Take our 10 Indicators of Effective Schools Assessment and in 10 minutes have the results of your schools performance.
Free Resources Page About Leaders Building Leaders Online Store Schedule a Meeting Login

Are You Playing Chess or Checkers With Your Team?

A mentor once asked me, "Tom, are you playing chess or checkers with your team?"

Clearly he was challenging me to think about my strategy to grow my team and the business. I wasn't really sure of his metaphor so I started researching and thinking about his question. What are the actual the differences between the two board games?  To someone with a painstakingly low SAT score like myself, the answer is simple: Chess is  simply “harder.”  It requires more knowledge, thought and strategy (please don’t tell that to any professional checkers players). Checkers has fewer rules and is so easy to explain. When it comes down to it, the only identical trait they share is the size of the playing board.



Board Size 64 Squares, (8×8) 64 Squares, (8×8)
Game Piece 12 of all the same pieces 16 pieces (8 pawns and 8 pieces of hierarchy)
Piece Capacity King ME Pawns can grow to (Rook, Knight, Bishop or Queen)
Movement Use half the board and only one direction Half pieces can move in almost all directions, including backwards.
Flexibility Uses half board, one All squares of the board are used
Object Eliminate all opponents  checkers Check mate to the opponent’s King
Strategy Offensive one squares at a time Offense and Defense, multiple squares and extreme range

During my research I found this quote by Dr. Marion F. Tinsley. He proclaimed, “Chess is like looking across an ocean. Checkers is like looking down a well.”  

Dr. Tinsley’s quote opened my eyes to my ignorance towards the importance of the question, Tom, are you playing chess or are you playing checkers with your business. It was not just my business where you can utilize this analogy. Effective leaders know how to play chess with all aspects of their life. see more, see it first and see the furthest.

“Chess is like looking across an ocean.

Checkers is like looking down a well.”

As a leader, you need to be looking 3, 6, 12 and 36 months ahead, starting with the end in mind. The CHECKMATE. Most leaders are utilizing their resources like they play checkers. They are playing with single game pieces that do not have a ton of mobility or capacity, moving one square at a time.

Visualize a checker board when the game is half-way completed. This is what their resources, staff and productivity looks like. Some are ahead, some are behind, but all scattered, with little to no teamwork. They plan day to day, just reacting to the last move. This game finally ends with one of the two sides winning – both sides depleted in resources and energy.

Imagine that board – how many years have you been playing checkers as a leader?

Playing Chess

So how do you play chess? To win, you need to checkmate your opponent’s King. This means to get his King in a position where he will be captured no matter what — he cannot move and no other piece can protect him. Checkmate — that is, the end of the game — can happen in three moves or it can happen in 300.

The secondary goal is to get rid of all your opponent’s pieces (thus making checkmate easier). You capture pieces by landing on the square they occupy. Most managers understand that you can’t get the best out of people by playing “checkers” with them—treating them all alike, expecting the same things out of each of them, handling them like some generic product on a shelf. Just like in chess, great managers discover what is unique about each person and capitalize on it.going on while you’re protecting your own King, obviously.

So let’s think through this from a school principal’s perspective:

In chess, there is a clear purpose (student achievement) that can be accomplished in 3 moves or 300 moves. The secondary goal is to get rid of opponent’s pieces (let’s call these barriers to success). All while you protect your King (mission and culture).

So what’s the difference in winning in 3 or 300 moves? Strategy!

Let’s talk about the areas in which strategy are critical to a school leader’s CHECKMATE.

1. Staffing: You should start to have an understanding right now of which positions you will need for next year, who is not going to be with the school, who needs more opportunities to lead, and what new responsibilities you will give authority to others. All of these should be settled by Spring 2017. Effective leaders know and understand each member of their team’s capabilities, strengths and areas for growth so they can make strategic decisions.

Staffing Chess Strategy: Understand that each of your pieces (people) are unique and capitalize on their strengths, talents and what fills their heart. Great leading is not about control, but about connecting with people and trusting them to execute.

2. Trainings: Where is the school lacking, have all staff members been trained in all current initiatives and programs. Will there be a refresher for those other staff. Who can lead this trainings? Could we partner with another school to alleviate costs?

Training Chess Strategy: Feed your mind and sharpen your saw. When you master the game of chess (castling) it’s like you are playing with new rules. When you master your programs and culture; you attract incredible talent that leads to playing with new rules. As you grow as a leader, and learn to utilize the pieces in the game, your end of the year always has a unique ending, compared to checkers where it just seems like this tiring annihilation. Evaluative experience (toss up in checkers) at the end you are just starting over with the same pieces over and over…with little to no new plans.

3. School Improvement Initiatives: First answer, how well are the 2016 initiatives impacting the culture and learning? Why are they succeeding/failing? What tweaks need to be made. What new initiatives might be needed for next year? For example, a curriculum change will take at least 6-8 months to research, investigate, purchase, train and implement a curriculum. If you start this process in June of 2017 the student may not see a benefit until February 2018! If you begin this process in June, you will be doing it by yourself. The time to plan is the spring, otherwise your winter will be dark  and cold.

Chess Strategy school Improvement Initiatives: If you want to be more, you have to see more. Find other schools and school leaders getting it done. Ask them to mentor you, be your thinking partner or partnering school. See if you can send your staff to observe their teachers. Offer them a stipend, it will be much cheaper and more beneficial to your staff than a vendor coming to teach your team.

As many times as I play checkers I am just reacting, there is very little evaluative experience for me. I can never remember what I did to win or lose the game. I just start over. Which isn’t too different than my summer as a school leader. Starting over, staring at an empty board trying to put the pieces back together. Here are some other seeds you should begin harvesting to your team: Student Handbook changes, schedule changes, policy adjustments, budget changes, courses offered, marketing and branding, evaluation of programs, enrollment, character and behavior, partnerships.

As you grow your ability to lead, and start focusing on being visionary, building capacity for sustainability you will learn to utilize all of your chess pieces and create a common plan for success (CHECKMATE!). As a result your school will be one of high morale, high productivity and low turnover of talented team members.

How can I help you?

Would you like to move from playing checkers to playing chess? What challenges do you foresee in the next 6-12 months that you are concerned that your team will not be able to handle?

This month, I’m offering free 60-minute consultations to school leaders so I can offer specific-to-you suggestions to your challenges.

If you’d like to schedule your free 60-minute consultation with me send me an email [email protected]

Note: The 60-minute consultation is at NO cost to you or the school.

 Dr. Thomas Miller is the founder of Leaders Building Leaders. A leadership consulting, coaching and training organization focused on being the difference maker for public charter school leaders. If you would like Leaders Building Leaders to help you navigate your organization from success to significance, email him at [email protected].

Join Our Daily Thought List!

Get daily inspirational messages and updates on our events and programs.


Want to receive positive daily thought messages and transformational leadership content? Fill out the form below and begin receiving our best content tomorrow.  

50% Complete