Wise advice from 1899: Sack the slothful and incompetent

Wise advice from 1899: Sack the slothful and incompetent

Created: 2013-4-13

Author:Wang Yong

AMERICA is known for its can-do spirit, but there’s never been a shortage of can’t-doers.

“A Message to Garcia,” written by artist and publisher Elbert Hubbard (1856 – 1915) in 1899, remains a definitive work, even today, on why a boss must honor the can-doers and curb, or can, the can’t-doers in the workplace.

A central message of the book: If the boss does not dismiss the less fit, that is, the can’t-doers, the business will never survive.

In fact, Hubbard wrote the book of about 30 pages in an hour in 1899 after an indifferent employee irritated him.

He said the book idea “leapt hot from my heart, written after a trying day when I had been endeavoring to train some rather delinquent villagers.”Andrew Summers Rowan (1857-1943), an American officer during the brief Spanish-American War in 1898, is the hero of the book who exemplifies the ultimate can-do spirit that Americans so cherish.

The author extols Rowan’s unquestioning attitude toward arduous assignments and uses Rowan as an example to demonstrate that a good employee always gets on with a task without questions or excuses.

The book does not dwell upon Rowan’s heroic deeds, but for the purpose of this review, let me briefly clarify what Rowan did as a hero of the Spanish-American War: He delivered a message from US President William Mckinley (1843-1901) to renowned Cuban guerrilla general Garcia in time to help the US win the war with Spain (which controlled Cuba).

Citation in Arlington

Here’s the citation in Arlington National Cemetery, where Rowan was buried:

“At the outbreak of the Spanish-American campaign, Lieutenant Rowan, under disguise, entered the enemy lines in Oriente, crossed the island of Cuba, and not only succeeded in delivering a message to General Garcia, but secured secret information relative to existing military conditions in that region of such great value that it had an important bearing on the quick ending of the struggle and the complete success of the US Army.”

Now, let us turn to the cursory description of Rowan in the opening paragraphs of “A Message to Garcia”:

“Rowan was sent for and given a letter to be delivered to Garcia. How ‘the fellow by the name of Rowan’ took the letter, sealed it up in an oil-skin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the Island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and delivered his letter to Garcia, are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail,” Hubbard writes breezily. “The point I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, ‘Where is he at?'”

After eulogizing Rowan for his prompt and loyal actions, the author turns to reality in the business world, observing in a snarky tone: “No man, who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man – the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it. Slipshod assistance, foolish inattention, dowdy indifference, and half-hearted work seem the rule.”

Half-hearted employees

He may have put the matter too strongly, then and now. After all, people like Rowan are still with us. But if you have a problem dealing with your half-hearted employees, this book merits attention.

Its style is so breezy and succinct that there’s almost no need for me to rephrase the content. Direct quotes may be useful.

Here’s a workplace scene the author describes, and I find it strikingly similar to our modern-day office work:

“You, reader, put this matter to a test: You are sitting now in your office – six clerks are within call. Summon any one and make this request: ‘Please look in the encyclopedia and make a brief memorandum for me concerning the life of Correggio,'” he writes. “Will the clerk quietly say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and go do the task? On your life, he will not. He will look at you out of a fishy eye and ask one or more of the following questions: Who was he? Which encyclopedia? Where is the encyclopedia? Was I hired for that? Don’t you mean Bismarck? What’s the matter with Charlie doing it? Is he dead? Is there any hurry? Shan’t I bring you the book and let you look it up yourself? What do you want to know for?”

I blushed when I read this, because I sometimes do ask such idiotic questions. So do many other employees I know.

One charm of the book is that it reminds us how slipshod we can be as average employees and how the boss’ job can be under-appreciated.

“We have recently been hearing much maudlin sympathy expressed for the ‘downtrodden denizen of the sweat-shop’… and with it all often go many hard words for the men in power,” he says. “Nothing is said about the employer who grows old before his time in a vain attempt to get frowsy ne’er-do-wells to do intelligent work; and his long patient striving with ‘help’ that does nothing but loaf when his back is turned.”

Indeed, even today, public opinion tends to pit the “weaker” workers against the “stronger” bosses, without giving it much thought.

Certainly there are hardworking lesser souls, but bosses are not necessarily evils. Many bosses today are kind enough to accommodate workplace imbecility in certain cases.

But on the whole, what was antithetical to Rowan should not be tolerated.

Fire the can’t-doers

Hubbard suggests that “out and forever out, the incompetent and unworthy go. It is the survival of the fittest. Self-interest prompts every employer to keep the best – those who can carry a message to Garcia.”

The book was so well written that it sold 40 million copies worldwide by 1913.

During the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, it was said that every Russian soldier on active duty carried a copy of “A Message to Garcia. “The Japanese discovered the booklet in Russian prisoners’ pockets and published a Japanese edition.

Although Hubbard does not say much about Rowan the man, his book has prompted me to look for what Rowan himself might have said about himself.

And this is what I’ve found in Rowan’s own book, titled “How I Carried the Message to Garcia”:

“In military service the life of the man is at the disposal of his country, but his reputation is his own and it ought not be placed in the hands of anyone with power to destroy it, either by neglect or otherwise. 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.”

“A Message to Garcia” should be a moral message to each and every new recruit in today’s world of business and government.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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