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Leaders: the King and Queen

Updated: Jul 11, 2022

People don’t leave companies, they leave managers. This has become the mantra of the “great resign” as people decide they don’t need to stay in hostile workplaces and strike out on their own rather than work for ineffective leadership.

Chess teaches us about effective leadership in the personas of the king and queen and why they are not interchangeable.

The King

In chess, the king is a vulnerable leader; the game is over when the king is taken. The queen, generals and pawns protect the king while attacking their opponent’s king. The king stays in the back row, directing the action. The king relies on a great queen to lead the attack.

Think of the king in chess as Henry V, yelling “Once more into the breach” and showing the way, then hanging back. Effective kings lead from behind the lines, but first they do far more. They are the public face of the organization or business unit, networking and determining the direction. Charismatic kings are all over the news, bringing their companies into the forefront of business. Some may not like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk but we know their companies and their products.

They may not be the best day to day leaders, but they do the job of the king: they gain attention for their company and products, they are charismatic leaders, and they allow their generals to manage the day-to-day operations of the company. This is the role of the king. Some kings do it well, others must learn to bow out of daily work and stick to being a charismatic, public leader if they are to succeed.

The best king is a leader who is capable of leading from behind or below. The phrase “manage up” comes from people with leadership qualities who understand how to manage those around them without being in charge. This skill is a great indicator of people who will become great kings. They are able to:

  • Lead others through empowerment

  • Build critical relationships

  • Set a direction and step back, enabling others to shine

  • Lead from behind the scenes, even while being a public figure

Without these subtle skills, kings become tyrants and disempower the people within their organizations. Thus, when developing team members for future leadership skills, look for those that can lead from the back or from below, then develop them for top leadership positions.

The Queen

The queen leads the attack, being the one out in front to get the job done. While the king bears the ultimate responsibility for the organization’s direction, it’s the queen that gets the job done. There may be several queens in the organization when you think of the King as the CEO, COO and the Queen’s role in other C-level positions. The queen needs to be strong and powerful, able to take the king’s direction and cause it at the day-to-day level.

In chess, the queen leads the charge from the front, knowing how to use her generals, the bishops, rooks, and knights to get the job done. The queen knows their role and their skills and is able to use them to mount an effective attack. The queen’s skill is in knowing the strengths of the team and using them to execute effectively. Traits queens demonstrate include:

  • Deep understanding of others’ strengths and weaknesses

  • The ability to see the big picture and deploy team members for effective execution

  • Willingness to lead from the front, be a vocal leader and step back

  • Ability to acknowledge others and allow them to take credit for the team’s success

  • Ability to leverage team members for their skill while downplaying their weaknesses

Queens make sure the team has what it needs and sweep resistance and blockers out of their way, enabling them to succeed. Queens position people well and support them. In chess, the queen is the most powerful player because of this central role in leadership.

The Leadership Message

Every player on the team is critical when building highly effective teams, but the leaders must be chosen for their capabilities as well. It’s not about what they know or who they know, it’s how they lead. If the queen and king are properly selected, they form a partnership that cannot be breached. Together they create a workplace that empowers people but guides them and sets the direction for the team. With clear guidance and a leader who can execute, teams have the ability to become high performing.

When the king or queen is in the wrong role, they are not at their highest effectiveness level, leading to frustration and sometimes poor management. Choose the king and queen wisely, they are not interchangeable, requiring different skills and personality types.

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