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Business, Like Chess, is a Team Sport

My father taught me how to play chess as a child. From the first time I arranged the pieces on the board, I was hooked, and though I don’t play it often enough to be very good, I still love the game. So, when Netflix released The Queen’s Gambit, I binge watched the series in two evenings. If you haven’t seen it yet and wish to, you might want to go watch the series first and then come back to read this post (spoiler alert).

In the penultimate episode of the series, Beth Harmon is training with the former U.S. champion, Benny Watts, in preparation for the Moscow Invitational. Benny puts her through her paces, pushing her to take a more disciplined approach to her game. His rationale? “We’re playing serious chess. Workman-like chess. The kind of chess that is played by the best players in the world – the Soviets.”

He went on, “And you know why they’re the best players in the world? . . . Because they play together as a team. Especially during adjournments. They help each other out. Us Americans, we work alone because we’re all such individualists. We don’t like to let anyone help us.” Wow. That line jolted me out of the cinematic moment.

We tend to think of chess as an individual sport; one player against another in a battle of mental acuity and stamina. But it wasn’t the insight that chess was a team sport that struck me. It was the fact that Benny’s indictment of U.S. chess style was equally applicable to the business world.

We laud individual effort and accomplishment in corporate America, as we should. Individual creativity, problem-solving, drive, and accountability fuel the U.S. economic engine. But if we are honest with ourselves, we are individualistic to a fault, resulting in suboptimal decision-making at best and narcissism and Machiavellianism at worst. We have all heard of teams made up of outstanding individuals that can’t rise to their collective potential because they don’t know how to be a team (if you haven’t read, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, do yourself a favor and go do so now).

Most companies espouse teamwork as a corporate value, and everyone claims to be a “team player” on their resume. But true teamwork, the kind that generates synergies that exceed the sum of a group’s individual parts, eludes most organizations. Too many of us are unable or unwilling to rise above or sacrifice our own priorities for the good of the larger organization.

There are several reasons for why excessive individualism is perpetuated in business. At some level, it is systemic. We develop financial models designed to maximize the output of the business units and constituent components of an organization, creating disincentives to collaboration and unintentionally suboptimizing the overall organization’s output.

At another level, it is a function of our being human. We are fearful and greedy. God forbid we ask someone else for support and admit to our own vulnerability or weakness. Or if I am in a position of relative strength and I contribute to another person’s success, I may think I have lost something based on a belief that it is a zero-sum game. And of course, there are those individuals whose Id routinely overpowers their Superego, who mistake collaboration and compromise for weakness, and who operate out of a lust for power.

Teams whose leaders do not have the self-awareness and confidence to balance individualism and a commitment to that which is bigger than themselves routinely underperform their potential.

On my own teams, I challenge my staff to be individual rock stars, but never act like rock stars. I expect each member of my team to deliver exceptional performance, but never forget that our individual performances remain secondary to the team’s overall performance. At times, that means we all roll up our sleeves and sacrifice our own priorities to the good of the whole. The measure of our ultimate success or failure as individuals in a business is at the team level.

Over the course of the Queen’s Gambit series, Beth plays the world champion, Vasily Borgov, three times. The reason she wins in their final meeting after losing the two previous matches is because she finally leverages a team to augment her own abilities. Thanks to chess masters and prodigies who have committed themselves to the good of her team, Beth is crowned world champion; an accomplishment her whole team enjoys.

One of the key measures of the caliber of our leadership is knowing when to go it alone, when to commit our talents and resources to the priorities of the larger team, and when to ask for help. The winners in business, as in chess and in life, have mastered this skill.


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