I believe one of the responsibilities of a good leader is the ability to play chess . . . not the kind with pawns and rooks, but the strategic kind where you assess the gifts and graces of those on your team, consider your organization’s long-term strategic goals, and place your key “chess pieces” into pivotal positions several moves in advance of when they need to be there. To be most effective, you have to place them where the “other player” (be that a service recipient, a funder, a referring agency, a competitor, or any combination thereof) is likely to be two turns down the road, not where they are now. In addition, you have to keep your long-term strategy clearly in mind and understand the capabilities of each “piece” so you can respond to, but not be swallowed up by, the moves of the other player(s).
In my experience, there are a few guiding principles you have keep in mind if you want to master organizational chess:
1) You have to be clear on your long-term strategic goals. And please note, responding to a change required by a funder is not “your” long-term strategic goal – it’s your funder’s. You want to play offense in chess, not defense, because once the other player has you in checkmate, you’re sunk.
2) You have to understand the gifts and graces of your current and emerging leaders. I don’t just mean what they do well in their current role. Step back and look at what makes their eyes light up. What are they uniquely passionate about? What type of projects do they “run with” and consistently exceed your expectations? It is important to note that someone can be very capable at a task and not be passionate about it. (That’s the difference between skills and gifts and graces).
3) You have to be willing for your moves to baffle others, and occasionally that even includes the people being moved. But if you’re clear on your goals, you understand the unique capabilities and insights your staff bring to the table — which we refer to as gifts and graces — and you listen to your gut, you really can give Bobby Fischer a run for his money.
The other thing to keep in mind is that chess is a game of long-term strategy. If you need an immediate win, chess is not your game. But as you look down the horizon at who will be taking leadership roles and guiding your organization into the future, you have a unique responsibility to work the board, and move your ”pieces” into positions where they can have the greatest impact — whether it takes one move or four. Mastering chess requires the quiet confidence borne of experience and the insight to anticipate a move before it is made. No doubt a tall order . . . if it was easy, everyone would be playing chess.