Be a master to your students

It's true that a team is only as strong as its weakest player, so how does a good leader build strength from weakness?

A good friend is a corporate vice president today. But the way he tells the story, it never would have happened without his chessmaster. Chess is a game that teaches strategy, but playing will also give you insights about people. Like a lot of young players, my friend played an aggressive style. Attack, attack, attack. The kind of game that looks great when it wins, but will lose six out of ten games.

The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve.
— Tao Te Ching

His first try out for a chess team, my friend won against two much higher rated players and ranked highly. So when he saw that, not only had he not made the team, he wasn’t even a reserve, he felt like he had been robbed.

The college chess master was a law professor. My friend gate-crashed his tutorial time to demand an explanation. He could have thrown the young man out of his office, but maybe he saw some potential in his passion. There were long three minutes of silence, as the professor looked up match records. Then the chess master turned to my friend and said: 

“You can only win at chess if you don’t lose before the end of the game.”

My friend did not, to put it mildly, agree with this advice. But over the thirty-year corporate career that followed, it came back to him, again and again. With a single sentence, the chess master changed that young man’s game.

Building a team; at chess, in sports, business or any endeavor, means building up your players. But you can only build up strength if you are willing and able to honestly pinpoint weakness.
We often place the responsibility for getting better on team members. So they didn’t make the team, win the promotion, get the bonus or receive the kudos they desire. It’s on them to seek out the advice of their coach, to figure out how they can improve.

You will never improve a player who doesn’t want to be in the game. This is why many leaders select primarily for a desire to excel in a given career. Players with that desire, even if they respond poorly in the moment, will ultimately accept criticism as helping them towards their goal.

The great masters recognize that growth is a process. Passionate players will sometimes act out, lose their temper, storm off, or even drop out for a time. Humans all have an ego and the strong emotions that go with it. The master, within reason, lets this play out.

My friend thanked the chessmaster for his advice but told him he did not agree. Six months later, he tried out again, with a stronger defensive game. And this time, he made the team...

...reserve list.

Principles, MindsetBrett Pinegar