Book Notes: The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek

  • Author: Simon Sinek
  • Year Read: 2021
  • Overall Satisfaction (1-5): 5

🚀 Tweet-Sized Summary (140-280 characters)

To escape the rat race, a fixed system of winners and losers, we need to play the Infinite Game.

How do you survive a game without rules or without end? @simonsinek says seek a just cause where we place people first, pursue better over best, and embrace uncertainty.

☘️ How the Book Changed Me

Thinking about life, work, and relationships as never-ending games. This provides a masterclass for how to lead others and build organizations: people first. To remain relevant, impactful, and in-the-game, I need to constantly strive to be better and approach change as an opportunity rather than a danger.

✍️ 3-5 Takeaways

  • Infinite games have no beginning, middle, or end. The objective is only to keep playing and perpetuate the game.
  • Leaders are not responsible for the results, leaders are responsible for the people who are responsible for the results.
  • Infinite-minded leaders understand that “best” is not a permanent state. Instead, they strive to be “better.” “Better” suggests a journey of constant improvement and makes us feel like we are being invited to contribute our talents and energies to make progress in that journey.
  • The responsibility of an organization is to use its will and resources to advance a cause greater than itself, protect 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.
  • To infinite-minded players staying on the current path is the bigger risk. They embrace the uncertainty. Failure to flex, they believe, will significantly restrict their ability to advance the Cause.

📒 Summarized Notes (5-20 Bullet Points)

