Recently, and very much out of the blue, my 8-yr-old son spontaneously sprouted interest in learning and playing the game of chess. Baffled by the request but happy to oblige, I pulled out our chess set and walked him through the various pieces and how they move around the board. For the most part: castling and en passant will be revelations for another time.
By the time I came home from work the next day, the Student had transitioned to Teacher as my Son had passed on his newfound interest and knowledge to his 11-yr-old Sister and my Wife. By the end of the week, Sunday night turned into “Family Chess Tournament” night.*
Learning how the pieces move is the easy part while learning to play strategically is the hard and never-ending part. Somewhere between the two is an intermediary step of understanding that is worth pondering: learning how to keep score. Both kids predictably judge whether they are “winning” or not by whoever has taken the most pieces, regardless of rank. The obvious first step in response to this was to teach them the relative differences in value between the pieces. That was the easy part: the short guys in the front row, which you have eight of, are less valuable than anyone on the back row while the Queen is the most powerful piece of all.
The harder, more mind-bending part for them to understand was this: winning at chess isn’t about how many pieces you capture at all.
This seems obvious at first, given that the game is over only when the King has been checkmated. The kids understood that from the first game. But it’s a lot deeper lesson to grasp that taking as many of the opponent’s pieces as possible isn’t necessary at all, and that having captured more pieces than your opponent isn’t necessarily a sign that you are “winning.” After my attempts at explaining the difference failed, I shifted gears and illustrated the point by mercilessly checkmating my daughter’s King after only four moves by only taking a solitary pawn.
This aspect of learning chess illustrates a much deeper and broadly applicable lesson for Leadership in general, and even life more broadly: the difference between getting the Most and getting the Most Important. It is so easy to move from learning the individual tactics of how the pieces move in your organization to getting engrossed in plotting out future moves and strategies without having a proper understanding of what the goal of all the effort is supposed to be in the first place. All too often, the cliched question “what does winning look like?” gets answered with the simplest of victory conditions: having the most. Whether the metric is revenue for a business, members for a church, or followers for a social media account, “the most” is easy to define and chase after.
Pursuing the “most important,” however, requires a lot more work:
- It takes deep understanding and thoughtful analysis to identify the “most important” wheat among the “most” voluminous and numerous chaff.
- It takes fierce discipline to stay focused on the “most important” and say no to the easy opportunities to collect simply collect “more.”
- It takes unalloyed self-confidence to be willing to be accountable to others for the possibility of being wrong about either #1 or #2.
We don’t have to be the biggest to be the best.
Imagine if more leaders actually led as if they were “playing chess instead of checkers,” rather than just using the overused cliche as an act of self flattery?
*If you’re wondering how a family chess tournament works where 75% of the participants just learned to play last week and half of them still have stuffed animals in their rooms, here’s how: I had to play with a sizeable handicap — no Queen and only half the normal compliment of bishops and knights. Here’s a sample of what the resulting action looked like: