Lead with the best version of yourself.

The Lost Art of the Handwritten Note

by Michael Wissemann

I have a friend named James with whom I worked for the past several years. James is a “good old boy” from Louisiana with some of the clichés that invokes. Most notably, he speaks in a slow, comforting, backwoods southern drawl. He has a way of putting people at ease the moment you meet him. Without even trying, James creates followership with those around him and inspires everyone to do better for the organization.

We all probably all know a person like James, but for many of us, we don’t share their innate traits. Many of us struggle as leaders to create that atmosphere and the followership that permeates organizations. Don’t get me wrong; we understand the importance of it, we just sometimes have trouble fashioning the micro-conditions for it to flourish in large organizations. That’s where the handwritten note comes in. 

In the age of impersonal bulk emails, constantly fluctuating taskings, and competing priorities for limited time, the handwritten note is a throwback to yesteryear. It takes time and thought. It is the antithesis of group texts or MS teams, virtual meetings or conferences.  

At the end of the last AIM2 cycle (Army-speak for interviewing and choosing officers to join our organization), I penned handwritten notes to all of the officers I selected to come to our organization. As a deputy commander for an O-6 command, I don’t make all the selections, but I did make about two dozen. I spoke to nearly all of them during the interview process, and took many notes as we weighed who would round out the organization and balance a team that is responsible for saving lives. The notes welcomed them to the organization, and often included praise of an attribute that I thought would be a valuable addition to the team.

In the handwritten note, I included a unit patch. While it is just a small token, it symbolizes much more. It’s a way of welcoming someone to the organization and saying we’re grateful that you joined our family. New arrivals find it difficult to figure out the correct unit patch; we’re a large, multidisciplined organization that has a dozen numbered detachments that are often smaller than companies, at over a dozen geographical locations. Receiving a patch from someone in the leadership channel allows them to arrive with a sense of the team they have agreed to come join. 

The note card isn’t anything earth shattering. It’s a half page card stock, folded in half, with a colored unit crest on the front, nothing on the inside. The back has my work email printed on it, but I always include my personal cell phone in the writing. I made about 60-70 of them at the local office supply store, and purchased some envelopes for about $75. Another option is a blank set of cards, $10 for two dozen. The notecards can be as fancy or “plain jane” as you want, it’s more about the content and thought.

I try to write handwritten cards weekly, with mixed results if I’m being honest. Most often this takes the form of working from the desk Friday over lunch. I try to reflect on the week, and recognize the contributions of one or two actions that I may not have necessarily witnessed, but have heard about from other leaders. I sometimes struggle to make those notes as personable as I’d like, but use the gesture as a means to let junior leaders know that their actions are recognized. And that’s when the unexpected, handwritten card on a desk, with a Hershey’s miniature or two taped to the back of it, delivered while the individual is out to lunch, pays dividends. Nothing big- just a personal “thank you” to let that team member know that they are appreciated.

You see, the handwritten card is symbolic of taking extra time, of taking a break from the hectic day of competing priorities to recognize the contributions of individuals to our larger organization. Because the strength of our team is the individual and their contributions to the team. It inspires others, fosters buy-in, and recognizes the strengths they bring to the team. It can even unexpectedly lift an individual out of the darkness, and let them know that they are valued. 

And while we may still stand in awe of the “Jameses” of the world, and the natural leadership gifts they possess, there are actions we can take, no matter where we sit or stand in the organization, to make others feel welcomed and appreciated.


COL Michael Wissemann is the Deputy Commander for Nursing (DCN) at Bavaria Medical Activity in Germany, and formerly the DCN of the 531st Hospital Center, Ft Campbell KY.


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