What’s Your Leadership Game?

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Someone asked me recently if I preferred to play chess or tic-tac-toe? “Actually I’m not a big fan of either game,” I responded, “but if I had to choose, I would pick chess.” My friend wanted to know why. “Because it is more challenging, evokes more creative energy, and engages higher level thinking skills,” was my answer.

Good leaders develop lots of chess players. Offering people tic-tac-toe will not do. It will frustrate creativity and bring out the worst in people rather than the best.

He went on to suggest that if people are equally proficient at both chess and tic-tac-toe, most will choose chess because chess is more challenging, interesting, evokes more creativity, and engages the imagination. People want to exercise their creative potential. In contrast, tic-tac-toe offers limited options and, after a few games, tends to become boring. It is a race for the corners and the center. Creative possibilities are limited.

Think of chess as a metaphor for mobilizing a congregation’s creative energies. If most people want to play chess, an important role of leaders is to provide chess-playing opportunities for parishioners. Inviting church members into the game at the point of their interest and engaging them engenders ownership and responsibility. Engage their imaginations!

An ongoing challenge I find in working with congregations is how do we help people marry passion and responsibility. Passion without responsibility is chaos; responsibility without passion is death. Chess is a good metaphor for bringing these two together. Good leaders develop lots of chess players. Offering people tic-tac-toe will not do. It will frustrate creativity and bring out the worst in people rather than the best. Unengaged people become negative or disengage all together.

A pastor good at inviting people to play chess instead of tic-tac-toe was approached by her board with their concern that the congregation was not growing. They asked, “How can we grow?” Instead of getting anxious and giving them a how-to check-list, she stayed calm and challenged them to explore this question and to decide on the best way to connect with the community in order to reach out and grow. “You know this community, and I trust your insights,” she said. “Let’s see what we can figure out and where God might lead us.”

Instead of getting defensive and going to the how-to check-list of what they needed to do (tic-tac-toe), she said, “Why don’t we play chess, and I will partner with you.” She was a catalyst helping them connect with something deeper. She was inviting and influencing.

Chess or tic-tac-toe? It’s your move!

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About Author

Photo of Craig Gilliam

Dr. W. Craig Gilliam is the Founder and Director of Gilliam & Associates, LLC. that works with organizations, teams, and religious communities of various faith traditions. He is also the director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence of the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church and adjunct instructor at SMU.


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