Chessniti Academy


Leadership Lessons from Chess: Inspiring and Influencing Your Team


If you thought chess is a lonely game where one person grinds it out for hours, think again. Chess grandmasters at the highest level have a team behind them known as ‘seconds’ helping them train and prepare lines.

Five time world champion, Vishy Anand had a seconds team composed of GM Surya Shekar Ganguly, GM Peter Heine Nielsen, GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov, and GM Radoslaw Wojtaszek to help him beat GM Vladimir Kramnik in 2008.

In arenas like Chess Olympiads or Super Leagues, winning is about the team’s performance and not about one star player’s performance. Reminds me of RCB’s difficulty to win the IPL championship despite having the best batsmen from around the world!
Recently Anand Mahindra had a similar experience in the Global Chess League, the team that had Vishy and Magun, who together hold 10 world championships, did NOT qualify for the finals!

Chess is not just a game of strategy and intellect; it is also a powerful source of inspiration for leadership. The parallels between chess and effective leadership are striking, as both require careful planning, adaptability, and the ability to inspire and influence others. In this blog, we will explore valuable leadership lessons that can be learned from the game of chess and how they can be applied to inspire and influence your team to achieve greatness.
Lead by Example:
Chess players gain respect by their skills and accomplishments. Similarly, leaders must lead by example, demonstrating integrity, accountability, and a strong work ethic. Our former president APJ Abdul Kalam once recalled a great leadership lesson set by his boss Satish Dhawan. When ISRO’s mission dramatically failed, Dhawan handled the press and took personal responsibility for the failure; subsequently, when the next launch was a success, Dhawan said the team did all the good work, and he asked Kalam to handle the press and share the good news. Something similar happened in the chess world too. In April 2023, during the game 2 of world championship between Ding and Ian, Ding lost badly with white pieces, in the press conference, he said, “my seconds had prepared this line, but i did not play it well” and took ownership of the loss.
1. Vision and Strategy:
Thinking several moves ahead is a key trait in chess, and in managing a team to run a business. At the highest levels of chess, players’ strategy preparation begins months ahead of an actual game, and it involves everything from understanding the opponents playing style, opening preparation, previous games and so on. One of the best examples from the chess world is where Hikaru Namamura regrets playing 40 private blitz games against Magnus Carlsen in a hotel room in Moscow in 2010. Nakamura regrets this because he handed Magnus his playing style on a silver platter. Magnus has applied this strategy with Vishy Anand too, they both used to spar together for years as far back as 2009-10, a good three years before Magnus would compete against Vishy for his title. In a strategic move, Magnus also hired (poached?) Peter Heine Nielsen from Vishy to be his manager / coach to help with world championship 2013 preparation, which secured him the title. Strategy in theory vastly varies in practice, much like a chess player, leaders must be able to anticipate obstacles and plan their moves accordingly, adjusting their strategies as needed to reach the final goal.
2. Decision-Making and Risk Assessment:
Chess is a game of calculated risks and critical decision-making. There’s a popular quote in chess ‘long think, wrong think’, the equivalent of that in business is analysis paralysis. Sometimes, you have to be intuitive and go for a decision over precision; else you risk running out of time before you find the ideal move. Of all the examples in the business world about poor decision making and risk assessment, Yahoo takes the cake, everytime! They failed to acquire Google twice, they wrongly assessed the copyright risks associated with YouTube, and said no to a take over. Yahoo said no to being taken over by Microsoft for $44bn in 2008, and among many things Yahoo acquired, one of them is Tumblr, a social networking site which dwindled soon after Yahoo added their magic touch. Like chess players, leaders must make informed decisions based not just on risk assessment but use intuition, timing, and other factors affecting the decision.
3. Adaptability and Flexibility:
Chess requires players to adapt their strategies in response to their opponent’s moves. But this is not always true. There’s a beautiful term in chess called Zwischenzug, a German word that means, in-between or intermezzo. During the game play, if a piece is offered for a trade, the obvious move is to accept the move and capture the piece back. But that’s where zwischenzug comes into play; to make a non-obvious move that forces the opponent to get a detrimental position. Similarly, leaders must be adaptable and flexible, willing to adjust their plans and strategies based on market realities, and not just based on what the competition is doing. Qwerty keyboard phones like BlackBerry were the corporate darling, but that did not stop Steve Jobs from entirely removing a physical keyboard from a phone! Adaptability and flexibility means embracing change and encouraging a culture of agility, leaders can inspire their team members to be open-minded and adaptable, and make non-obvious moves in life. Remember, leadership is not just about making moves; it’s about inspiring and influencing your team to make the right moves together.