21st Century Leadership: Four Lessons From The Past

“Responsibilities gravitate to the person who can shoulder them.” Elbert Hubbard, American writer and philosopher, 1856 – 1915

Written in 1899, Elbert Hubbard’s essay “Message To Garcia,” is based on the story of President McKinley giving a mission to 1st Lieutenant Andrew Rowan to deliver a message to General Calixto Garcia y Iniguez, leader of the Cuban rebels, during the war between Spain and the United States. The essay has a simple message: initiative, discipline and determination are critical to reaching one’s goals.

How does this almost 120 year old essay apply to leadership in the 21st century?

  1. Concentrate on the goal. The potential distractions today outnumber those in 1899. It is important to constantly be asking yourself “is what I’m doing today in this moment supporting the goals of the company.” Rowan’s goal was “find Garcia and deliver this message,” he supposedly strapped the message to himself as a persistent physical reminder. Find a way to “strap the message” of important goals to yourself.
  2. Persistence and determination. A mental toughness is required to succeed; I to think of it as “grit.” This doesn’t mean stubbornness; it means having the confidence and intestinal fortitude to succeed despite barriers. There are physiological aspects to being confident; simply things like thinking optimistically, focusing on breathing, standing tall.
  3. Emotional intelligence. Being smart and having knowledge – like engineering, accounting, manufacturing, analytics – is necessary. Having emotional intelligence, which is defined as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically,” is equally necessary.
  4. Respect of leadership. When leaders ask something of us, we need to trust and respect that it needs to be done. We can support ourselves in that trust by constantly learning and understanding as much as possible about the company, its goals, our market, our customers. If we don’t attain that deep understanding, we’re not going to be as effective as we can in delivery. Rowan wasn’t picked out of the clear blue sky to find Garcia. He was chosen because he had a track record of success. I hypothesize that part of that success was knowledge and understanding of the war and Garcia’s importance – so he didn’t need to ask a lot of questions of McKinley.

We need to be pragmatic and critical about what we read, whether this essay or an article in the Wall Street Journal. This essay has aspects, even flaws, that can distract or mask the key message; as intelligent business leaders we need to filter these.

  1. Extreme examples: Hubbard uses examples that may seem incongruous, like the clerk who asks a plethora of questions when asked to do some research or the accountant who habitually gets drunk when sent on errands. Don’t let his use of extreme examples distract from the point.
  2. Criticizing questions: The essay states that questioning a request is incorrect. This is not realistic or desirable. The trick is to ask appropriate, necessary questions of the right people. Rowan probably wondered how he would find a boat to Cuba, but I’ll bet he didn’t ask McKinley. Also, questions should not be used as an indicator of lack of determination. Leaders can use them as clues in determining communication or training needs.
  3. Worth of education: Early in the essay, the author states “it is not book learning young men need.” Again, we know that knowledge is important – however knowledge is useless without grit and the ability to implement. Hubbard himself late in the essay states “Have I put the matter too strongly? Possibly I have…” He’s not saying don’t go to school; he’s saying, “book learning” is not enough.
  4. Diversity: Obviously, this was written in a time when words like “feminism” and “equal opportunity” were not in use. Old writings with a masculine emphasis need not be discarded but it takes a critical eye to find today’s relevance.

“Message To Garcia” is an interesting piece. A recent somber example highlights the importance of its key message of perseverance and determination. On February 14th of this year, 17 people were killed in a school in Parkland, Florida. Within days, the young survivors were planning #MarchForOurLives on March 24th. I am sure many thought they could never pull this off. They started only with a date and a purpose – and on March 24th millions of people participated in the United States and other countries.

Oprah Winfrey Rules for Success: Stay grounded, Believe, Work on yourself, Run the race as hard as you can, Everyone makes mistakes, Find your purpose, Seize your opportunity, Relax it’s going to be okay. 

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