Simon Sinek: To Succeed in Business, You Must Understand the Game

It was Jan. 30, 1968, the eve of the Lunar New Year. In Vietnam, this holiday is known as Tet, and tradition on Tet calls for a ceasefire in time of war. However, that tradition served as the cover for a series of surprise attacks—known as the Tet Offensive—launched by the North Vietnamese against U.S. troops.

What happened next poses an interesting question, said optimist and author Simon Sinek at a recent Workday conference. Despite the American forces countering each attack—and incurring a few thousand casualties in stark comparison to North Vietnam’s loss of 35,000 troops—the Tet Offensive is widely considered the turning point that led to the U.S.’s defeat in the Vietnam War.

Sinek asked: How do you win all the battles and still lose the war?

“If we look at the Vietnam War as a whole, we’ll see that America actually won almost all the major battles,” he said. “It raises a question that we don’t fully understand winning and losing, that there are other definitions of winning that exist.”

That other definition of winning is playing the “infinite game”—or rather, leading with an “infinite mindset,” Sinek said. Below are highlights from his talk and a conversation I had with him just after.

Can you elaborate on the concept of an infinite game versus finite game?

James Carse wrote a book in 1986 called “Finite and Infinite Games.” Finite games are defined as known players, fixed rules, and an agreed-upon objective. An infinite game is defined as known and unknown players, the rules are changeable, and the objective is not to win—the objective is to keep playing, keep perpetuating the game.

When you pit a finite player against a finite player, the system is stable. When you pit an infinite player versus an infinite player, the system is also stable. Problems arise when you pit a finite player against an infinite player. The finite player is playing to win, and an infinite player is playing to keep playing. As a result, they will make very different strategic choices.

What ends up happening is that the finite player will always find themselves in a quagmire, racing through the will and resources they need to stay in the game. This is what happened to the United States in Vietnam. It’s not so much that America lost the war, it’s that America was fighting to win and the North Vietnamese were fighting for their lives. America didn’t lose, they ran out of the will or the resources to stay in the game and dropped out of it.

“The minute you have senior executives obsessing about the short game, the game is lost.”—Simon Sinek

How does the concept of the infinite game mindset apply in business?

There is no such thing as winning business—it doesn’t exist. We can have wins inside a business like you can have battles, but there’s no such thing as “winning” business. The problem is too many business owners, too many leaders don’t know the game they’re playing. They talk about being number one, being the best, beating their competition. Based upon what agreed-upon metrics? Based upon what agreed upon timeframes? There’s no such thing.

When we play with a finite mindset in the infinite game, there are a few very consistent and predictable things that happen. Over the course of time, you will see a decline in trust, cooperation, and innovation. Eventually, your organization will run out of the will or the resources to stay in the game. We call it bankruptcy; we call it a merger and acquisition.

What factors shape an infinite mindset?

First, you have to have a just cause. A cause so just that you would willingly sacrifice your interest to advance that cause.

Second, you have to have trusting teams. It means that we work with and for people such that we can raise our hands and say, “I made a mistake or I’m scared or I have troubles at home and they’re affecting my work,” without any fear of humiliation and retribution.

Third, you have to have a worthy rival. They reveal to us our weaknesses; that’s what makes us so uncomfortable in their presence or when their names come up. Instead of getting angry about them, try to learn what it is about them that people admire and love so much, and maybe focus that energy into working on ourselves. Self-improvement. Every day. Constantly.

Fourth, you have to have the capacity for existential flexibility. This is much bigger than the daily flexibility that we need to have in our jobs. An existential flex is the capacity to make a dramatically huge strategic shift in an entirely new direction to advance our cause.

And finally, you have to have the courage to lead. That means the courage to say, “That’s bad for business, and I’m going to do it differently.” People may call you naïve and say you don’t understand the business. You may say they don’t understand the game they’re playing. That takes tremendous courage.

Regarding existential flexibility—how can companies structure their organization in a way that promotes this agile mindset?

When I talk about existential flexibility, I’m talking about the ability to massively shift an entire business model because it’s the right thing to do to advance the movement. Why is it that the technology industry invented the electronic book, and not the publishing industry? Because publishing thought they were in the book business, not the reading business. Why is it that the movie industry and the television industry didn’t invent Netflix? It’s because companies can be so preoccupied with protecting the status quo they don’t make these existential flexes until they’re forced to, and then they’re playing defense the entire time.

In order for you to have the capacity for existential flexibility you better have a crystal clear just cause, because that’s what will direct the decisions. Also, you better work with people who love you and trust you because there’s going to be short-term pain, and you’re going to have to have people who are going to go along with you because they believe that it’s worth it.

Must a company make a choice whether they’re leading with a finite game or an infinite strategy when it comes to business operations? Or is there a way where short-term goals can interplay with long-term vision?

They’re not competing ideas. The infinite game is a context within which finite games exist, and it’s understanding that context. For example, if we want our people only to be finite-driven, then our frontline employees will enforce the rules unscrupulously because that’s what protects the bottom line. But of course, we want them to be a little more concerned with the long game, which is why we ask them to offer good judgment and good customer service, and sometimes do something that may cost the company a small amount of money, because it protects customer relationships.

So, we have an inherent sense that there’s something bigger than the finite game. But if we can make that thing specific, and have a sense of where the company’s actually going in the infinite game, that empowers every level of employee to use their judgment to do the right thing, for now and for the future. It’s an incredibly empowering idea.

Of course, the finite game still matters—making your end-of-the-year goal is important as a metric of speed and distance. But it’s not the end all, be all; we don’t have to beat ourselves up or fire people because they miss a number. That’s where we lose the concept of the infinite game. It’s one mile within a marathon, and this marathon never ends.

And that kind of brings it back to the notion of leadership, right? If what we’re trying to do today, this quarter, this year, didn’t happen, leaders need to make sure people understand we still have this longer game we’re playing.

Correct. And we expect that our most senior leaders are the ones most preoccupied with that infinite game, because the frontline employees have to be preoccupied with the short game with a little bit of acknowledgment to the long game. But the minute you have senior executives obsessing about the short game, the game is lost.

What’s your advice for folks to shift towards more of the infinite game mindset?

Most of us are playing with a finite mindset and haven’t given our people any reason to build a company without us. That’s what it means to lead with an infinite mindset: That we will leave our organizations in better shape than we found them, and that we will build organizations that inspire other people to want to continue to build them without us.