Five Leadership Lessons from the Game of Chess

Jeevan Sivasubramaniam Posted by Jeevan Sivasubramaniam, Managing Director, Editorial, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Five Leadership Lessons from the Game of Chess


In his latest book, Mark Miller talks about the importance of a leadership strategy that focuses on "chess, not checkers." That is to say, we tend to focus on immediate and short term changes (checkers) when in fact what works best is a long-term view and strategy (chess).

The fundamentals of effective chess offer a lot for leadership lessons as well. Grandmaster Arthur Bisguier wrote extensively about the five most effective tips for a winning chess strategy, but as you can see below, each of his five top tips can also be applied to leadership.

Tip 1: Study your opponent's moves: Instead of solely concentrating on your own strategy, Bisguer encourages players to study their opponent's moves at all times and question why those particular moves were made and how they threaten your own strategy. Figuring out your opponent's strategies as early on as possible gives you the widest berth for success with your own strategy.

The lesson for leaders: Don't be so focused on your own strategy that you lose sight of those other issues and individuals who may get in the way of successful implementation of your plan. An awareness of those factors that could adversely impact your own strategy is crucial for successful execution.


Tip 2:  Make the best possible moves: Always view all pieces on the board when considering your move, and always question whether the piece you are moving is the best one to move in terms of how effective such a move will be in thwarting threats from your opponent as well as putting you in the most advantageous position.

The lesson for leaders: Focusing on individuals or specific issues can be problematic if those individuals or issues are not the most crucial ones to attend to at the time but rather are just the ones that caught your attention. Always question whether your attention is being drawn to what is most important for your strategy or what you just happen to think is most important.


Tip 3: Always have a plan several moves ahead. A strategy based on one move at a time is bound to fail. The best strategies involve multiple moves and projected outcomes. One piece by itself may not have much power, but as an integral part of a chain of moves can be as crucial as a power piece. Always look for what the play will be three to four moves from now, not just after your turn.

The lesson for leaders: The lesson here is obvious--thinking short-term is not a viable strategy. You can address issues on a turn-by-turn basis but that will not help with any sort of solid growth in the long term. Leaders need to think about what will be happening three-four years from now, not just after the next week or month.


Tip 4: Know what your pieces are worth: Inevitably, you will be put in a situation where you have to give up some of your pieces in return for your opponents. Always be mindful of the value of the pieces you are giving up and the ones you are taking from your opponent. Depending on how many pieces are left on the board, inherent values are not always so clear. A knight is worth more than a pawn, but is a knight worth more than three pawns when those are the last three on the board? It can get pretty tricky.

The lesson for leaders: Leaders will always have times when they have to compromise or yield in order to gain something else. However, it is not always clear -- especially immediately -- if what is sacrificed is worth what is gained. Leaders need to carefully assess the values of their trades to ensure that in the long-term, these actions lead to their advantage.


Tip 5: Develop your pieces quickly and well: Time is crucial in chess and it is particularly important that each piece be brought to its own position of greatest advantage and efficacy. This means quickly moving the different pieces about on the board so that they occupy prime positions based on how they move and where they can move. The player who sets up and develops his pieces' position most efficiently takes control of the game.

Lesson for leaders: Just like pieces, there are those whom you lead. Each of the people you lead has particular strengths and weaknesses and the point is always to quickly move them into roles where they maximize their skills and are best defended from their own weaknesses. Letting someone remain in a disadvantaged position for an excessive period of time not only denies them (and the organization) the benefit of their strengths and skills but also makes it more likely that they'll be inefficient and quickly removed.