‘It’s a game of constant improvement.’
Ahead of his March 2020 events in Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland and the release of his highly anticipated new book, The Infinite Game, we're exploring the fresh leadership insights from Simon Sinek. His his five-step framework equips leaders with the skills to tackle disruption, lead with greater impact and adopt an infinite mindset.
What is an Infinite Game?
It starts simply enough, as many things do. Sinek says, ‘If you have at least one competitor, you have a game.’
In his 1987 book, Finite and Infinite Games, theologian James P. Carse defined two very different but often confused concepts, introduced in his book’s title.
The Finite Game
A finite game is characterised by several features. It has agreed upon, fixed rules, winners and losers, and when the game disappears, the players simply wait for the next one.
Think of a football match, with a referee ensuring the rules are followed, and the players moving from match to match.
The Infinite Game
An infinite game has both known and unknown players, changeable rules, and the objective is very different: to keep in play and perpetuate the game. It is the players who disappear, and the game that keeps going.
Think of The Cold War: for years there were no winners or losers, as both parties just kept playing to move forward. In this type of game, when one of the players runs out of the will or resources to continue, they remove themselves from play. The game however, continues. There can be no winners or losers, just ahead and behind.
Like marriage, politics and even life itself, business is an infinite game. While there’s nothing wrong with finite games, problems arise when infinite and finite players try to operate in the same system. Finite players are playing to win, while infinite players are playing to keep playing. As a result, they each make very different strategic moves.
This is compounded by leaders using the language of a finite mindset whilst playing in an infinite game, expecting their teams to ‘be number one’, ‘be the best in their industry’ and meet fickle targets that have no correlation to ethical or meaningful business. In this environment, there’s a decline of trust, cooperation and innovation.
Simon Sinek’s new book, The Infinite Game, poses five questions for leaders ready to start playing with an infinite mindset. Read on for our summary of these essential steps.
Question 1: Do you have a just cause?
A worthy cause is something you’d sacrifice to be a part of it, which in a business setting may mean taking a pay cut or turning down a more prestigious career opportunity. It’s bigger than you, and while it may never be accomplished, you’ll die trying to get there. It gives you a strong sense of purpose.
Sinek warns not to get confused: you’re not working towards a goal that has no purpose, instead, you’re striving for progress, for momentum. You don’t have to be a visionary or even have a unique vision, but you must be devoting your energy to something bigger than yourself.
‘Every job you have should be contributing to the same vision.’
Question 2: Do you have a trusting team?
To like your job forms part of rational thinking: you like the people you work with and you like that you get paid well. To love, however, is a higher order task. Loving your job means having the freedom to be yourself, to make mistakes and to ask for help without fear. It’s to work for a boss you feel wants you to succeed. This is how you build a trusting team.
The finite leader tries to get the most out of an employee - wringing them like a towel with only a few drops left - while the infinite leader’s focus is to enable, support and empower the employee to do and be their best.
Question 3: Do you have a worthy adversary?
In several interviews, Sinek has shared his own story of dealing with an adversary, one he was loath to admit was nothing but friendly, yet made his blood boil.
‘His very existence revealed to me my weaknesses. And it was much easier to take that energy and put it against someone than it was to admit to myself that I’ve got some work to do.’
This realisation became a cathartic moment for him, which culminated in another realisation: the only competitor you should have, is yourself. A rival or adversary, on the other hand, is someone to be admired, someone who reveals your weaknesses and becomes a tool for improvement. When it comes to internal competition at work, sabotaging colleagues may hurt them, but it certainly doesn’t make you any better, either.
Question 4: Do you have the capacity for existential flexibility?
Having existential flexibility means coming to terms with the fact that the game will continue, with or without you. As such, the thinking of an infinite leader requires a dramatic shift in strategy, the kind Steve Jobs made without hesitation.
‘If you’re not willing to blow up your company, the market will do it for you.’
Having an infinite mindset requires agility, and a willingness to pivot, letting go of long held notions and ideas that no longer serve you, your team or your business. Look no further than the decline of Kodak to see where a lack of flexibility will take you.
Question 5: Do you have the courage to lead?
Though he speaks with passion and assurance, Sinek is the first to say how difficult it is to obtain an infinite mindset. It takes real courage to choose people over profit, to stand up to a system that is committed to maintaining the status quo, and to be brave enough to own up to mistakes, doubts and shortcomings.
‘The courage to lead fundamentally means you’re willing to be open-minded, to consider that maybe, just maybe, the way you think the world works may be wrong...And just because everyone’s doing it, doesn’t mean it’s right.’
Leading in the 21st Century
‘We do not get to pick the game, but we do get to pick how we play.’
That may be true, yet so many leaders play as though they’re in the throws of a finite match. Other companies are their competitors, they work towards arbitrary metrics and they don’t trust their teams.
But imagine how fulfilling life and leadership could be if we gave our people a cause that was worth showing up for? We may die trying to achieve it, but the legacy we establish will empower those we leave behind to keep striving to contribute to something worthwhile.
‘It’s a code for the idealists to operate in a world that is telling us that we should be realistic.’
The infinite mindset is a new mental model for leadership, and if executed properly, will enrich your life, your work, and the way you lead. And what, one wonders, could be more rewarding than that?