Chess Not Checkers | Mark Miller

Author: Mark Miller
Author: Mark Miller

Main Theme: Leadership
For People Who: Need to take their leadership game to the next level in a growing organization.

I received an early copy of Chess Not Checkers from Mark Miller’s publisher and could not wait to write about it! Chess Not Checkers is a leadership fable that follows a newly hired CEO, Blake. After taking on his new role, Blake is connected with a retired CEO named Jack who mentors and coaches struggling leaders. Chess Not Checkers is short, clear and concise. As much as I read, I have found that many books have a lot of fluff but not much substance after you’ve read half of the book. Chess Not Checkers is not fluff. I found the “moves” leaders must make to continue progress in a growing organization to be incredibly practical and well described. If you’re an avid reader the leadership ideas themselves won’t be mind-blowing; you’ve probably read about these concepts before. But the difference is how these ideas are packaged in Chess Not Checkers – which is a great visual aid I plan on using in leadership meetings! And who ever needs to hear something important about leadership just one time and in one way? Mark Miller does a fantastic job raising your leadership game, strategy and awareness in Chess Not Checkers.

Most small businesses can be successful with a checkers mindset…The leader does virtually everything in the beginning…each piece is capable of the same limited moves…the game is simple…you react, you make decisions, the pace is frenetic – you’re playing checkers…If you play checkers when the name of the game is chess, you lose. –Chess Not Checkers, pg. 27


  • As organizations grow, so does their complexity. You can tell if you’re playing chess or checkers by the types of problems that you’re facing. Are these problems that could have been prevented?
  • Checkers is fast pace, reactionary to your opponent’s moves, with pieces that all do the same thing. Chess is thinking ahead, using strategy, and each piece has different moves than other pieces. To raise your leadership game, start playing chess not checkers.
  • Developing your pieces is one of the most important moves in playing chess. A knight (chess piece) is less effective in a corner than out in the middle of the board. In the same way, leaders must develop their teams and add value to them, making sure they are well positioned to use their strengths to help the organization win.
  • If you’re not growing, you’re not gaining in experience. You’re just repeating the same experience over and over again – no matter how long you’ve been on the job.

Brief Summary

Miller gives four moves a leader must make in order to elevate their leadership game. As I said earlier, this book is short and to the point. So my take-aways section is short because each of these moves is a big take-away!

You, and the others on your leadership team, probably like coming to the rescue. You think that is your job. You like checkers. The pace and the excitement can be exhilarating…[Other leaders] are playing checkers because you are. -Chess Not Checkers, pg. 30

Move #1: Bet On Leadership

Develop your pieces early for maximum strategic advantage.” (pg. 41) If an organization is to grow, or if it is to sustain growth, leadership must grow at at least the same rate if not faster. Leadership is like the infrastructure of a city or a support column of a building: the stronger it is, the larger the city or building that can be build around it. It is the job of a leader to develop the people around him/her. “When you invest in emerging leaders, it means you’re serious about creating the future rather than just hoping it works out.” (pg. 44) This move doesn’t happen by itself; it is an intentional move that must begin with the leader in charge. How do you grow individually? Miller provides some examples in the fable:

  • Create personal development plans
  • Solicit feedback
  • Accept stretch assignments
  • Close critical skill gaps
  • Find a coach or mentor

I’ve read in other works that great leaders help others achieve their dreams, and in so doing, the leader fulfills their own. It is the leader’s responsibility to grow the teams around them. Betting on leadership means putting your trust in others, developing others, and allowing them to play the role in the organization that only they can play. A knight isn’t a queen, a bishop isn’t a pawn. No matter the role a person plays in an organization, they need to be developed.

Move #2: Act As One

A unified assault is always preferred over a fragmented one.” (pg. 60) Act As One is all about getting everybody on your team and the entire organization moving forward in the same direction. It’s about focusing the entire organization on the same goal. As leaders, you and your team have to define what a “win” is for your organization. If people don’t know what a win is, then they will all subjectively determine their own wins! Each person will keep their own score, each department will do what matters to that department, each leader will influence people to go different directions.

One, decide what’s important to you. Two, get agreement from your leadership team. And, finally, begin an orchestrated effort to cascade and reinforce these messages throughout your organization. –Chess Not Checkers, pg. 62

If leaders are architects of the future, Miller brings out three questions a leadership team should ask themselves in order to craft that future:

  1. Why are we here? (Purpose)
  2. What does success look like in 10 years? (Mission)
  3. What beliefs will shape how we do our work? (Core Values)

Move #3: Win the Heart

When people are given the opportunity to do what they do best, you engage much more than their hands. When you allow people to contribute their unique gifts and ask them to work from a place of personal strength, you do much more than get work done – you honor them and their contribution.” (pg. 80)

I have discovered over the years that a person’s “love language” is usually their “organizational appreciation language” as well. That is to say, you can’t show appreciation to every person the same way. Winning the heart is a process every leader has to work through. Learning to appreciate people in the way they need to be appreciated takes time and personal connection. If you work hard to build relationships with your team and others in the organization, make it a priority to find out how best to show appreciation for them in a way that is unique for them.

A great way to win a person’s heart, Miller says, is to foster dreams. “Help people find and fulfill their dreams.” (pg. 81) How can you help people achieve their dreams? Most people in your organization are not satisfied with sitting on the sideline watching you do all the work. The more you give responsibility to others, empower others, engage their energy – the more they know you trust them, value them, and have confidence in them to make a significant contribution.

Most employers are trying to extract value from their people. If you foster dreams you’ll be adding value to their lives. It’s a totally different orientation. –Chess Not Checkers, pg. 82

Move #4: Excel at Execution

If you consistently make the right moves at the right time, you win.” (pg. 95) This phrase really sums up the game of chess. Making the right moves at the right time. No wasted moves. No inefficient moves. “The right move involves intentionally deploying the right resources at the right time for maximum effect.” (pg. 95)

Who are the people we trust the most? People who are trustworthy are those who execute on the things they say they will do. When leaders are inconsistent, people in the organization will never fully trust them because they won’t know which things the leader will or will not do.

To improve execution, be sure your business is built on systems, not on personality. –Chess Not Checkers, pg. 98

Miller makes an important point here. A person who excels at execution and contributes to the success of an organization, may leave it one day; what will you do when they leave? Will the execution of the role diminish? If a highly charismatic personality is leading, and does not put in place a system to replace themselves, then an organization will suffer when they leave. Again, this is an intentional move and does not happen on it’s own.

Chess is not a game of luck, and neither is business. When you win, it’s because you made good decisions. -Chess Not Checkers, pg. 110


Chess Not Checkers by Mark Miller is a must-read, in my opinion. There is so much great content in this book! Miller plumbs the depths of each of these moves and provides helpful tips and questions for a leadership team to ask in order to maximize each move. For those who don’t feel they have time to read a 300+ page book on leadership: start with this one! Learning to make the right moves and elevating your leadership game will provide you with a strong foundation moving forward.

As a Christian pastor, I found this book to be highly motivating and refreshing. Leadership principles apply across the board in for-profit and non-profit organizations. Why? Because people are the same everywhere. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, they want to contribute, they want to know you care, they want to accomplish their dreams, and they want to leave something behind them. So pick up Chess Not Checkers and elevate your leadership game!

Information and Personal Rating

General Information:

Personal Ratings (1-10)

  • Applicability: 9
  • Readability: 9
  • Originality: 7
  • Recommendation: Yes – Absolutely! Put it on your reading list.

One thought on “Chess Not Checkers | Mark Miller

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