Chess Not Checkers

"The game today for most leaders can better be compared to chess – a game in which strategy matters; a game in which individual pieces have unique abilities that drive unique contributions; a game in which heightened focus and a deeper level of thinking are required to win."

- Chess Not Checkers, page 2

Mark Miller follows in the footsteps of authors like Patrick Lencioni (The Advantage, 2012; The Five Dysfunctions of Team, 2002) and Daniel Blakeslee (The Leader Code, 2012) with his latest book, Chess Not Checkers; a short, engaging business fable that helps aspiring leaders develop high performing teams and organizations by mastering four chess-inspired moves. It is based on the premise that the problems facing businesses today are extremely complex and the methods that contributed to success in the past are not sufficient to ensure success in the future. Miller suggests that leaders wishing to develop world-class organizations need to stop playing checkers and start learning to play chess.

Miller introduces us to Blake, an emerging leader who accepts a CEO position at a company with great potential that isn’t being realized, and his mentor Jack, a retired CEO and (not surprisingly) a chess master. As the story unfolds Jack shares four concepts or ‘moves’ that help Blake and his executive team take their organization from mediocre to exceptional. These moves are:

  • Bet on leadership – growing leaders grow organizations
  • Act as one – alignment multiplies impact
  • Win the heart – engagement energizes effort
  • Excel at execution – greatness hinges on execution

Each of these ‘moves’ are great actionable GEMs in and of themselves. However, as Jack points out to Blake, first you have to know if the game board has been flipped. Which inspired our Golden Egg…

The Golden Egg

Golden Egg: The biggest takeaway from the book

Know What Game You Are Playing

"If you try to play checkers in a chess world, problems are your reward."
- Chess Not Checkers, page 29

All board games have different rules, unique board designs and their own distinct playing pieces. Think Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Snakes and Ladders, and Clue. And, it’s virtually impossible to win the game if you don’t know how to navigate the game board.

The game boards for chess and checkers are similar however the pieces and rules of the game are very different. Checkers is a fairly straight-forward, fast paced and frequently reactionary game, although at times it does require some thinking ahead. Chess is a slower-paced strategic game that requires players to anticipate their moves as well as the counter-moves of their opponent if they hope to maximize the unique capabilities of their different game pieces and win the game.

Chess mirrors the level of complexity companies are dealing with in terms of the customers served and the size and structure of the organization itself. As Jack says, “You cannot run a multimillion-dollar business like you would a lemonade stand.” Small businesses and startups serving a niche customer with one or two offerings are usually playing checkers; they have a short-term focus often reacting to and resolving immediate issues and concerns in order to grow the business. As the business grows and expands processes become more complex and the game board subtly flips from checkers to chess. Leaders who don’t recognize the game has changed and continue to play checkers eventually become overwhelmed with recurring problems, challenges and crises. The failure to adopt more long-term thinking and engagement strategies dooms these companies to mediocrity and eventual extinction.

So, let me ask you – do you know what game your company is playing? Are you playing checkers when you should be learning how to play chess?

Gem #1

An actionable way to implement the BIG takeaway (Golden Egg) into your life

Anticipate Your Future Needs

"You can’t wait until you need a leader to start developing one."
- Chess Not Checkers, page 41

Chess masters have learned the importance of thinking ahead, of working towards placing their available pieces on the squares that provide them with the most flexibility and highest potential for impact. Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky attributed his success to his ability “to skate to where the puck is going to be.” Gretzky was playing chess not checkers. He anticipated where he needed to be on the ice to maximize his opportunities for making a play – be that passing to another player or scoring himself.

Successful businesses learn to anticipate their future needs (and those of their customers) and focus on developing the capabilities of their staff so they are ready to capitalize on new opportunities and minimize unforeseen challenges. They are playing chess. Unsuccessful businesses wait until they are faced with problems or unmet needs before developing a plan to address them. They are playing checkers.

I’ve always liked this Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” It reminds me that it is never too late to take action. A tree planted 20 years ago symbolizes thinking ahead, anticipating the need for shade (or fruit or a windbreak). Planting a tree now, represents a course correction – the recognition that new moves are required to create that desired future.

What are you doing to anticipate and prepare for the future? Are you reading or taking courses to build your knowledge and skills? Do you have a coach or mentor to support and challenge you? Are you mentoring someone else to develop their skills and potential?

Gem #2

An actionable way to implement the BIG takeaway (Golden Egg) into your life

Embrace Lifelong Learning

"Your capacity to grow determines your capacity to lead."
- Chess Not Checkers, page 43

High performing leaders and organizations do not sit on their proverbial laurels. They are curious about the world around them and constantly asking questions that broaden their perspective and improve their performance. If you want to become a chess master, you need to commit to learning the game – by watching other chess masters, reading books on chess strategy, and most importantly playing the game regularly and getting feedback on your performance. The same goes for building your leadership skills and those of the people around you.

Great organizations are led by great leaders. Jack tells Blake that “leadership growth always precedes organizational growth” because leaders set the pace – employees do what they see their leaders doing. Is it realistic to expect your employees to learn and grow if you don’t value your own professional development? Spend some time this week creating a personal growth plan for yourself – one that anticipates where you’d like to be two or three years down the road. Then think about who you can support on their learning journey and devise a plan for making that happen too!

If you like learning from stories, you’ll enjoy reading Chess Not Checkers. The four chess-inspired leadership moves Miller describes provide a sound foundation for instilling the mental and behavioural shifts necessary to nurture a high performing team and organization. Like chess, the moves are simple and logical yet difficult to master. Taking action on the Golden Egg and two GEMs in this summary is a great way to begin your transformation. Finding a chess master mentor like Jack is also highly recommended!

Have you learned any leadership lessons from the board games you love to play? How are you applying those lessons in your life?

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Dianne Coppola

ABOUT Dianne Coppola

I am passionate about leadership development, change management and community collaboration. I love to help individuals, teams and multi-stakeholder groups overcome inertia and move from ideas to action! Words that describe me include: strategic thinker, creative, versatile, insightful, organized, detail-oriented and fun...
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