Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Chess Not Checkers

There is a common thread in much of the leadership and management literature—honour the uniqueness of each person and celebrate your own before you can truly be a great leader-manager. Like chess pieces, as Marcus Buckingham explains in Harvard Business Review’s March 2005 issue, each of us is different and if treated that way by our managers, we have the opportunity to “turn our particular talents into performance”. “Average managers play checkers while great managers play chess.” In the famous poet William Blake’s words, “truly meaningful change happens only when people awaken to the infinite potential within themselves.” Great managers then enable this “awakening” and build on each person’s gifts.

Oddly, Buckingham uncouples the leader-manager link in this case declaring that great leaders do the opposite leveraging universal concepts such as “rallying people toward a better future, using stories and celebrating heroes to tap into those few needs we all share”. True, we expect this ability of great leaders but do we not also want great managers to be this way? The rallying and inspiring is equally as important at the work group level as it is at the broader organizational one. So too a top leader must work skillfully with the differences and special talents of the departments, divisions and business units for which she or he is responsible.

That’s why I like the chess metaphor because it applies to both the individual and group/system levels. Great leader-managers deliberately and intuitively manage the subtle differences and needs of the various cultures in their organizations. They do not assume that one culture prevails even if they wish that were the reality. They openly immerse themselves in learning the nuances in each part of the organization. They become an integral player in the dance of change toward a better future honouring the complexity of situations while finding the simplicity in them as well. Margaret Wheatley describes this beautifully in her classic book, A Simpler Way, that “we live in a world we cannot plan for, control or replicate…it requires constant awareness, being present, being vigilant for the newly visible.” Leader-managers with mind sets that value emergence encourage discovery “as we go”. They know that this grows our abilities individually and collectively to get good results using our visions, strategies, goals and objectives as guides.

This is a tall order for leaders and managers: to accept that we are as much a part of the unfolding drama as are those with whom we work, to embrace diversity as a means of forging unity and to trust the process works provided that we conduct themselves as alert agents within it. We are one of the chess pieces and the chess master. Like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, everything we do affects everything else around us. Rudy Giuliani just ‘cuts to the chase’, calling the phenomenon—“I am responsible”.

So, the challenge of leadership and management, which I consider intricately connected, is more than working with the special talents of each person. It is everyone on the chess board being open to learning from the surprises of change as they happen on the chess board. Building on the views of Robert Quinn, a professor in the University of Michigan, Business School, if leader-managers play chess well, they have the opportunity to achieve “deep change”. But, checkers can cause “slow death” despite their best efforts at rational improvements. He continues, “building the bridge as we walk on it is deeply unsettling because it means learning in real time”.

Tinkering may be another way of viewing an important new skill for great leader-managers. Delight in the materials at hand. Discover what is possible. Don’t get too concerned with the messiness. Have confidence that together you and your people will create order out of the chaos.

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