Gen. Mattis' 'Message to Garcia'

This has been a momentous week in the history of our nation: a government shutdown, plummeting stock markets, multiple scandals threatening to sink the presidency, troop withdrawal announcements and perhaps most concerning, the resignation of General James Mattis as our secretary of Defense

During such grave times, I have written in the past that organizations must look to their existing policies and values over making poor decisions during crisis. As a well-noted scholar-warrior, General Mattis is an adherent of such ethical leadership.

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General Mattis’ letter to the president and our current national situation reminds me of "A Message to Garcia," written by Elbert Hubbard. This essay was, until recently, required reading for all Marines, but it also found its way into leadership training for many branches, including Army and State Guards. 

The Library of the Marine Corps described "A Message to Garcia" as follows:

[The] Story of an American soldier charged with delivering a critical message to a leader of Cuban rebel forces during the Spanish American War. He delivers the urgent missive with no questions asked, no complaining, and no hedging. The enduring and almost unbelievably simple message of the essay is this: When asked to perform a task, don’t ask How...? or Why...? or Wouldn’t it be better if...? Just do it.

I first heard the story of "A Message to Garcia" when I was a lieutenant colonel in the Maryland State Guard, serving as the appeals officer to the Officer Candidate School of the Maryland Army National Guard’s 70th Regiment

It was 2014, when many in the military thought our world was fraying: the rise of a new Cold War; the Russian downing of MH 17 over Ukrainian territory; the invasion and annexation of Crimea by Russia. Little did we know the future we would have today. We were training new military leaders during a time of great uncertainty and during near continuous foreign wars.  

In hindsight, I realize today that "A Message to Garcia" is about having the courage to deliver bad news; to deliver news even when someone does not really understand what you are saying or even if that person does not want to listen.

Sometimes your duty, as a leader, is to deliver bad news, even if that news is not valued or appreciated by those you inform. 

Many leaders believe the hardest part of their job is delivering bad news. Accordingly, delivering bad news has been the source of study and publication. The Journal of Accountancy summarized three time-tested stages leaders must take when delivering bad news:

  • gaining clarity about the message;
  • overruling avoidance with courage;
  • executing the message.

As I understand the situation, General Mattis attempted to do each of these. First, General Mattis sat in his Pentagon office on Thursday morning and watched President Trump’s pre-recorded 1:19 minute video announcing the United States withdrawal from Syria.  

Mattis then prepared his "Message to Garcia" and took the short drive to the White House to meet with the president for a previously scheduled meeting. There, he tried one last time to deliver the message that the president did not want to hear. 

It is apparent that the president heard what he had to say and accepted Mattis’ resignation on the spot. But he did not yield in his decision. Mattis therefore drove back to the Pentagon and ordered his aides to prepare 50 copies of his letter so that his "Message to Garcia" could be provided to us, as a nation. In other words, he executed the message.   

Initially, it appeared that the president accepted his resignation letter gracefully. But he apparently either did not read the letter, or he didn't understand its true implications. 

By Sunday, it had become clear to the president that General Mattis’ "Message to Garcia" was bad news, and Trump apparently did not want to listen to bad news, even if it was true. He therefore accelerated Mattis’ departure, announcing via Twitter that Mattis will depart by next week.

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The lesson of Mattis’ "Message to Garcia" will remain, even after he departs the Pentagon. Sometimes bad news must be delivered, and sometimes it must be delivered even into the uninhabited swamp of Washington. It is the duty of a true leader to take the message into the swamp, even if you must travel over the Potomac. 

In the difficult weeks ahead, messages still need to be delivered, and the nation must still be governed. Agencies and operations must be funded. The gavel will pass in the House, and subpoenas will inevitably be issued. 

Border security, whether through a wall or through Customs and Border Protection officers and Border Patrol agents, must be administered. The courts must continue to dispense justice. The special counsel must continue to investigate. And, through it all, others will inevitably be called to deliver future "Messages to Garcia." 

David P. Weber is a faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, where he chairs the ethical leadership course in Maryland’s top-ranked online MBA program, and teaches face-to-face ethics and fraud examination at the undergraduate and graduate levels.