Leadership Lessons from Chess
“In life, as in chess, forethought wins.” – Charles Buxton
Every weekend, I and my little one look forward to a family tradition of playing a game of chess. It is bittersweet to watch my little one get better and start to check-mate me more often these days!
While playing chess, I often think about its lessons for life and leadership. Today, I am sharing three lessons for leadership – one each from opening, mid-game, and end-game. To keep it simple and illustrate the idea in brief, I took all pictures with a reduced number of pieces on the chessboard.
- Deeply reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of team members to leverage their unique talents
- The Pawn and the various pieces on the chessboard – Bishop, Knight, Rook, Queen and the King each have their different strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, every team member is uniquely talented with their skills, perspectives, experiences. A chess piece is able to demonstrate its potential when it is placed on a square to fulfill a useful role, playing to its strengths.
- Leaders need to help unlock team members’ latent strengths by developing and activating them in useful roles to move the business. A well-developed knight (minor piece) can deliver a grand fork especially when the opponent has closed pawn structures – checking the opponent’s King, while attacking their Queen and Rook simultaneously. Without development, a Rook (major piece) can be rendered powerless behind blocking pawns. Leaders develop their team members through mentorship, timely feedback, affirmations, empowerment.
- Develop and activate your teams in a coordinated manner
- Develop chess pieces in a coordinated manner. Making changes to the role of one piece may have an unintended impact on the development of another piece. Reflect deeply on the responsibilities you assign team members to leverage their unique strengths to drive meaningful outcomes for business while always keeping the holistic picture in mind.
- Consider pairing team members so they can complement and strengthen each other. Recently, I’d paired a structured problem solver in my team with a big picture visionary thinker for a thought leadership assignment which worked very well as they complemented each other. Consider opportunities to bring cognitive diversity in problem-solving, pair a technically oriented product manager with a business- oriented one, or try pairing an experienced colleague with an early talent to divide and conquer. In chess, connecting 2 Rooks with open ranks or file (“Rook power”), connecting bishops in light and dark squares, connecting knights are formidable tactics.
- Be mindful of when and where you invest your time and energy. Do not lose sight of the overall purpose.
- Every pawn has the potential to be promoted to the mighty Queen (the most powerful piece on the chessboard). There are times when the King will need to chaperone their pawn to the opposite rank square to protect the pawn from getting captured, so the pawn can be promoted to Queen and help win the game. Leaders need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of team members in relation to the pressing business needs deeply, to determine on whom, when and where they invest their own time and energy.
- There will also be times when you need to consider promoting a pawn to, not the mighty Queen, but to the seemingly less powerful Rook or Knight- for example, to checkmate by covering a specific square or to avoid a stalemate. Leaders need to both keep the end goal in mind themselves, and keep reminding team members to stay focused on the outcome.
Chess provides a concentrated essence of life and leadership lessons. There are many more leadership lessons from chess; stay tuned for more to come later! 🙂