Book Summaries

The Infinite Game

In The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek asserts that approaching leadership with an infinite mindset equips us to create safety for internal stakeholders, pursue unique and compelling causes, and inspire ourselves and those around us. Influenced by James P. Carse’s treatise Finite and Infinite Games: A vision of life as play and possibility, Sinek’s theory suggests it’s easy to see the world as margins and dividends, winners and losers, as finite games. Finite-minded leaders play to end the game – to win. While that may suffice at a soccer match or in a round of chess, it will not in life and business as they are infinite games, where there are no clear rules or determinant of winning. Though it may seem like winning, finite mindsets eventually leave us and our employees feeling unsafe, unfulfilled, and cynical. Infinite-minded leaders aim to keep playing; to build an organization that thrives in the infinite game and survives its generations of stewards.

Finite and Infinite Games

  • “An infinite perspective frees us from fixating on what other companies are doing, which allows us to focus on a larger vision. Instead of reacting to how new technology will change our business model, those with infinite mindsets are better able to foresee the applications of new technology” (p. 11).
  • Prioritizing comparison and winning, finite-minded leaders will structure labor and set corporate and product strategy to meet arbitrary metrics. Their finite maneuvers trickle downward transactionally and entrench in the organization. The resulting tunnel vision shifts employee attention to the urgent at the expense of the important (p. 17).
  • For an organization to thrive in an infinite game, leaders must advance a Just Cause, build Trusting Teams, study Worthy Rivals, prepare for Existential Flexibility, and demonstrate the Courage to Lead (pp. 24-25).

Just Cause

  • “A Just Cause is a specific vision of a future state … so appealing that people are willing to make sacrifices in order to help advance toward that vision.” It must be affirmative (for, not against), inclusive, service-oriented, resilient, and idealistic (pp. 32-33).
  • Sinek describes a “WHY” as a fixed story of origin that compels us to be who we are. It is a foundation for the Just Cause, which is the pursuit of our ideal future (p. 34).
  • Sinek describes most purpose, vision, or mission statements as uninspiring and innocuous at best. They’re often structured around finite objectives like being the best or fulfilling a specific service. “Such statements offer us neither a Just Cause to which we would commit ourselves nor a sense of what it’s all for” (pp. 36-37).
  • An affirmative Just Cause is much more powerful than one that’s against something. For example, we are not as inspired to “reduce” poverty as we are to “grow” the number of people who can provide for themselves and their families. This subtle shift in language makes a profound difference for our natural motivations (p. 38).
  • “Only when we can imagine in our mind’s eye the exact version of the world an organization or leader hopes to advance toward will we know which organization or to which leader we want to commit our energies and ourselves” (p. 40).

Keeper of the Cause

  • Sam Walton articulated the same Just Cause at the beginning of his career and again ten years later. He stated, “Serve the average workin’ American by offering the lowest prices anytime, anywhere.” After a decade of experience, “If we work together, we’ll lower the cost of living for everyone … we’ll give the world an opportunity to see what it’s like to save and have a better life” (p. 61).
  • A leader who does not understand a Just Cause well enough to articulate it for their followership risks its dilution and their buy in. Even more so if nobody has The Courage to Lead the company away from finite-minded temptations (pp. 61-63).
  • Sinek argues for a Chief Vision Officer responsible for communicating, protecting, and directing the original vision of a better world. Many internal C-level promotions to CEO struggle to adopt the new responsibility to keep the Cause clear. The lack of a clear standard for CEO roles and responsibilities creates an environment encouraging finite play (p. 67).

The Responsibility of Business

  • In 1970, through his definition of the social responsibility of business, famous economist Milton Friedman ingrained the tempting idea that businesses exist to deliver shareholder profit. In contrast, an earlier definition by Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, proclaims that we only need to attend to the recipient of our product or service, and that the interests of the company should come second. “That maxim is so perfectly self-evident,” Smith claims, “that it would be absurd to attempt to prove it.” (p. 71).
  • “If we are using a flawed definition of business to build our companies today, then we are likely also promoting people and forming leadership teams best qualified to play by the finite rules that Friedman espoused – leadership teams that are probably the least equipped to navigate the ethical requirements necessary to avoid exploiting the system for self-gain” (p. 78).
  • Larry Fink, the founder of BlackRock, argued in his 2018 open letter to CEOs, A Sense of Purpose, that companies will ultimately lose the license of their stakeholders if they succumb to short-term pressures. Organizations need some sense of purpose to keep these temptations at bay. His text has become a recent source of optimism for a wide-spread appreciation of infinite play (p. 84).
  • Sinek suggests three pillars formulate an infinite-minded definition of business: advance a purpose, protect people, and generate profit to fuel the former two. “The responsibility of business is to use its will and resources to advance the people and places in which it operates and generate more resources so that it can continue doing all those things for as long as possible. An organization can do whatever it likes to build its business so long as it is responsible for the consequences of its actions” (pp. 87-88).