  • Civilizations began due to humans united in common cause working with no clear end in sight.
  • Finite games are played with fixed rules and a clear ending.
    • Examples are the Wall Street model; quarter to quarter.
    • Result in a loser, lack of trust, cooperation, and innovation
    • Because they are playing with an end point in mind, Carse tells us, finite-minded players do not like surprises and fear any kind of disruption.
    • When we play with a finite mindset in an infinite game, the odds increase that we will find ourselves in a quagmire, racing through the will and resources we need to keep playing.
      • Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Global Warming
  • Infinite games have no clear rules, players, or finish. The goal is to continue playing the game.
    • Examples of infinite games are education or marriage.
    • Create trust, cooperation, and innovation. How can we adapt and survive? How can we be anti-fragile?
    • There is no winning the infinite game; but it also means there is no clear loser, there can be enough for EVERYONE.
    • To live a life with an infinite mindset means thinking about second and third order effects of our decisions.
    • And like all infinite games, in the game of life, the goal is not to win, it is to perpetuate the game. To live a life of service.
  • Organizations should be measured by the desire others have to contribute to that organization’s ability to keep succeeding, not just during the time they are there, but well beyond their own tenure.
    • According to a study by McKinsey, the average life span of an S&P 500 company has dropped over forty years since the 1950s, from an average of sixty-one years to less than eighteen years today.
    • Finite shift came from shareholder primacy theory. Milton Friedman insisted that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business, to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game.”
      • Shareholders don’t act like owners at all. They act more like renters.
  • Any leader who wants to adopt an infinite mindset must follow five essential practices:
    1. Advance a Just Cause
      • A Just Cause is a specific vision of a future state that does not yet exist; a future state so appealing that people are willing to make sacrifices in order to help advance toward that vision.
        • For something—affirmative and optimistic Inclusive—open to all those who would like to contribute
        • Service oriented—for the primary benefit of others
        • Resilient—able to endure political, technological and cultural change Idealistic—big, bold and ultimately unachievable
      • Leaders can rally people against something quite easily. They can whip them into a frenzy, even. For our emotions can run hot when we are angry or afraid. Being for something, in contrast, is about feeling inspired.
      • Imagine if instead of fighting against poverty, for example, we fought for the right of every human to provide for their own family. The first creates a common enemy, something we are against. It sets up the Cause as if it is “winnable,” i.e., a finite game. Where the first offers us a problem to solve, the second offers a vision of possibility, dignity and empowerment. We are not inspired to “reduce” poverty, we are inspired to “grow” the number of people who are able to provide for themselves and their families.
      • Infinite-minded leaders understand that “best” is not a permanent state. Instead, they strive to be “better.” “Better” suggests a journey of constant improvement and makes us feel like we are being invited to contribute our talents and energies to make progress in that journey.
    2. Build Trusting Teams
      • 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
      • The American Revolution itself would have been avoided if Great Britain simply relaxed the economic restrictions it placed on the colonies, gave them greater representation in government and allowed them to share in more of the wealth they helped produce. That’s it. Where there is unbalance, there is unrest.
      • The responsibility of an organization/nation is to use its will and resources to advance a cause greater than itself, protect 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.
      • Leaders will work to create these environments when we train them how to prioritize their people over the results. And this is the true definition of what it means to lead.
      • Will represents the sum of all the human elements that contribute to the health of the organization. The problem is, will and resources can never be equally prioritized. There are always circumstances in which one is pitted against the other, times in which a leader must choose which one they are willing to sacrifice. The question is, which one will they choose? Every leader has a bias.
        • The finite-minded leader tends to show a bias for the score. As a result, they often opt for choices that demonstrate results in a short time frame
        • Infinite-minded leaders, in contrast, work hard to look beyond the financial pressures of the current day and put people before profit as often as possible.
        • organizations that choose to operate with a bias for will are ultimately more resilient than those who prioritize resources.
      • a difference between a group of people who work together and a group of people who trust each other
        • For the feeling of trust to develop, we have to feel safe expressing ourselves first. We have to feel safe being vulnerable.
        • True trusting relationships require both parties to take a risk. Like dating or making friends, though one person has to take a first risk to trust, the other person has to reciprocate at some point if the relationship has any chance of succeeding. In an organization, it is the leader’s responsibility to take the first risk, to build a Circle of Safety. But then it is up to the employee to take a chance and step into the Circle of Safety.
        • Fear is such a powerful motivator that it can force us to act in ways that are completely counter to our own or our organization’s best interests. Fear can push us to choose the best finite option at the risk of doing infinite damage. And in the face of fear, we hide the truth.
        • People will trust their leaders when their leaders do the things that make them feel psychologically safe. This means giving them discretion in how they do the jobs they’ve been trained to do.
      • In weak cultures, people find safety in the rules. This is why we get bureaucrats. They believe a strict adherence to the rules provides them with job security. And in the process, they do damage to the trust inside and outside the organization. In strong cultures, people find safety in relationships. Strong relationships are the foundation of high-performing teams. And all high-performing teams start with trust.
      • They know that good leaders sometimes suffer mission failure and bad leaders sometimes enjoy mission success. The ability to succeed is not what makes someone a leader. Exhibiting the qualities of leadership is what makes someone an effective leader.
      • **leaders are not responsible for the results, leaders are responsible for the people who are responsible for the results.
      • Lazy Leadership chooses to put their efforts into building processes to fix the problems rather than building support for their people. After all, process is objective and reliable. It’s easier to trust a process than to trust people.
      • Ethical decisions are not based on what’s best for the short-term. They are based on the “right thing to do.” Whereas short-termism at the expense of ethics slowly weakens a company, “doing the right” thing slowly strengthens it.
    3. Study your Worthy Rivals
      • we have to stop thinking of other players as competitors to be beaten and start thinking of them as Worthy Rivals who can help us become better players.
      • An infinite mindset embraces abundance whereas a finite mindset operates with a scarcity mentality. In the Infinite Game we accept that “being the best” is a fool’s errand and that multiple players can do well at the same time.
      • Cause Blindness is when we become so wrapped up in our Cause or so wrapped up in the “wrongness” of the other player’s Cause, that we fail to recognize their strengths or our weaknesses. We falsely believe that they are unworthy of comparison simply because we disagree with them, don’t like them or find them morally repugnant.
      • Without identifying our Worthy Rivals, strong players start to falsely believe they can control the direction of the game or the other players. But that’s impossible. The Infinite Game is like a stock market; companies list and delist but no one can control the market.**
    4. Prepare for Existential Flexibility
      • 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.
      • Existential Flexibility is always offensive. It is not to be confused with the defensive maneuvering many companies undergo to stay alive in the face of new technology or changing consumer habits.
      • To all the finite-minded observers, it is existential because the leader is risking the apparent certainty of the current, profitable path with the uncertainty of a new path—which could lead to the company’s decline or even demise. To the finite-minded player, such a move is not worth the risk. To infinite-minded players, however, staying on the current path is the bigger risk. They embrace the uncertainty. Failure to flex, they believe, will significantly restrict their ability to advance the Cause.
    5. Demonstrate the Courage to Lead
      • The Courage to Lead is a willingness to take risks for the good of an unknown future.
      • Or we can find a Just Cause that inspires us; surround ourselves with others with whom we share common cause, people we trust and who trust us; identify a Rival worthy of comparison that will push us to constantly improve; and remind ourselves that we are more committed to the Cause than to any particular path or strategy we happen to be following right now.
      • trust is not built by pressure or force, trust is built by acting in a way consistent with one’s values, especially when it’s least expected. Trust is built when we do the right thing, especially when we aren’t forced to.

