Chess vs. checkers leadership

Chess vs. Checkers Leadership

Hola. My name’s Ted Bauer. ‘Tis my blog. I write a lot about organizational behavior, leadership, management, marketing, the future of work, and other assorted topics. Recently I’ve been thinking that it’s pretty cool that random people may stumble across this post through social media, through Google, whatever — and because I feel like I have a really specific way that I look at topics (not necessarily a good one), I’d love to connect. So if you found this post and found it interesting, get at me: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, carrier pigeon, whatever. I’d love to talk about ideas and your thoughts with you. I’m all about blogging for connection right now. 


Good quote in an article from Travis Bradberry on LinkedIn:

Great bosses play chess not checkers. Think about the difference. In checkers, all the pieces are basically the same. That’s a poor model for leadership because nobody wants to feel like a faceless cog in the proverbial wheel. In chess, on the other hand, each piece has a unique role, unique abilities, and unique limitations. Unforgettable bosses are like great chess masters. They recognize what’s unique about each member of their team. They know their strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes, and they use these insights to draw the very best from each individual.

I probably quote Bradberry too much on this blog (here’s an example of that), and people probably hold up Google as a successful people company too much as well.

But there is some validity to this.

A couple of years ago, I was working at this job with about six-seven SVPs/C-Suite people, right? This company had one big event per year (education space). It was basically like a trade show with partners, etc. Booths, networking events, product launches, dinners. You know the whole deal, OK? You’ve probably been to one of these dog-and-pony shows in your life.

So one of these SVPs who ran a section of this company (and hence a section of this event), he had this concept where each year, different members of his team did different things: one year you’re on vendors, one year you’re on media, one year you’re on operations/logistics, one year you’re on happy hours/social events, etc.

This makes sense on face because:

  • For the employee, it spices up their work. There’s variety in tasks!
  • For the manager, it gives them a chance to see various skill sets!

I agree with some of these things on face, although … here’s another way to think about it:

  • When you manage like that, you’re essentially saying that everyone on your team is interchangeable
  • There’s not a “good vendor person;” it’s “anyone can work with vendors”
  • There’s not a “good social events person;” anyone can do that!
  • That’s good from a flexibility standpoint, sure … but it’s checkers management
  • All the pieces are the same!

This is an interesting flip, IMHO. Most people would look at all this and say “Variety at work is good!” Truth is, very few employees really care about variety of tasks at work. They care about being recognized for their talents and finding purpose. (Well, that and fair compensation.)

So manage like a chess player, not a checkers player. And even if you think you’re being all strategic and managing like a chess player, stop and re-evaluate. You might be chess-ing it up.


Ted Bauer