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A petulant diatribe
am 27. August 1999
This piece, which Hubbard dashed off hurriedly one night a hundred years ago, when he needed something to fill the magazine he edited, is not what it appears.
You open it thinking it will be an inspiring "can do" tale of how one man overcame great odds to win. He introduces the story of how an American soldier in the Spanish American War was told to penetrate enemy territory, at night, through mountain and jungle, to take a message to an insurgent leader, Garcia. The soldier succeeded.
But that's all she wrote. We are given no details, which the author dismisses as unimportant, and which one wonders if he even knew. He never really "tells" the story, only alludes to it as a point of departure for the rest of the article, which basically consists of a rant about how employees today are no good.
Really! That's it. This book, sold under a "self-help"-sounding title, really consists of what a manager might have said if he was venting to other managers. The tone is one of suspicion and contempt toward employees in general, as if the author suspected that most, if not all, of them were lazy and unmotivated, unless they proved otherwise.
Astonishingly, the pamphlet was wildly popular in its day--among managers, of course, who printed it in the thousands, and in many languages, and distributed it to those under them, apparently as a "motivational" tool, though what emotion it could elicit besides resentment is hard to imagine. Nevertheless, the piece's circulation was so widespread that it was found in the backpacks of Japanese soldiers killed in the Russo-Japanese War, in 1904. Indeed, for all we know, copies might have been among the possessions of the U-boat crew that sank the Lusitania in 1915, which is how its pompous windbag of an author, Elbert Hubbard, met his tragic death.
Yes, there are employees like the substandard ones that Hubbard describes. But "Message to Garcia" is not likely to encourage them to improve, only to confirm their managers in their resentment of them. Moreover, Hubbard's piece reeks of the authoritarian and paternalizing attitude of the management of that day, an attitude that one hopes would embarrass the most committed CEO of today's corporate culture.
One of the book's best known passages says (I am quoting from memory): "If you're going to work for a man, for heaven's sake, WORK for him!...If you must continually complain and criticize, you will find, when the winds of crisis begin to blow, your ties to his organization are loosened..."
It never seems to occur to Hubbard that it could be possible to both work hard AND identify critical issues that needed to be addressed, in an organization. His attitude is, "Show up, do your work, keep quiet except to say 'Yes Sir,' collect your paycheck, and go home." In other words, Hubbard was an uncritical propagandist for the retrograde attitudes of his day.
Don't read this book for inspiration, but as a relic of earlier American culture, much as you might watch D.W. Griffith's 1915 movie, "Birth of a Nation," which actually glorifies the Klan.