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The King's Gambit: An Opening for High Performing Teams

Updated: May 19, 2023

As an ancient game of war and strategy, chess provides lessons in team building and strategically deploying team members that can help any leader act efficiently and successfully. It teaches us that each member of the team is a distinct individual who should be used for their strengths, while minimizing their weaknesses. Even more, it teaches the importance of strategy in deploying a team, so nothing is left to drift in the waters of chance.



Leaders in the Game of Chess

The king leads from behind the lines, quietly in the background. When the team is set up properly in front of the king, they create exciting and decisive results. In contrast, the queen is the most powerful piece in chess. That’s what we’ve always been taught, along with “don’t lose the queen.” But the Queen’s Gambit opening puts the Queen at risk to gain position. It recognizes the strength of the Queen, but also that true leadership comes from the king and an effective team with a strong leader is far better than a strong leader and a weak team.


Looking to chess provides many lessons about leadership and teams. Look at successful companies and their leaders: Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk. All strong leaders, but as many will say about Steve Jobs, not always strongest in day-to-day operations. The best companies will often have a charismatic and innovative leader with strong lieutenants and teams ensuring the work gets done. This paradigm demonstrates why the Queen’s Gambit is a great analogy for building and leading strong teams.

The king has a vision and sets the direction, determines what the team will do and can then hang back, safe behind the battlelines, watching the team and deciding what to do next. The queen, a chess piece added when Queen Isabella’s reign demonstrated how effectively a strong queen can lead a team to victory, gets out in front protecting her king and carrying out his orders. The team supports the queen, protecting both their leaders and executing their vision.

A team can achieve powerful results with a king setting the direction and the queen executing that direction, but only if the leaders have a diverse group of people and know mold them into a high performing team.


The Team

The game of chess has four additional pieces to help the king and queen succeed. Thinking of each as a “persona,” an individual with distinct capabilities brings the chess analogy to life. The bishop is responsible for patrolling the board and protecting the king and queen. As a result of its ability to cover a large portion of the board, the bishop is effective at controlling knowing what the enemy is up to.

The knight is the queen’s champion and takes charge doing her bidding. Knights are agile, they can move in any direction, leading the charge. They gain position quickly, sweep away the opposition, setting the queen up for the charge, during which they protect her.

The rook or castle is powerful, and difficult to take (only a strong siege will break it). It’s powerful strategically and can change places with the king to gain throwing off the opposition or to move the king to safety. It too can cover a large amount of ground, taking enemies with it. Rooks are great team leaders and when used properly can support the pawns, increasing the team’s effectiveness. They can be put to use and trusted to produce results.

Finally, there are the pawns, the foot soldiers, the front lines. They can be used to protect more powerful players and can make or break the team. Well-chosen pawns mean success over the long haul, as they learn and grow into leadership positions, becoming a queen by surviving long enough to break through to the back rank. When pawns are considered disposable, teams fail as there will never be a fully trained and successful front-line that is available to grow into more important roles. Even in chess, losing too many pawns can make it difficult to mount a successful attack.

These personas teach a lot about team building. First, they clearly demonstrate the importance of diversity in building teams. A good leader who knows where they want to go and who has the right combination of talent has limitless capability. The key is in understanding the need to build that diverse team and understanding which type of persona each team member most closely matches, or in business terms, deploying team members effectively.

  • This means knowing the team and how to leverage their skills and personalities in the most effective way.

  • It means knowing how to pick new pawns for their diversity and quickly recognize their talents so they can be groomed for their next role.

  • It means being loyal to the team and building a team that’s loyal to their leader.

  • It means not trying to squeeze someone into a role for which they are not suited, thus causing them to fail.

This last concept, one of using team members for their skills and not trying to change them into something they are not, is a place where leaders fail and end up with teams that don’t produce results. They then blame the team instead of understanding their own failure.


 

The biggest gift a leader can give a member of the team is the gift of being known:

  • See who they are

  • See their talents

  • Provide them with an opportunity to grow and thrive

Forcing the proverbial square peg into the round hole causes dissatisfaction and failure for both the team member and the leader.

 

The power of the Queen’s Gambit is simple:


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