Highlights

  • The rise of great societies, advancements in science and medicine and the exploration of space all happened because large groups of people, united in common cause, chose to collaborate with no clear end in sight.

  • Great leaders are the ones who think beyond “short term” versus “long term.” They are the ones who know that it is not about the next quarter or the next election; it is about the next generation.

  • America actually won the vast majority of the battles it fought. Over the course of the ten years in which U.S. troops were active in the Vietnam War, America lost 58,000 troops. North Vietnam lost over 3 million people. As a percent of population, that’s the equivalent of America losing 27 million people in 1968. All this begs the question, how do you win almost every battle, decimate your enemy and still lose the war?

  • Finite games are played by known players. They have fixed rules. And there is an agreed-upon objective that, when reached, ends the game. Football, for example, is a finite game.

  • Infinite games, in contrast, are played by known and unknown players. There are no exact or agreed-upon rules. Though there may be conventions or laws that govern how the players conduct themselves, within those broad boundaries, the players can operate however they want. And if they choose to break with convention, they can. The manner in which each player chooses to play is entirely up to them. And they can change how they play the game at any time, for any reason. Infinite games have infinite time horizons. And because there is no finish line, no practical end to the game, there is no such thing as “winning” an infinite game. In an infinite game, the primary objective is to keep playing, to perpetuate the game.

  • The more I looked at our world through Carse’s lens of finite and infinite games, the more I started to see infinite games all around us, games with no finish lines and no winners. There is no such thing as coming in first in marriage or friendship, for example. Though school may be finite, there is no such thing as winning education.

  • They talk constantly about “winning.” They obsess about “beating their competition.” They announce to the world that they are “the best.” They state that their vision is to “be number one.” Except that in games without finish lines, all of these things are impossible.

  • When we lead with a finite mindset in an infinite game, it leads to all kinds of problems, the most common of which include the decline of trust, cooperation and innovation. Leading with an infinite mindset in an infinite game, in contrast, really does move us in a better direction. Groups that adopt an infinite mindset enjoy vastly higher levels of trust, cooperation and innovation and all the subsequent benefits.

  • Unlike a finite game, there is no predetermined beginning, middle or end to business.

  • In an infinite game, it’s the opposite. It is the game that lives on and it is the players whose time runs out. Because there is no such thing as winning or losing in an infinite game, the players simply drop out of the game when they run out of the will and resources to keep playing.

  • In the Infinite Game, the true value of an organization cannot be measured by the success it has achieved based on a set of arbitrary metrics over arbitrary time frames. The true value of an organization is measured by the desire others have to contribute to that organization’s ability to keep succeeding, not just during the time they are there, but well beyond their own tenure.

  • According to Carse, a finite-minded leader plays to end the game—to win. And if they want to be the winner, then there has to be a loser. They play for themselves and want to defeat the other players. They make every plan and every move with winning in mind.

  • Carse’s infinite player plays to keep playing. In business, that means building an organization that can survive its leaders.

