In the movie Training Day, Denzel Washington plays a rogue detective character and he tells his new protege, in effect “this is chess, not checkers”. He means the job is way more complicated than it seems. It’s fast, dynamic and with lots of moving parts.
This is a similar analogy for leadership. So how does thinking about chess help you as a leader? Wise leaders that think in the idea of chess, they manage relationships and connect with individuals based on their unique personality and strengths.
This episode shares three actions you can implement straight away to move from playing Checkers to playing Chess.
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In the movie Training Day, Denzel Washington plays this rogue detective character and he tells his new protege, in effect “this is chess, not checkers”. He means the job is way more complicated than it seems. It’s fast dynamic and with lots of moving parts.
And I think often people think about this as a similar analogy for leadership. But I want to change it a little bit. Yes, leadership is like chess. But I want to compare it to the difference between chess and checkers.
Let me explain the difference of when you think about your team as a game of checkers versus a game of chess. First, let’s start with checkers.
Checkers, all the pieces are one color for each team. They’re all the same size and they all have the same powers. Every piece is replaceable. Every piece can move in the same way. And if you lose one, it doesn’t matter because there is another one exactly the same.
If you’re playing the game of checkers and your team are considered just the checker pieces, you’ll be thinking that everyone is replaceable and they’re all just faceless cogs. When you lead this way, it’s quite uninspiring for your team and they notice it. It might be great for very task based activities where you can replace your people immediately, but it has a huge impact on your business longer term.
Now, if you consider chess, it’s the same board as checkers, and yet it has such a different approach to strategy. In chess, every piece has a unique role, unique abilities and unique limitations.
Wise leaders play chess, not checkers. And this is because they recognize what’s unique about each member of their team, they know their strengths, their weaknesses, their likes, their dislikes. And they use these insights to draw the very best from each individual. Not each title or each group of skills.
Chess is about leading individuals.
Wise leaders that think in the idea of chess, they manage relationships and connect with individuals based on their unique personality and strengths.
If you think, some people are like a Rook or a Castle, they move in straight lines. They work through a checklist, give them a direction and they go for it. For some roles and some tasks, this is an excellent skillset.
Now think about a Knight. A Knight has the ability to move forward three and then turn the corner left or right one. It’s the L shape. People that move like Knights are great when it comes to change. They can move on the fly, they’re very adaptable. I’m sure you can think of tasks when you want that type of person working on it.
Where you would use a Knight versus a Rook is very different. So knowing the strengths is so important when you’re leading a team. If you’re thinking your team is like a game of checkers, that wouldn’t even come into consideration.
If you want to learn more about understanding the strengths of your team, jump back to Episode Two. I talk about how to understand the strengths of your people using an example through Surf Lifesaving.
So now you have an idea of the difference between chess and checkers and how to think about it with your team. Let’s talk about a few actions that you can take to really put this into practice today.
Step one move from thinking like a checkers player to a chess player.
Even if you start thinking of them all as pawns, all equal, and then you can upgrade how you understand their skills and weaknesses by asking these next questions.
Strengths and weaknesses. We want to find out for strengths, what energizes a person. And here’s a question that you can ask to find that out:
” Is there a time at work when you feel like time just disappears? What type of work are you doing when that happens? Do you enjoy it?”
The technical term we use is Flow State, but that’s not important for this type of question. What we want to understand is what energizes and de- energizes them.
Typically if time just disappears, they’re doing a task that they enjoy and it energizes them.
Once you understand that you can also ask what de-energizes them, what type of tasks will they not enjoy? Typically the things that we enjoy we’re good at and the things we don’t enjoy, we’re not good at, or it is past our skillset. This is a great insight to understanding what the strengths of your team are.
Step Two, you could also ask about what the triggers are. If you’re familiar with the Five Love Languages. If you’re not, I’ll put the link in the show notes. You can understand what it is for your team that motivates them. And the five love languages is not just about an intimate relationship. It’s about all relationships and it’s the same for your team.
