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LinkedIn | Our leaders don't know the game they're playing

Simon Sinek is an avowed optimist. He’s even made it his Linkedin headline. His life mission, he says, is “to help build a world in which the vast majority of people wake up every single morning inspired, feel safe at work, and return home fulfilled at the end of the day.” He’s pursued that mission through books, lectures, social media… and judging by his millions of readers and followers, it’s working. In his new book “The Infinite Game”, to be released October 15, Sinek explores the concept of finite and infinite games, popularized by theologian James Carse in the 1980s. Business, Sinek says, is a game that cannot be won, too often played as if it could. And we all suffer for it.

Isabelle Roughol: Let's start with the concepts. What are finite and infinite games?

Simon Sinek: A finite game is a game in which there's a beginning, a middle and an end. The players are known, the rules are agreed upon. The objective is to win the game. When the game is won, when the game comes to a conclusion, the game ends. We all go home. Football, for example.

Then, there's an infinite game. An infinite game has known and unknown players. The rules are changeable and you can play however you want. The objective is to perpetuate the game, to stay in the game as long as possible. If we think about it, we are players in infinite games every day of our lives. There's no such thing as winning in friendship, there's no such thing as winning in marriage. There's definitely no such thing as winning in global politics and there's no such thing as winning business. Nobody's declared the winner of business.

But, if we think about it, if we listen to the words of too many leaders, they don't actually know the game they're playing. They talk about being number one, being the best, or beating their competition. The problem is when we play with a finite mindset in a game that has no finish line, there's some very predictable and consistent outcomes. There's the decline of trust, the decline of cooperation and the decline of innovation, and eventually the demise of the organization.

What does it look like to run an organization with an infinite mindset?

Leaders who have an infinite mindset, instead of showing up to win, show up to advance a Just Cause, something bigger than themselves, a vision of an idealized future so compelling, so just, that people would willingly sacrifice to be there. That could mean turning down a better paying job, or working late hours, or frequent business trips. Though we may not like these things, they feel worth it because I feel a part of something bigger than myself.

They have trusting teams. These are teams in which people come to work and feel safe to admit mistakes or ask for help. They do these things with absolute confidence that people in their team or their boss will rush in to support them. Organizations that don't have trusting teams, people show up every single day hiding mistakes, pretending that they know what they're doing when they don't, refusing to ask for help. Eventually, things start to crack and even break.

[Infinite-minded organizations] also have changed their mindset away from having competitors to having worthy rivals. A competitor is someone we want to beat, whereas a worthy rival is another player in the game who's worthy of comparison. Their strengths reveal to us our weaknesses. These infinite-minded organizations are obsessed with who's actually better than they are, so they can learn more about themselves.

They also have a capacity for something called existential flexibility, which means the willingness to make a profound strategic shift in order to advance the cause, even if it might mean short-term loss or short-term frustration.

Then, finally, [they have] the courage to lead because all of the things I'm talking about are really, really, really difficult. It's much easier to run a company quarterly, or at most annually. It's so much easier to just hire and fire people willy-nilly and not focus on culture and building trust. It takes so much work to be a good leader and create an environment in which people want to work at their natural best. At the end of the day, it's the infinite-minded organizations and it's the infinite-minded leaders who will do what's right rather than what's expedient.

Is that something you can influence when you're not at the very top of the company?

Absolutely. It's more expedient when it comes from the top, of course. But you can use your job to advance your own just cause. At the end of the day, we don't have to resign ourselves to the fact that the senior leaders are short term-focused and there's nothing we can do. That's true. We can't change them. But we can show up to work every single day and be the leaders we wish we had.

The naysayers would say, "That's all well and good, but there are shareholders and objectives for the quarter. This is just not how business is done." What do you respond when people say you're just naïve?

Well, I'm idealistic, for sure. So many of the current business models that we use today were born out of the ‘80s and '90s. It was in the late '70s that an economist named Milton Friedman theorized that the responsibility of business was to maximize profit within the bounds of the law. That's become the mantra of business these days, that's what businesses think their entire purpose is. But it was just one person's opinion.

You started to see his theories lead to things like the concept of shareholder supremacy, where we prioritize the wants, needs, and desires of an external constituency over the wants, needs, and desires of employees or customers, which is the same as a coach who's trying to build a great team taking advice from the fans rather than listening to the players. This idea that shareholders own the company, it's not really true. They're more like share renters. If you think about how you treat a rental car versus how you treat your own car, that's how they treat companies. Why would we take advice from a share renter?

The idea of mass layoffs on an annualized basis to balance the books didn't exist prior to the 1980s. Rank and yank, where we force rank people based on their performance and contribution to stock price, for example, promote the top 10% and fire the bottom 10%, didn't exist prior to the '80s and '90s. A lot of these theories in the name of profit, in the name of short term-ism, have only gotten worse and more solidified in this modern day where we think — falsely — that this is the way it's always been. This is the way business goes. Absolutely not.

We've bastardized capitalism. Capitalism actually is quite a wonderful thing when it works and it puts human beings first and foremost. But when we actually prioritize numbers before people, which is not what capitalism was intended to do, then we have man-made recessions. We have decline in loyalty; people jump from job to job to job, and nobody really feels safe. We have cheaper products in terms of the quality. That's not what capitalism was ever supposed to be.


This article originally published on LinkedIn

A shorter version of this interview is published in the October 2019 issue of Delta Sky magazine. #5MinutesWith