By Col. Jacob Middleton
50th Space Wing Vice Commnader
SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Recently, I was explaining to a public affairs officer why I was uncomfortable completing or publishing a questionnaire about my leadership style. I articulated what I thought was a sound Theory of the Case. My argument was logical, consistent with common sense, free from legal technicalities and, most importantly, explained why I was right and why the PA officer was wrong. I cited my most important evidence–the essay titled A Message to Garcia. Unfortunately, the Public Affairs officer was savvier than I realized. I lost the argument and am now writing, explaining why this essay is important to me.
Before talking about the essay, let me set the stage. I grew up very poor; so poor that I loved to go to school, not to learn but to eat the free meal. During my formative years, many adults felt the need to tell me I would grow up to be a failure, just like most people from that area. Failure was all around me; and to make matters worse, I was lazy, hard-headed and opinionated.
Let’s fast-forward to 1999. I’m a second lieutenant, stratified in the bottom third of my year group and wing. I came across a lieutenant who seemed to have space operations figured out. I sought his guidance on how to be successful but he refused to give it to me unless I read the essay, A Message to Garcia.
If one were to do an internet search on A Message to Garcia, they would find analyses focused on “the follower” i.e. people who accomplish the mission without whining, complaining or negotiating. This is important because, I imagine we all want followers who don’t require complex instructions, constant oversight or follow-up? However, good leaders need to have certain responsibilities and characteristics as well.
The essay was written in 1899, a year after the Spanish-American War. When war broke out, President William McKinley needed to relay a message to the leader of the insurgents (Garcia), somewhere in the jungle mountains of Cuba. When faced with this need, the president asked one person to take a message to Garcia.
From a leadership perspective his instructions were clear, and he did not micromanage. He understood the training and abilities of the individual being tasked, and knew this individual could achieve the task. The president then trusted the messenger and was prepared to accept failure.
The above leadership responsibilities and characteristics are really about self-awareness. One must first understand who they are in order to know what needs improvement. On the final page of the essay I had found the guide that has worked well for me since I was a second lieutenent. It is titled A Prayer. Below is an excerpt in my own words.
I wish to be simple, honest, frank, natural and unaffected–ready to say “I do not know,” if it is so, and “I’m sorry,” if it is warranted.
I wish to meet every obstacle and every difficulty unabashed and unafraid.
I wish to never meddle, interfere, dictate, or give advice that is not wanted, or assist when my services are not needed.
When I lead, I wish to give others a chance to help themselves.
If I can uplift or inspire, I wish to do it by example, inference and suggestion, rather than by injunction and dictation.
I’m rarely successful at accomplishing all of this, all of the time, but I always try.
In closing, I’m not sure if you noticed, but the chronology at the beginning of this essay has a gap–from when I graduated high school at 17, to when I met the first lieutenant at 28. You may be wondering what my moral guide was over this decade and I’ll answer this.
I was fortunate enough to have coaches, professors and noncommissioned officers–mentors who were persistent and kept me on the right path. The essay, A Message to Garcia, did nothing more than solidify what many good folks were trying to instill in me all along.
All of us are surrounded by good folks trying to keep us on the right path, reminding us of good values–integrity, service and excellence. And, while I’m aware that perfection alludes us all, we must always continue to try to become better than what we are.