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Leadership Lessons from an Experiment with Chess

For those unfamiliar with the game of chess, the pieces with the least amount of power are called pawns. They are the smallest in size and are the most restricted in their movement: a pawn can move one square forward (or two on its’ first move), or one square diagonally forward when making a capture. Pawns, eight in total, stand at the front line, the most loyal and ready to fight, yet, the most vulnerable to capture.

Meanwhile, behind the pawns, protected from any immediate threat of danger rest the most powerful pieces: two rooks, two bishops, two knights, the queen, and the king. Of all these, the king is the most critical for his capture results in defeat. As one who believes in and teaches servant leadership, I have always questioned this initial chessboard configuration. What would happen if the pieces with power chose to lead from the frontlines? How would such a change impact the way the game was played? This curiosity led me to an experiment.

Ever since I can remember, I have always taught my daughters, now 9, 7, and 4, the game of chess. As a father, I wanted to teach them how to think strategically, to always think 3 steps ahead, to embrace a loss as an opportunity for learning and continuous improvement. For my next game with my 9-year-old, Amarís, I would change the initial chessboard configuration and put my experiment into play: one of her pawns would switch places with her King.

As she sat down, her face immediately revealed her perception of the inequity and she went to correct the configuration. I stopped her and explained the rule-change, to which she shouted, That’s not fair! Unlike so many adults, children are not yet conditioned to accept inequities. However, and fortunately for me, unlike so many adults children ARE open to experimentation. Thus, the experiment proceeded.

The “Experiment.” A chess board I gifted my daughter on her 7th birthday.

As is the rule, I moved first since I was white. I moved one of my pawns forward a single space. Without hesitation, Amarís began a series of moves that would allow for her King to return to his initial starting position in a traditional chessboard configuration. She did not allow her pawns to abandon their king. On the contrary, there was now a heightened sense of urgency in moving to protect him. The extra moves to reposition the King cost her as I was able to react with aggression and would go onto “win” the game. But the lessons learned were not for those who are playing a finite game, but rather for those who seek to play, as Simon Sinek calls it, an infinite one. Let’s explore those lessons.

Lesson 1: Be courageous, be vulnerable

In her #1 New York Times bestselling book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Dr. Brené Brown explores the power of vulnerability. She describes how in an attempt to avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame, most people try to be perfect. However, not only is this an unrealistic expectation but it also ostracizes. People can relate to those who have weaknesses. Vulnerability makes a person more relatable. In the chess game, the King exposed himself to danger. His pawns did not abandon him, but rather, came to his defense with more purpose than ever before. After all, for a moment in time, the King ceased to be a King and became a pawn. He was one of “them.” It is important for leaders to follow suit and trust that their vulnerability will be rewarded with admiration, compassion, and a never-before-experienced level of loyalty.

Lesson 2: Walk in their shoes

In the experiment, for the first time ever, the King understood what it was like to start off a game with a real sense of danger. It is only when leaders walk in the shoes of their employees, not hypothetically, but physically, that they can come to understand the obstacles encountered. At Toyota the practice of Genchi Genbutsu or going to what is referred to as the Genba (the actual place), allows leaders to be in touch with the reality of what is happening on the frontlines, rather than trying to deduce so from numbers on a spreadsheet. It’s not enough to do this occasionally or as a one-time, check-the-box event. Doing so will only draw suspicion from employees who will see the act as disingenuine, or worse, as an attempt to catch the employees doing something wrong. When done consistently and with the spirit of servant leadership – one where leaders remove obstacles – employees will begin to trust and welcome leaders.

Lesson 3: Manage the chessboard

Although it is important to routinize the first two lessons, ultimately, a King must learn to manage the entire chessboard. A King who fails to do so will find herself constantly on the move and short-sited. When a leader is courageous enough to be vulnerable and walks in their shoes, it is important to use the once-hidden information they gather to formulate a strategy that will best position everyone on the chessboard for success. It is the best of leaders who create circumstances where even pawns can become queens.

A Leadership Checklist for COVID-19

As I wrote this blog, I reflected on nurses who are protesting the lack of protective masks as they combat COVID-19 on the frontlines. I couldn’t help but ask myself, have leaders in healthcare adapted the lessons learned from a simple experiment with chess. Specifically:

  1. Have leaders been courageous enough to be vulnerable? Have they stood side-by-side with their employees and risked their own lives as have countless nurses, techs, doctors, and environmental services staff? If they would, how would their staff react?
  2. Have leaders walked in their shows? In addition to the lack of masks, what other obstacles are getting in the way of fighting this pandemic? Are staff to patient ratios manageable? Have the staff been adequately trained on how to use the equipment? Are other supplies readily available and easy to find?
  3. Are leaders managing the chessboard effectively in a way that puts everyone in the best possible position to deliver the best patient care?

Now is not the time to shy away from these questions, but rather, to transition from a traditional leadership model that has failed to a more human-centered, powerful one where executives occasionally switch places with the front lines in order to become the leaders that we all desperately need.

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