Leadership and Chess: A Kind of Genius
By Otis White
Editor’s note: We first published this article in 2015. It is still one of our favorites, well worth sharing again with all of our readers.
What the best public-sector leaders do doesn’t sound very exciting. It helps to be great at chess.
Twenty-five years ago, as I was growing interested in how cities produce leaders and leaders shape cities, I heard a state business association president define leadership. A leader, he said, “is someone who helps people get where they want to go.”
He was speaking to a community leadership class, and I could sense the audience deflate. That’s it? Help people go somewhere? Like a bus driver? What about organizing constituencies, offering a vision, and persuading the public? What about standing up for people—or standing up to the powerful? What about holding office?
And, yet, I had to admit he was on to something. Organization and persuasion are skills. Visions can be supplied by others. Standing up to the powerful and holding office are roles. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that helping people get where they want to go (and, one hopes, need to go) isn’t a bad definition of what leaders do. It’s just . . . incomplete.
So allow me to complete the definition. A leader is someone who helps people get where they want to go . . . by seeing the opportunity for getting there.
Seeing the opportunity—the narrow, sometimes temporary passage through which change can happen—is the genius of leadership. And herding people through that passage is the practice of leadership. What the genius and the practice require is a sense of how things fit together, a tactical vision, a willingness to learn from experience, and a saintly patience with people—but a patience that’s bounded by the resolve to do something meaningful.
If this sounds abstract, trust me; there are examples all around you. Here in Atlanta, I’ve seen these traits in people who nurtured projects great and small, from the creation of the BeltLine, a circle of parks and trails that’s transforming entire neighborhoods, to the building of a roundabout that fixed an impossible intersection at the gates of Emory University and breathed life into a small retail district. In both cases, the leader was someone who recognized the value of these projects, sized up the difficulties, figured out the path forward, and patiently guided others along it.
But how exactly did they do it? What are the steps in seeing and seizing opportunities? And how can you become one of these everyday geniuses?
You can find some of the answers in a book called A Kind of Genius by Sam Roberts, the New York Times urban-affairs reporter. It's about a man who took on some of New York City's toughest problems in the 1960s and 1970s, figured out practical, even elegant solutions, and got them implemented. His name was Herb Sturz.
Herb who? Roberts's point exactly. Sturz was an "unsung hero, shrewd social engineer, and social entrepreneur" who had an impressive but largely unnoticed impact on New York, first by reforming the city's bail bond system (and inspiring similar reforms around the country), then pioneering ways of dealing with substance abuse. His final challenge was the one most apparent to residents and visitors today, the cleanup of Times Square.
You'll be impressed by these stories. But the real reason for reading Roberts's book is to learn how Sturz worked: by listening carefully, studying systems, proposing small-scale experiments, quantifying the results, answering objections, and winning over even the most skeptical officeholders. You won't be surprised to learn that, as a child, Sturz spent a long illness learning to play chess and could see six moves ahead in his mind.
Here's how Roberts explains the Sturz approach: "He spotted things other people hadn't seen, even things that had been staring them in the face every day. He would pose questions that they hadn't asked, even when those questions seemed mundane. And by peppering participants at every level with even more questions, by meticulously dissecting the responses, by crafting hypothetical fixes and subjecting them to challenging testing and experimentation, he tried his hand at transforming illusions into practical answers."
Herb Sturz was a remarkable leader, but I've seen similar traits in others who've accomplished big things in public life. They ask good questions. They listen intently. They experiment, observe, and quantify. They see how systems respond. They answer objections. They're patient. But when an opportunity presents itself and the way forward opens, they are decisive and relentless.
At the end of the day, these leaders get people where they want to go, but often by a road no one else could have imagined. And that's what makes them a kind of genius.
Otis White is president of Civic Strategies Inc., an Atlanta-based firm that does collaborative and strategic planning for local governments and civic organizations.
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