something, our upperclassmen would shout, ‘Message to Garcia!’  If we were struggling to get something done, we’d hear, ‘Message to Garcia!’ 

For the first few months, I had no idea what ‘Message to Garcia’ was.  But after a while, I just started associating that phrase with finishing the task at hand.  More importantly, finishing the task at hand with the resources at your disposal.  The Marines have a very similar motto:  “Improvise, adapt, and overcome.”   

Whatever the saying, the meaning is clear:  “When your superior issues a directive, find a way to complete the task.”  If it’s not clear enough, clarify it yourself.  If you need resources, find them.  If you have to get people to help you, get them.  If you need to work harder, overtime is authorized.   

About A Message to Garcia 

The funny thing is, I never actually read ‘A Message to Garcia’ until long after I graduated from the Naval Academy.  It wasn’t until I was ready to retire from the Navy that I actually read it.  Unlike most prescribed works, it wasn’t overly massive.  The Kindle version (which contains other stories by the author, Elbert Hubbard), is 42 pages.   

But the story itself is only 10 pages long.  It is achingly simple to read in one sitting.  You could order a coffee at Starbucks, begin reading, and probably finish before the barista hands you the coffee. 

‘A Message to Garcia ‘takes place during the Spanish-American War, when President McKinley orders an American soldier, Lieutenant Rowan, to deliver a very important message to General Garcia, leader of Cuban insurgents.  And that’s the whole story.  That part takes about a page and a half. 

But the story’s power lies in its simplicity.  The other 8 ½ pages are consumed by all the excuses Rowan did not come up with.  And it’s not until you read this part where you realize how this important mission could have gone wrong, had McKinley selected the wrong person.   

How ‘A Message to Garcia’ Impacted My Life 

I can never honestly say that reading ‘A Message to Garcia’ had a direct influence on my Navy career.  After all, I didn’t even read it until the tail end of my career.  But after I did, I took the time to reflect on my career, which had its ups and downs.   

  • During the times where I felt successful, I look back and realized that I had been taking the initiative to carry out a vague, difficult assignment, just the way Rowan would have.   

  • There were times where I had a momentary setback, but ultimately prevailed.  Those were the times that I was proudest.   

  • During the times where I struggled, laying blame elsewhere, I was just one of the naysayers, just not getting it done.  Most of this happened when I was a junior officer, and needed some experience, as you’ll read below. 

My Story 

When I was a young lieutenant, we had a commanding officer who was just regarded as a tyrant.  If something didn’t go the way he expected, his response was predictable.  In other words, you knew he was going to do something.  And it was always negative.  And loud.   

For example, one time, our ship was making an approach for an underway replenishment.  Down in our central control station, our engineers were making final checks for opening and closing the fuel tanks, per our engineering standards.  Normally, this is an automated process, controlled by computer.  However, the main circuit card had burnt out (actually the entire control panel caught on fire), and the fuel tanks couldn’t be controlled remotely any more.  The instructions clearly stated that taking fuel in this situation wasn’t authorized, so the chief engineer made the recommendation to the CO that we delay.  That way, the engineers could get a new circuit board from supply, then install it to get the system online.   

The CO wouldn’t hear it.  “Have extra people manually open and close all the fuel tank valves.”  We had never heard such a thing, but that’s exactly what we tried to do.  At this point, it was an all-hands evolution, with untrained people scrambling to find fuel tank valves to open and close exactly when needed.  We did get fuel, but we spilled a LOT of it in the process. 

During the debrief, in front of several people dripping with ship’s marine diesel, the CO completely berated our chief engineer.  When the senior enlisted engineer showed the black, burnt circuit card, the CO furiously screamed, “Incompetence!” 

The chief engineer, who was my roommate, suffered a literal nervous breakdown over the course of the next few weeks.  Had it not been for our XO, who looked out for him and secured him a pretty good follow-on assignment, this good man’s career would have been run into the ground.  And the whole time I was saying to myself, “At least it’s not me.” 