Will and Resources

  • Resources in business come in the form of EPS, profit, cash flow, etc. Will is much harder to measure and encompasses morale, motivation, inspiration, discretionary effort, and so on. “Will represents the sum of all the human elements that contribute to the health of the organization” (p. 94).
  • The best way for a leader to tap into the will of employees is to set a safe and resourceful environment where they can naturally thrive. Leaders who learn to espouse an infinite mindset can create those environments as naturally as their followers engage in them (p. 93).
  • Apple exemplifies the monetary value of will. Their full-time retail employees receive the same stock options, benefits, and education reimbursement as their corporate colleagues. What Apple invests in those programs, they make up for in decreased recruitment, selection, and training costs from a committed workforce (p. 98).

Trusting Teams

  • Teams who see themselves as merely working together operate around finite transactions, not within infinite relationships. People hide their mistakes and lie to save face when trust is missing. Without vulnerability, all the cracks in work are hidden or ignored until they inevitably fault (pp. 106-107).
  • Trust-building involves reciprocal risk-taking and repeated affirmation of those risks. It is formally the leader’s responsibility to take the first risk, but their followership must reciprocate to form a circle of safety. Repeated failure to reciprocate creates a sense of distance, then isolation, then fear. “Fear can push us to choose the best finite option at the risk of doing infinite damage” (pp. 117-119).
  • The leader of the oil rig Shell URSA, the largest the company ever built, was tasked with the team’s safety training. After he and his son attended a successful therapeutic session to aid their relationship, he had his Louisiana roughnecks sit in circles each day and share their feelings. It seemed silly at first, but facades gave way and over time, the stories deepened. A sense of psychological safety emerged that freed information sharing and removed the stigma around vulnerability. After company-wide implementation, accidents declined 84 percent (pp. 103-106).
  • Enabling team members to feel safe and develop trust enhances their interactions with customers, the public, and their families. The infinite mindset sees this return to the organization and enhance the overall value of the company (p. 125).

Ethical Fading

  • “Ethical fading is a condition in a culture that allows people to act in unethical ways in order to advance their own interests, often at the expense of others, while falsely believing that they have not compromised their own moral principles” (p. 132).
  • Euphemisms like “It’s what management wants,” “Gotta eat,” and “It’s the industry standard” are a common way of dissociating from the impact of our decisions or actions (p. 133).
  • People are more likely to do the right thing in weak, autonomous situations than they are in strong, demanding situations. Finite-mindedness creates those high-pressure situations where ethics suffer (p. 135).
  • “With each ethical transgression that is tolerated, we pave the road for more and bigger ethical transgressions. Little by little, we change the norms inside a culture of what is acceptable behavior” (p. 143).

Worthy Rival

  • “A Worthy Rival is another player in the game worthy of comparison. They may be our sworn enemies, our sometimes collaborators and colleagues.” The way they play the game reveals our weaknesses and inspires us to improve (pp. 161, 174).
  • Sinek considers Adam Grant his Worthy Rival. In their first appearance on stage together, they both admitted to seeing their own weaknesses reflected in each other’s strengths. The discussion of their complementary inadequacies revealed their respective contributions to their shared Just Cause (p. 160).
  • “Just Causes exist in our imaginations, but companies and products are real.” It’s easier for us to follow a Just Cause enshrined in a real company or leader than any abstract idea (p. 170).

Existential Flexibility and The Courage to Lead

  • “Existential Flexibility is the capacity to initiate an extreme disruption to a business model or strategic course in order to more effectively advance a Just Cause.” “Without [a] sense of infinite vision, strategic shifts, even extreme ones, tend to be reactive or opportunistic.” Existential Flexibility is always offensive (pp. 185-186).
  • Walt Disney was disappointed when Walt Disney Productions first went public. Beaurocracy limited his creativity, shareholder pressure created wage gaps, and new finite affairs distracted him from helping the world escape reality for a while. He sold his shares and took out a loan against his life insurance policy to start Disneyland. Reflecting on the experience, he said a motion picture felt too finished anyway. He stated, “I’ve always wanted to work on something alive, something that keeps growing” (pp. 183-185).
  • “The Courage to Lead is a willingness to take risks for the good of an unknown future.” Courage, as it relates to the infinite mindset, is our willingness to completely change our perception of how the world works. It rejects Milton Friedman’s purpose of business and seek alternatives. This involves holding the company and its leadership to a higher standard than the bounds of the law (pp. 199, 213).

Sinek, S. (2019). The Infinite Game. London: Penguin Random House.

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