Monday, July 9, 2012

More than a Game

By Guest Writer: Hunter Hammond (

When I was 5, my grandfather taught me how to play chess. He showed me how the pieces work, board strategy, and some of his favorite tactics. He said that sometimes the weakest pieces offer the best strategy while the strongest pieces can bring the most heat. Aside from the logistics and principles behind chess, he also shared some advice that I have valued all my life. He explained that the purpose of the game was not to beat the opponent, but to study the opponent. He said, "Hunter, there will be times when you can win, but remember that winning is not everything...instead it can cause the person you are playing with to have an even more fervent passion to beat you the next time you meet." This metaphor between chess and reality is one that I equate to leadership and to problem solving, particularly with people. Is leadership like chess? Is it just a game with pieces where strategy is utilized? And if it is a game, then what are the stakes? Is the game worth playing when it is your professional life on the line?
Over the years, I have been able to see that people are pieces in the game. Everyone is a piece, even if they do not fully realize it. There are players on the board, people who dictate the outcome of a game, like the queen, rook, knight, and bishop; however, there also pawns who are used to further the plot. Now, at times, there are also pieces, like the king, which seems like a player, yet in the end is restricted as strictly as the pawns. Conversely, the pawns in the game can turnaround the whole game and become major players. Think, for example, what happens once a pawn reaches the end of the chess board; it is able to transition into any piece and as such can end the game in one move at times. This illustrates that the game is always in flux and that there is no simple winners and losers; however, unlike chess, leadership is a much more risky game with exceptionally higher stakes. Those stakes are what makes leadership dangerous and leaders courageous.
Leaders are inherently and empirically held to a higher standard than those who follow them. Leaders are often expected to look beyond themselves or even their normal lives in order to see the entire picture. For example, I tend to immerse myself in a particular issue and  fight for what I believe is right! I fight so ardently that I often lose sight of the whole chess board. This was something that my grandfather also pointed out to me. He often observed that when I felt that I had the upper hand, that I would send my pieces on the offensive and bombard his defense to claim the king. I always lost. I didn't see a movement from the other side of the board that took my king, or didn't see a pawn placement that blocked my bombard. To make matters worse, I always left myself open after the attack. It left any defense I had useless and I waited it out until I couldn't any longer. In leadership this is still an issue for myself and for many aspiring leaders.  In chess, by focusing on a single section of the board, you don't see the moves available to your opponent and you don't see the weakness that you yourself may be making.  Obviously, leadership is a complicated subject; and to be honest, leaders face more obstacles in their everyday lives than non-leaders. They have to take on not only personal responsibility, but also the responsibility of those they lead. So with this burden, why lead? It means more work, longer hours, sometimes it means enemies, other times it means sacrifices; in effect, why put yourself on the line to lead?
Well guess what? I have no answer for you. There are literally thousands of books out in the world trying to say why you should be a leader or why people are leaders. Some say that leaders are born, others made, some are called to the task, and others fight against it; in  the end, leadership is truly a combination of these. Anyone can be a leader and some people have an innate ability to lead. Personally, I believe that truly exceptional leaders are those who recognize the complexity and perils of leadership, but still choose to lead. They take it upon themselves to learn and grow so that they can advocate for those who cannot or choose not. They want to make a difference and are willing to make sacrifices in order to achieve something greater than themselves. They look at a chess board and they see the possible moves on the table, they understand the possible moves of all the players on the board and the steps necessary to achieve victory. But perhaps most important, they take their eyes off the board and see a caring grandfather teaching a lesson and recognize that some things and people are in actuality more important than the game. True leaders navigate the board, but know when the game is not more important than the greater purpose.

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