Not yet, anyway, as it turned out.  The next month, I had a major inspection.  One of my divisions failed the inspection for a variety of reasons.  Needless to say, I became the focus of my CO’s wrath.   

At first, we were focused on the re-inspection, which was scheduled for the month prior to our six-month deployment.  We had a lot to work on, but we ultimately fixed the issues and got the ship ready to deploy.   

Then, the CO started changing all kinds of things.  Just dumb stuff that had my Sailors wondering what kind of lunatic was in charge.  In fact, all the Sailors on the ship were wondering what was going on with the CO & Supply.  It seemed as though he was hellbent on running Supply into the ground.  But I tried never to show it to anyone.  I’d bitch and moan to my roommate, the new chief engineer.  But other than that, I tried to keep it to myself.   

But there were things that the CO had me doing that were violating procedures.  Not necessarily illegal or unethical, just things that I could get dinged on in future inspections.  So I reached out to some mentors and asked their advice:  “What do I do?”  The response was always: 

  • Find a way to satisfy your boss while keeping everything together.  Find a way.” 

Well, that didn’t seem to help as I was getting my butt kicked on a daily basis.  The culmination point was a port visit to Athens, Greece.  We were pulling in for a 4-day port visit, during which the U.S. Ambassador was hosting a black-tie event for the Hellenic Armed Forces.  It was a very prestigious affair.  The kind of affair where 3-stars generals and admirals were the low men on the totem pole.  And our ship was in charge of catering it.  Which meant I was in charge of catering it.  I am not a caterer.   

To make it worse, our culinary specialists (Navy cooks, or CS’s) had felt pretty insulted by the CO a few weeks prior.  Just after we deployed, one of our CS’s, who had just departed the ship, had been killed in a domestic violence incident.  He was one of the ship’s favorites, and our crew took it pretty hard.  So our CO got on the loudspeaker one day and did his best to say a few good words about him.  But he really screwed it up.  He rambled on about other things, then threw a half-hearted, sort-of eulogy that fell flat.  So my CS’s were pretty upset.  I had no idea what the cooks were going to do, but this reception was definitely going to depend on them.   

In order to give the cooks some down time to prepare, I advised the CO to close our wardroom during the port visit.  We discussed how our on-duty officers could eat on the mess decks during the visit.  He fully agreed. 

The next morning, the CO sauntered down to the wardroom, which was closed.  Having apparently forgotten the previous day’s discussion, he called the command duty officer and berated her for not having the wardroom open.  She notified me, and I dutifully reported to the CO’s cabin for a conversation that changed my life. 

You’re fired! 

Upon reflection, I believe that during this conversation, neither of us showed the pride and professionalism that I normally associate with the Navy.  And although the door was closed, I believe everyone in Officer’s Country could probably remember the volume, if not content, of that conversation.  I don’t recall the entire conversation, but when I strip out the profanity, the final words were pretty clear:  ‘You’re fired!”  Actually, that was the final three sentences of our conversation, just in case it wasn’t clear the first two times.   

At this point, spit was flying, and fists weren’t far behind.  There are two times in my life where I’ve thanked my lucky stars for my height.  Or lack of it.  My CO was a pretty tall man.  Had he been my height, I would probably have planted my fist in his mouth on the spot.  But our height difference meant that I probably would have hit him somewhere near the belly button.  Just not the same impact.  So I mustered enough energy to ask, between clenched teeth, “Will that be all, sir?” 

After I was dismissed, I went down the XO’s cabin, tossed him my keys, and told him, “You’ve got a new Supply Officer, now.  And he’s holding the keys.  I’m leaving the ship.”  And I grabbed my chief culinary specialist and left.   

My chief and I had previously set up an appointment with our ship’s chandler to procure the specialty items that we would need for our reception.  While we could order a lot of food through our various ship’s catalogs, the chandler would help us find things that weren’t normally available.  And since I was still fuming, the first item on that list was a pack of Greek Marlboro Reds.   

