“If there are at least two players, a game exists. And there are two kinds of games: finite games and infinite games.” Thus Simon Sinek begins to unfold his considered and inspirational approach to work and leadership.
The key distinction in the book is that of finite and infinite games. In finite games players are clearly marked, they achieve very specific and narrowly defined goals abiding by known rules and regulations. They operate within strictly delineated boundaries of space and time. Sports are the most natural example of this.
Infinite games, on the other hand, lack the certainty and structure of finite games. Who’s in and who’s out is all a mystery, as are the conditions of victory. Infinite games are also unbound by time and location. When you play an infinite game, it’s not about winning or losing. Your goal is simply to keep playing. Relationships, intellectual pursuits, the appreciation of art: these are all infinite games.
Too often, Sinek argues throughout the book, business is thought of as a finite game. It has no wider goal than pleasing shareholders and quarterly gains. Business leaders are myopic, unable to look past increasing the bottom line in the short term. And while this finite mindset may indeed result in short-term success, it comes at the expense of the vision needed to stay in the infinite game.
This idea goes back, not to the historical origins of capitalism in the eighteenth century writings of Adam Smith. Rather, Sinek argues, the shareholder-focused approach to business originated with the work of Nobel-prize winning economist, Milton Friedman, in 1970. It was Friedman’s ideas that turned modern American capitalism out of a customer-first mindset towards a more restrictive focus on pure moneymaking.
Sinek’s vision has a strong idealistic and moral core. Success requires what he calls a “Just Cause.” The purpose of a company cannot rest on cliches and platitudes. Any business can issue a blanket mission statement about how they strive to be the best in their field. There is nothing innovative about the generic claim to innovation. A Just Cause is something more akin to Amazon’s promise of free, 2-day shipping, for example. They have been able to tailor their business model so well around this central, inspirational promise, that in addition to making Amazon the wildly successful company that it is, 2-day shipping has become an expectation for the entire e-commerce market.
Finally, when leaders approach their businesses with an infinite mindset, they are willing to have the flexibility and courage to put the wellbeing of workers and customers above shareholders and profit margins. Human relationships thrive when treated as an infinite game, without winners or losers. Companies can thrive, and thrive in a truly humane way, when leaders do not try to outsmart or undercut their employees and consumers but play the infinite game.
The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek can be purchased here.