Imagine, if you please, the worst possible punishment for a human being. Any good ones? Anything particularly gruesome? (If so, please share. I am always looking for more ways of making people cringe.) What comes to my mind is the image of playing chess. Imagine being forced to play chess, only instead of using pieces, you’re using real humans. Each time you make a move, the human moves as the piece. The normal rules of chess apply, with the goal remaining the same: checkmate the opponent. Play is as normal, with one exception – when a piece is captured, it is killed. To prevent you from simply stalling out in the naïve hope of preventing any deaths, the game is timed with a normal chess clock. When the clock runs out, everybody on the board dies; the same happens if you are checkmated yourself. The only way to prevent mass slaughter is to checkmate your opponent as efficiently as possible, a feat which almost certainly can’t be made without making sacrifices. How do you decide whom to let die? How do you decide which sacrifices to make in pursuit of the greater good? In short, how do you effectively administer this horrible situation?
This chess setup is essentially how I see administration in its most basic form (it is also why I have no desire to be an administrator). Leadership is essentially about creating positive situations for your constituents under adverse conditions. Whether you are a college president struggling to get your professors the funding they require without hiking up students’ tuitions beyond affordable rates or simply a mother attempting to get all four of your children to eat the same thing at the same time, the challenge is the same: you control only a set number of parameters, and the others vary immensely.
The worst part is knowing that no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you desire and strive to master the situation, there will always come a time when you need to make a sacrifice. You simply can’t increase department funds to physics, english, humanities, and music while giving the entire faculty competitive raises. You can’t find a meal that is healthy and tasty and ready when all four of your children are (I am not speaking from strict experience here; however, as my mom had enough trouble feeding two kids [sorry Mom], I imagine the problem is only exacerbated by doubling the number of progeny. Mothers of four should feel free to set me straight, or to use the comments section to share strategies. If there is enough demand I could create a forum here for mothers, maybe call it The Mother Side or some other catchy thing. It’ll probably change the whole site. I don’t even remember what I was talking about now.); at some point you will need to make a choice that the fourth kid (probably that bratty youngest) will just go without macaroni tonight, that the faculty and staff will have to accept a temporary pay freeze.
A chess piece never enjoys being sacrificed. It’s unreasonable to expect faculty and staff members to unanimously embrace not receiving more money. But pieces necessarily have only a partial view of the situation. Bishops only see along diagonals, pawns can’t fathom looking backward. The only entity that sees the entirety of the chess game is the player. I’ve talked to workers of various disciplines at the college from which I recently graduated who are less than pleased with various decisions of the college’s administration. I’m not here to weigh in on the validity of their concerns, but I do think that it would be foolish for a knight to complain about being put in a position to bait out the opponent’s queen for capture. In the opening illustration, the goal is to achieve checkmate as quickly as possible while sacrificing as few pieces as possible, but that necessarily involves some long-term strategy and not a few concessions.
Before this metaphor breaks down to something any more absurd than what it already is, hear me (read me) when I say that I am not equating administration with moving pawns around a board. In a human example, the administrator might have a clearer overall view of a situation, but without people to implement the strategy, he or she is useless. Unfortunately, I believe many administrators do see themselves as more important than their employees/charges; such behavior is evident in the business sector with corrupt CEOs giving themselves pay raises and bonuses in the face of economic recession and layoffs of “lesser” employees. I’m not saying that those people need to be given free reign to make whatever blithe sacrifices they please in an attempt to aggrandize their own holdings. What I am arguing for is for those in executor roles to understand the nature of executive roles. Other ergonomic frameworks exist: executives can benefit their charges by relaying as much of the information behind the decision as possible to the executors, and in a perfect world would be able to share decision-making burdens with the entire group of workers. In most real-world situations, however, this is simply not feasible – ultimately the chess game can only be effectively run by the player.