I haven’t smoked a cigarette in over 10 years.  But if the doctor told me today that I had lung cancer, I would attribute it to THAT pack of cigarettes.  As I sucked down those cigarettes on my way to the ship chandler’s office, I swear I could feel a tumor starting to grow.  It was 10 AM, and it took me about an hour to go through the entire pack.  Even the Greek merchant was pretty amazed:  “Are you sure you’re American?”   

But I went through the pack.  And a couple of Greek coffees.  And an Ouzo or two.  I’m glad that my chief was there to place the order, or else the reception would have turned out completely different. 

By the time we returned to the ship, the XO met me at the quarterdeck.  First, he returned my keys to me and told me that I wasn’t really fired (Damn!).  Second, he wanted me to know that the CO expected nothing less than a professional atmosphere for the reception (no kidding!).  From a guy he just fired, leading a bunch of cooks he just upset by paying lip-service to their dead comrade.  Sure, this was going well. 

Long story short, the CSs pulled everything together, and the officers really helped out.  It was amazing to see how our crew could pull off a black-tie affair on our ship’s helicopter deck.  Every detail was taken care of, and the Ambassador expressed his sincere appreciation to the 6th Fleet commander (which, like true Navy tradition, was filtered through about 4 layers of bureaucracy before it got down to the folks who did all the work).   

How I changed 

But that port visit changed my perspective.  No longer would I ever tell the CO anything.  In fact, I didn’t talk to him at all.  Ever.  All communications went through our XO.  I would give the XO stacks of paperwork for the CO to sign (he loved signing documents, even if I had the authority to sign them).  If there was something the CO wanted done, the XO would tell me.  Usually, the department heads would ‘check in’ with the CO once per day.  Not me.   

In fact, this is how the rest of his tour went.  Even in the wardroom, the only words to our conversation would be, “May I join you,” and “Please excuse me.”  Any time I had a problem, I knew it was mine to solve.  And I solved it.   

And once I trained myself to NEVER ask my boss for clarification, my job became so much more clear.   

About a year later, the CO was approaching the end of his tour.  During our deployment, my wife, Tania, had become the ship’s ombudsman, because none of the chief’s wives wanted anything to do with our CO.  As a result, Tania became pretty close friends with the CO’s wife, as she would often ask Tania what the other wives were thinking.  I’m not sure which of us had the more difficult job, me or Tania.  She was the one who had to have awkward conversations with the CO’s wife without telling her that everyone thought her husband was a loon.   

As our change of command approached, the CO’s wife asked Tania out to lunch.  During that lunch, the CO’s wife remarked about what a great tour this was for them, and how she had liked me and Tania personally.  She said, “Tania, your husband is the only officer who ever got it.”  Tania asked, “Got what?”  She said, “My husband wanted his officers to do their job.  Everyone else just gave him problems to solve.  If they ever briefed him about a problem, he felt like he had to solve it for them.  Forrest was the only person who just fixed his problems on his own.”   

In a similar manner, Tania had gone through many of those challenges as ombudsman, and would have to ‘figure out’ solutions herself.  Even though she was an unpaid volunteer, receiving little help from the people who ‘should have volunteered’ and often couldn’t get through to the command’s leadership, Tania always found a way.  And she still has never read ‘A Message to Garcia.’   

How ‘A Message to Garcia’ Could Go Awry 

 When Tania told me that story, I was blown away for several reasons.   

First of all, I knew of multiple incidents that required a CO’s notification.  The reason I knew them was because they were under my watch, and I covered them up in paperwork.  Yep, I found a way to get the job done, keep it legal, and keep my boss happy.  But the Navy has procedures in place for a reason.  And some of those reasons require a CO to be notified in certain circumstances, as a precaution.  Having a CO who overreacted to a routine report could eventually set up that leader for failure.   