For some people, verbal praise is what motivates them being recognized of a job well done. For other people, having some one-on-one time with you, their leader, is so important that they feel recognized. For others, a gift is the symbol that they are appreciated. Which it could be a monetary bonus or it could be a restaurant voucher or a weekend away. A gift is not about a monetary value always. It is about that I have thought of you and I have purchased or created this gift for you. Even a handwritten card can tick the box there for someone who has a gift as their love language.
The third way, you can start to think about your team as a chess piece, instead of a checkers piece, is their personality style. Are they fun, loving, or detail orientated? Do they focus on the task? Are they focused on their relationship? And when you get to know what type of personality they have, you can work out how best to work with them.
In all of this, when you’re talking about the strengths and how people like to work. I like to use the rule of thumb of two thirds and one third, which you’ve probably heard before if you’ve been listening to my podcast. You want someone’s job to be two thirds in the things that they love and they’re really good at, and then one third of their job is two different things. The first is the things that are a stretch outside their job. We always want to be stretching a little bit to something that is outside our skills and ability, because that’s what keeps it interesting and keeps us growing. If we’re only working in the area that we have complete competence in, we start to get stale and not enjoying our job anymore because it’s too easy.
So you want part of that one third to be in your stretch tasks. And you also want what I call the crappy tasks, because the reality is we all have parts of our job that we do not like, but we want it to be a small percentage. And I like to really make this clear because people believe that they shouldn’t have anything in their job.
They don’t like, but that’s just not the reality of how life works and how jobs work. Yes, you want it a small percentage, but it is going to be there. So when you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your team, and you start to manage them that way and look for getting two thirds of their job in their strengths, and one third into that stretch and the things that are the crappy tasks. This will help you to see them as chess pieces instead of checkers.
Another reason that chess is a great analogy for leadership actually comes from the International Chess Federation or World Chess Federation. It’s known as FIDE which is the French acronym for it, but it is the World Chess Federations motto that is of interest. Their motto in Latin means ‘we are one people’. How was that for a great analogy of bringing together all the different chess pieces with their different, unique powers and abilities to achieve the goal at hand.
One last thought to leave you on. Great leadership is not about control. Sometimes we think as leaders, we need to know everything that’s going on and control the outcome because that’s what we are there to do. But it is really not true. Great leadership is about connection and release. It’s not about your power, but it’s about your empowerment of others.
And people are best empowered when it’s done according to their strengths. Mediocre leaders play checkers with their people and excellent leaders play chess.
An excellent leader believes the best is already inside of people. They just need to find it.
So while the mediocre leader’s goal is to overcome weakness, an excellent leaders goal is to identify the strength and focus on it. . You just need to help find it as opposed to transform that person. And by asking some of those questions about their strength and weaknesses, understanding their triggers and what motivates them, which is those five love languages I spoke about, and also understanding their strengths. I’ll put a link in the show notes for the via strengths quiz. Which is also free and fantastic. There’s 24 different strengths and you can learn if they’re like creativity, honesty, leadership, social intelligence, and what order their strengths come in. A great team activity, if you are interested in learning more about that.
So when I work with leaders in a one-on-one coaching capacity, I work quickly to discover their strengths because this is like the magic formula for them. And once we understand their strengths, we look at the team around them and what’s there and what’s missing.
There’s lots of different tools I use in leadership, depending on what the particular circumstance is but it is always around understanding what a leader is best at and how to make the most of it. I also look this way with teams and how to get teams to connect and work out their strengths by running team workshops on strengths and strategy around using those strengths.
If that is something that you’re interested, you can jump on the website Zenith, or if you’re in the U S you would say Zenith, Z E N I T H journey, J O U R N E Y.com and have a look at the team workshops and the individual coaching that’s on the website. That’s it for today. Enjoy the shift from thinking about your team as checkers to chess pieces.
I look forward to hearing about your chess pieces and how that’s working for you in engaging and motivating your team by helping them to work to their strengths.
I’ll catch you next week for the next episode.
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