Simon Terry

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Give Purpose, Autonomy & Mastery, Not Direction

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Last night I came across a reference to A Message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard, which was once an influential essay describing a model of personal leadership. The essay reflects its origins at the turn of the 19th century, particularly in its description of manager & employee relations. However, a determined & talented employee who displays personal leadership and asks no questions is the goal for many organisations.

The essay contrasts between Rowan’s personal leadership & responses of other hypothetical examples. In describing these examples there is one difference that Elbert Hubbard missed. This missed difference highlights why so many employees might still disappoint when assigned tasks. The difference is the leadership involved in assigning the task.

President McKinley’s request is not the assignment of a mere task. His actions are far more powerful as acts of a leader than Hubbard’s own examples. McKinley allows Rowan to complete the task with purpose, autonomy and mastery:

  • McKinley assigns Rowan a whole & heroic task to deliver a message to an uncontactable General in unknown terrain. This is done where the purpose of this task is extremely clear to all involved – his country needs his unique talents to achieve an important goal in a difficult war.
  • Rowan is given autonomy. There is no direction on how to achieve the task, because he knows he is best placed to achieve it. There is no request for progress updates and no expectation that Rowan do more than achieve it. Once Rowan accepts the message, the outcome it is his to achieve (or to fail). 
  • Mastery is inherent in the selection of Rowan. He knows he has been chosen for his talents, his ability to improvise, to perserve and to improve to achieve a purpose beyond the capabilities of others. Rowan asks no questions because he knows it is his mastery that the others need.

Consider in contrast, Elbert Hubbard’s example of asking a clerk to write a memorandum on the life of Correggio. The task is arbitrary and hence purposeless. The only reason it is being done is that the employer asked for it. The lack of purpose also limits the autonomy. The memorandum fits in some plan not shared with the employee, rightly creating an expectation that further instruction or steps will be forthcoming. Unless the clerk is a scholar of Italian Renaissance painters, of writing or of biography, the memorandum is unlikely to match some arena of personal mastery.

Leadership in every role is a key refrain in the future of work. The world cries out for someone who can ‘get a message to Garcia’. More importantly, the world cries out for leaders who knows how to ask in ways that allow purpose, autonomy and mastery.


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