Follower as Hero: “A Message to Garcia.”

Posted by jlubans on April 18, 2012

Andrew Summers Rowan is the hero in “A Message to Garcia”, the still quoted 1899 inspirational essay written by the entrepreneurial Elbert Hubbard.
Hubbard has Rowan as a laconic, decisive and rugged individual slipping into and out of enemy territory (Cuba) to deliver a secret letter from his President to the leader of the insurgent forces, General Garcia. Yet, Rowan’s own story is not quite the paen to rugged individualism that Hubbard makes it.
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Caption: Andrew Summers Rowan
Written in 1929 – 31 years after the “Message” - Rowan describes in 9000 words how he got his message through. It is a harrowing tale of personal danger, but it is less about the individual as a solo adventurer and more about a high-risk, escorted journey - via Jamaica - on open seas and through enemy-held blockades, jungles and mountains. In the only perceptible nod to a Solo-esque adventure, Rowan quotes a Cuban newspaper describing his dramatic arrival at Garcia's headquarters: "There was no notice of his coming and the first (sight) of Lieutenant Rowan was as he galloped up Calle Commercial, followed by the Cuban guides who accompanied him."
Rather, Rowan - someone I would have liked to meet - has a wry perspective and includes a couple of engaging touches of humor. When his meeting with Garcia was delayed, even longer than one might expect from a necessary scrutiny of credentials, he explains: “There is humor in everything. I had been described in letters from the junta as ‘a man of confidence.’ The translator had made me ‘a confidence man’."
His trip back to the US was no less of a risk and an adventure than getting through to Garcia. “The boat in which we made the voyage was a cockleshell, ‘capacity 104 cubic feet’. For sails we had gunnysacks, pieced together. For rations boiled beef and water. In this craft we were to sail, and we did sail, 150 miles due north …. "
On the way, they overtook a sponging schooner and asked to be taken aboard. “This schooner carried a litter of pigs for food and an accordeon. I never want to hear an accordeon again....”
If anything, Rowan’s story suggests an extraordinarily effective insurgent force – how else could Rowan get through and past the Spanish army’s blockades and patrols?
Rowan is a hero, no question, but the notion that he did this mutely and on his own is simply wrong. Each of the people who helped Rowan did so at great risk. If caught all would be killed; not a one would be spared.
While “A Message to Garcia” was hugely successful - with many businesses and governments ordering millions of copies, and eventually made into a sappy movie - it has its share of critics. For example: "…the (Hubbard) essay's real intent had nothing to do with Rowan. It was, instead, a heavy-handed admonition to workers to obey authority and to place devotion to duty above all else.” This critic suggest Hubbard wants workers be more like obedient dogs.
Hardly. Hubbard wanted workers like himself, a self-starter. He wanted “can-do” workers rather than the passive aggressives (in some eyes, anti-heroic) characters who, nowadays, populate comic strips like Dilbert, nor are they scarce among the cubicle and corner office set. In Rowan’s story, Hubbard saw someone accepting responsibility, taking initiative, and figuring out things for himself.
Hubbard does not analyze why some workers are less than effective, he celebrates Rowan and his successful mission and wants others to emulate Rowan. While Hubbard does not use the term, Rowan is an effective follower.
Like I describe several times in Leading from the Middle, the effective follower benefits the leadership process – getting things done. The best followers require little supervision. And, they are committed to the organization and to a purpose or person outside themselves. These followers manage themselves well – they are leaders in their own areas. Like Rowan, the effective follower thinks for himself, figures out what needs doing, and then does it. Because he is an independent and critical thinker, he asks no unnecessary question; instead he acts rather than dithers. Rowan himself offers us an insight into his sense of duty and doing: “In instances of this kind, where one's reputation, as well as his life, is at stake, it is usual to ask for written instructions. …. But in this case it never occurred to me to ask for written instructions; my sole thought was that I was charged with a message to Garcia and to get from him certain information and that I was going to do it.“

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