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Chris Christie | don’t mix chess with checkers

Right after Bridgegate broke, I wrote a blog about Chris Christie as a type Eight leader, describing how it was highly unlikely that he did not know about the traffic problems caused by the lane closures on the George Washington bridge between New York and New Jersey and even more unlikely that he didn’t know about them right after they occurred. My reasoning, which appears to be more true than I had hoped, was that “no one in his or her right mind who works for an Eight leader would be so foolish as to engage in such visible, retributive, and high-profile action without at least the tacit consent of the Eight leader. To do so and risk the career of the Eight leader would be beyond plausibility.”

Thus far, my predictions based on the Enneagram appear accurate. It is becoming more likely that Christie was not telling the whole truth when he said he only learned of the problems from the media. Now that the New Jersey congressional inquiry is underway as well as a federal government investigation, subpoenas have been issued, documents have been requested (demanded) from key people, fees for defense lawyers are skyrocketing, and the penalty for non-compliance or destroying evidence comes with jail time, people close to Christie are breaking rank. The person who implemented the lane closures (David Wildstein) has now implicated Christie, saying he has evidence that Christie knew about this as it was happening. All this calls Christie’s public remarks about what he knew and when he knew it into question.

Will Christie ever become President of the United States if what Wildstein says is true? Americans don’t like blatant dishonesty in politicians, especially those whose popularity is based on their perceived honesty, and there is also the question about whether he will last out his tenure as governor of New Jersey. All this is to be seen in the coming months.

What I am curious about now is what moves Christie will make in the next days, weeks and months. In pondering this, what comes to mind is how Christie’s type Eight leadership style intersects with the political games that politicians play. As a note, I was a political science major as an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, and as an OD consultant who works with leaders, often in the context of organizational power dynamics, I try to help organizations create power and influence systems that are productive and transparent.

Some politicians play out power maneuvers according to the game of checkers; others play power chess. What is the difference between power chess and power checkers, and which is Christie playing? The answer might give insight into his next moves.

Although both board games compete with pieces that can be moved on the board with the objective of winning, chess and checkers are very different. With checkers, the object is to remove all of the opponent’s pieces from the game; in chess, the objective is to corner the opponent and take the king. In checkers, each piece is exactly the same in terms of value and rules of movement, while in chess, there are many different pieces that vary in terms of their value and range of movement. Chess is far more complex than checkers; chess requires the player to keep five or more steps ahead of the game and requires complex strategy. In this sense, chess is really a game of strategy, executed with short and medium term tactics. Checkers is more in the here and now; players move what’s right in front of them. It is more a game of short and medium term tactics. Checkers is also simpler and faster than chess, with every piece trying to save itself from being removed. With chess, it’s a mind game, a thinking person’s game. A chess game between two skilled players can take hours, even days. With checkers, it’s an instinctual game that can be over quite quickly.

In terms of power playing, think of Barack Obama as a master chess player. At the end of each sequence of events, whether it be the Democratic primary or the election against John McCain or Mitt Romney, Obama always comes out the winner. Even when he misses a particular move – for example, the initial debates with Romney – he pulls out a win in the long run. This is more than continuous good luck; it is the result of a strategic mind thinking biggest picture, complex strategy and multiple moves. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton played chess; John McCain played checkers. In politics, when a chess player plays against a checkers player, the chess player almost always wins for a number of reasons: chess players have a long term perspective, a bigger perspective, and more moves available to them. They focus on strategy and its execution, not tactics. As a result, chess players win the big game, although not necessarily on individual plays or moves.

So what type of player is Chris Christie, chess or checkers? I’ve known some Enneagram Eights who were master chess players, finely tuned; as Bobby Fisher, one of the all-time chess greats described it, “Winning in this game is all a matter of understanding how to capitalize on the strengths of each piece and timing their moves just right.”

Robert, for example, was one of three top senior leaders at an international law firm – the other two included a Seven and a Three – yet Robert was the most respected and vetted (authorized by the lawyers below him), and he both knew and liked it this way. Robert played the long game, choosing his actions wisely, rather than acting on his impulse to take action constantly (which more often goes with Enneagram Eights). He was able to turn the law firm’s culture from one in which each lawyer was doing his or her own thing to more of a collective unit, with each lawyer taking responsibility for the whole firm. And when he wanted to leave the firm, Robert made this move when he wanted, at a time of his own choosing.

I’ve also known Eight leaders who played checkers, thinking they were strategic but actually making moves in only one direction: the accumulation of territory and to gain a sense of their own bigness. Diane ran a non-profit organization and for the first year, her board and others thought she was a strong, upright, and good leader. As she brought more of her friends onto the board in key positions, her power solidified, but her behavior became more self-serving. As she tried to accumulate more and more power and territory, she was eventually told NO, that what she wanted was not in the best interests of the organization. Because she was playing checkers – thinking she had all her pieces lined up to support her – she made a tactical move and called what she thought was their bluff. “If you don’t give me this, I will resign!” The board, even with all her supporters there, said “Fine; go.”

In checkers, because each piece has equal value, there is a mentality of “every player for him- or herself” as they attempt to take out as many opponents as possible on their way to the other side. In chess, different players or pieces play different roles: some protect other pieces, some attack, and others are martyrs for the cause toward a common goal of capturing the opponent’s king. In other words, the pieces or players are in the game for the whole team, not just to save themselves.

Christie, in my view has been playing checkers while thinking he is playing chess. This can lead to serious problems because it creates a major confusion between strategy and tactics. The press conference in which he said that he had no knowledge or involvement in Bridgegate was a tactical move that he may have thought was a strategic one in the sense of sending the message to others involved that they were to in no way implicate him. The problem is that this required every other player to “hold the line” and keep quiet. However, the other players (in this case, his former deputy press secretary, Wildstein, and others to emerge) are now in a game where they must save themselves or possibly go to jail for either their initial acts (closing the bridge lanes, covering up a crime, obstruction of justice, or contempt of court). The checker pieces appear to be tumbling off the board and Christie may tumble with them.

If I am correct (and this is an if) that Christie is an Enneagram Eight and is playing checkers but thinking he is playing chess, if he is guilty of any wrongdoing he will end up standing alone, with no protection from outside. If the various problems in which he is possibly intertwined turn out to unravel on him, it will be every person for him- or herself, as Christie amps up his large, fast, and furious responses, becomes angrier and angrier from what he perceives as betrayal and lack of loyalty, all classic Eight qualities when they don’t know what else to do. In checkers, there are limited moves, and Christie will know this. It has the potential to be a public and humiliating downfall that will be sad to observe and from which political recovery will be near impossible.

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10 years ago

“Chess player” is a perfect metaphor for President Obama’s leadership style. Competitive with an emphasis on zero sum strategies designed for wining vs highly collaborative problem solving.  Chess is also a perfect metaphor for a less than optimal 5 approach to leadership–observing, non-transparent about strategy, introverted, lacking in intellectual humility, and highly competitive in a win/lose way. (Think early Bill Gates of the antitrust cases,) I have always admired 8 leaders because they are usually transparent about their agenda and esp the Soc 8s who are collaborative and extraverted in their interpersonal style. So while each style has its challenges… Read more »


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