Checkers or Chess?

A few years ago, Marcus Buckingham, SVP of The Gallup Organization, and Donald O. Clifton, past chairman of the same, published their book Now, Discover Your Strengths.  Based on 25 years of research at Gallup, the premise of the book is that every person has a unique combination of strengths and that a performer’s greatest opportunities for improvement are not in developing his/her weaknesses but in honing his/her strengths.

To that end, they encourage managers to have “strength discussions” with every employee.  The purpose of a strength discussion is to identify what those unique combinations of strengths are and then work to give performers opportunities to operate in those strengths.  Their research has shown that most managers never have these kinds of discussions with their team members.  Instead, they manage their teams as if they were playing a game of checkers (with each employee representing an individual checker on the board).

They assume that if a group of employees are performing the same role within the organization that they only have a limited and identical number of moves that they can make to accomplish their objectives, i.e. the employees can only move forward diagonally on the same-colored squares.  If this is true, then training, supervising and motivating become easy and predictable.  Treat everyone the same, and you’ll get the same results with everyone.

On the other hand, the most successful managers were found to treat their team members as if they were pieces on a chess board.  The managers knew that each person had a different set of moves (strengths) that he/she could use to accomplish objectives.  If the manager tried to make a knight move like a rook, it would frustrate and confuse the knight.  He would be forced to operate in his weaknesses rather than in his strengths.  So, like master chess players, these managers spent time learning each person’s strongest moves before deploying him/her toward the objective.

If this is true, why don’t more managers operate from the “chess” model of management?  Simply stated, it’s because the “checkers” model is so much easier and takes much less time and effort from us.  Most of us mastered the basic strategies of checkers as children, but it takes a lifetime to become a master at chess.

P.S. Parents, I think there is wisdom here for us in how we help our children discover their strengths, too.

(S – Buckingham, Marcus & Donald O. Clifton.  Now, Discover Your Strengths.)


1 Comment

Filed under expectations, family, Interpersonal, leadership, management, parenting, Relationships

One response to “Checkers or Chess?

  1. Interesting post. Chess is harder yes, and so much more rewarding. In the longer view, while The Truth About You is aimed at college students, which is why Marcus is touring campuses, we really need to start engaging kids in strengths discovery early on in their education. Why should they go through the majority of their schooling without articulating, building on or reflecting on their strengths? Seems like their school experiences could be more valuable with that knowledge. The definitive book on this topic is Jenifer Fox’s Your Child’s Strengths (Viking 2008). She lays out both why and how we can get kids strengths oriented. Buckingham wrote the forward. Great book with lots of wisdom and concrete ideas for parents and people involved in pastoral care.


    Thanks, Nick! I’ll check out that book….Michael

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