Second, I knew that I would rather have people give me updates on things they were doing.  That way, I could intervene before a well-intentioned plan went horribly awry.  After all, you could look at Watergate or the Iran-Contra affair as two prolific examples of how ‘A Message to Garcia’ can be taken out of context.  Ironically, the central figures in each scandal were military or former military folks working for Presidents who placed a great deal of responsibility (and zero supervision) on their shoulders.   

So I resolved myself to adhere to these principles as long as the order was a lawful one, and as long as safety and ethical judgement were not a concern.  Throughout the rest of my career, that philosophy  guided me through 100% of the orders that I’ve ever had to follow.   

How ‘A Message to Garcia’ Affected My Career 

After that tour, Tania and I moved on in our military career.  We always looked at that tour as the crucible that redefined how I looked at my job.  It seems that after that tour, the difficulty in every other job wasn’t as daunting.  Even jobs that were actually more difficult were never as intimidating as that department head tour.  It was all a matter of perspective.  After all, what’s the worst thing my future boss could do, fire me?  Already happened. 

And over the years, I became pretty good at sizing career officers up as, “She gets it,”  or “He doesn’t get it at all.”  After a while, I realized that if I could size them up based upon a first impression, that’s what all the senior officers were doing.  And when I mentored folks, I’d always tell them: 

  • Find ways to deliver value to your boss 

  • Don’t make your boss do more work than you in accomplishing YOUR assignment 

  • Find problems and solve them before your boss does   

  • If your boss has to solve your problem, then you’re part of the problem 

I never told them to read ‘A Message to Garcia,’ but I probably could have.  Instead, we’d go to an officer function, and I’d point out complete strangers and say, “She gets it,” or “this guy doesn’t get it.”  It’s all a matter of how you carry yourself.  And it all points back to ‘A Message to Garcia.’ 

Because anyone can quickly pick out the person that ‘gets it.’  That is, except for the people who don’t get it, and never will.  Those are the folks who stand around wondering: 

  • What’s in it for me? 

  • Why someone else got the promotion or special assignment 

  • Why someone else got picked when they could have done the job better 

I imagine that when Rowan’s peers heard that the President personally selected him to deliver a message to Garcia, they probably said similar things.  And that’s why he was selected.  And its amazing that those principles hold true over a century later. 

But it took me until after I retired to put everything together. 

‘A Message to Garcia, Post-Military’ 

As a financial planner, financial planning is only part of my job.  The primary focus of my job is to run a business.  And, for the first few years, part of that business is establishing relationships with people who will know, like, and trust me.  Of those people, some of them might see the value that I am capable of delivering, and will hire me.  In other words, part of my job is to get clients.  And I work hard at it.  Once they become my clients, I work just as hard in continuing to earn their business. 

When I see my peers, I see a lot of people doing that as well.  But I also see a lot of people who are distracted.  Or playing with neat software.  Or otherwise not focused on connecting with clients.  But the most infuriating thing is when I hear new planners yelling into the wind about fee-only planners vs. salesmen:  “Why do these salesmen make so much money selling insurance products to people who clearly don’t need them?” 

My answer is always:  “Because they trust that person.  And because you’re not out there earning that client’s trust, they’re having to figure it out from someone who might not have their best interest in mind.  Whose fault is that?”   

Conclusion 

As soon as “I got it,” life changed for me.  It wasn’t a sudden matter.  Perhaps I would have gotten it sooner had I kept ‘A Message to Garcia’ in mind after plebe year.  It might even have done me some good to actually read ‘A Message to Garcia’ at some point.   

But at some point, I did get it.  And to me, ‘getting it’ is something that I believe most successful leaders understand.  And everyone who gets it can quickly identify those who don’t.  And will do their best to avoid them.   

What do you think?   Have you read "A Message to Garcia"? How does it impact your life? E-mail us at questions@westchasefinancialplanning.com.  And don't forget, connect with us using the button above and get a FREE copy of our "9 little-known services your financial advisor should be offering." 

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