The Finite and Infinite Games of Leadership
Simon Sinek is a New York Times bestselling author of Start With Why, Leaders Eat Last, and The Infinite Game. He is also a motivational speaker and incidentally lived in Johannesburg for 5 years as a child.
Fascinated by game theory, he proposes a bold framework in his book The Infinite Game, for leadership in today’s ever-changing world.1
Finite games, like football or chess, have known players, fixed rules, and a clear endpoint. The winners and losers are easily identified, and finite players play to win.
Infinite games are games with no finish line, like business or politics, or life itself. They have known and unknown players who come and go. The rules of an infinite game are changeable and have no defined endpoint. There are no winners or losers – only ahead and behind at any given point.
The objective of the infinite game is to perpetuate the game, and infinite players play to stay in the game and keep the game going.
This raises the question of how do we succeed in a game that has no end?
On one hand, none of us can resist the fleeting thrills of a promotion earned or a tournament won, yet these rewards fade quickly. This is the finite game and focusses the “what” and our interests. These are tangible and easy to measure.
The infinite game however, focusses on our “why” and our values. They are intangible and difficult to measure. Great organisations make decisions based on their values, and what they believe, not on what their competitors are doing.
To improve our chances of success through great leadership principles, we must first run decisions through our values, and then only through our interests. We should also focus on upward trends, instead of measuring against arbitrary dates and numbers, and remember that failure we can do alone, but success always takes help in the form of community.
In his revelatory book The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek offers a framework for leaders who want to adopt an infinite mindset.
They must follow five essential practices2:
1 Advance a Just Cause
2 Build Trusting Teams
3 Study their Worthy Rivals
4 Prepare for Existential Flexibility
5 Demonstrate the Courage to Lead.
A Just Cause is what gives our work (or that of an organization) meaning. It is the world we hope to build and what inspires us to keep playing the infinite game.
A Just Cause must be:
1 For something—affirmative and optimistic
2 Inclusive—open for all to contribute
3 Service oriented—for the benefit of others
4 Resilient—able to endure change
5 Idealistic—big, bold and ultimately unachievable
A Just Cause is not our Why. Why is our origin story, who we are, our values and beliefs. A Just Cause is our vision of the future.
In pursuit of a Just Cause, we will commit to a vision of a future world so appealing that we will build it week after week, month after month, year after year. We do this through constant refinement – or Kaizen. Although we do not know the exact form this world will take, working toward it gives our work and our life meaning.
Leaders who embrace an infinite mindset build stronger, more innovative, more inspiring organizations. Ultimately, they are the ones who lead us into the future and towards success.
Watch the below video where Simon gives a Google Talk on the use of Game Theory in business and leadership, ultimately improving chances of success.