  • Because they are playing with an end point in mind, Carse tells us, finite-minded players do not like surprises and fear any kind of disruption. Things they cannot predict or cannot control could upset their plans and increase their chances of losing.

  • McNamara recounts Thach scolding him. “If you had, you’d know we weren’t pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. . . . Don’t you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for a thousand years?” Thach went on. “We were fighting for our independence! And we would fight to the last man! And we were determined to do so! And no amount of bombing, no amount of U.S. pressure would ever have stopped us!” The North Vietnamese were playing an infinite game with an infinite mindset.

  • When we play with a finite mindset in an infinite game, the odds increase that we will find ourselves in a quagmire, racing through the will and resources we need to keep playing.

  • Microsoft’s leaders failed to appreciate the Infinite Game they were in and the infinite mindset with which Apple was playing. Though Steve Ballmer sometimes spoke of “vision” or the “long term,” like other finite-minded leaders who use this kind of infinite language, he almost always did so in the finite context of rank, stock performance, market share and money. Playing with the wrong mindset for the game they were in, Microsoft was chasing an impossible objective—“to win.”

  • Finite-minded leadership is embraced by Wall Street and taught in business schools. At the same time, the life span of companies appears to be getting shorter and shorter. According to a study by McKinsey, the average life span of an S&P 500 company has dropped over forty years since the 1950s, from an average of sixty-one years to less than eighteen years today.

  • When we play with a finite mindset in the Infinite Game, we will continue to make decisions that sabotage our own ambitions. It’s like eating too many desserts in the name of “enjoying life” only to make oneself diabetic in the process.

  • There are three factors we must always consider when deciding how we want to lead:

    1. We don’t get to choose whether a particular game is finite or infinite.
    2. We do get to choose whether or not we want join the game.
    3. Should we choose to join the game, we can choose whether we want to play with a finite or an infinite mindset.
  • Any leader who wants to adopt an infinite mindset must follow five essential practices:

    1. Advance a Just Cause
    2. Build Trusting Teams
    3. Study your Worthy Rivals
    4. Prepare for Existential Flexibility
    5. Demonstrate the Courage to Lead

Advance a Just Cause

  • A Just Cause is a specific vision of a future state that does not yet exist; a future state so appealing that people are willing to make sacrifices in order to help advance toward that vision. Like Vavilov’s scientists, the sacrifice people are willing to make may be their lives.

  • A Just Cause is not the same as our WHY. A WHY comes from the past. It is an origin story. It is a statement of who we are—the sum total of our values and beliefs. A Just Cause is about the future. It defines where we are going. It describes the world we hope to live in and will commit to help build. Everyone has their own WHY (and everyone can know what their WHY is if they choose to uncover it). But we do not have to have our own Just Cause, we can choose to join someone else’s.

  • We know a Cause is just when we commit to it with the confidence that others will carry on our legacy. This was certainly the case for America’s founders.

  • A Just Cause must be:

    1. For something—affirmative and optimistic Inclusive—open to all those who would like to contribute
    2. Service oriented—for the primary benefit of others
    3. Resilient—able to endure political, technological and cultural change Idealistic—big, bold and ultimately unachievable
  • Leaders can rally people against something quite easily. They can whip them into a frenzy, even. For our emotions can run hot when we are angry or afraid. Being for something, in contrast, is about feeling inspired.

  • Imagine if instead of fighting against poverty, for example, we fought for the right of every human to provide for their own family. The first creates a common enemy, something we are against. It sets up the Cause as if it is “winnable,” i.e., a finite game. It leads us to believe that we can defeat poverty once and for all. The second gives us a cause to advance. The impact of the two perspectives is more than semantics. It affects how we view the problem/vision that affects our ideas on how we can contribute. Where the first offers us a problem to solve, the second offers a vision of possibility, dignity and empowerment. We are not inspired to “reduce” poverty, we are inspired to “grow” the number of people who are able to provide for themselves and their families.** Being for or being against is a subtle but profound difference that the writers of the Declaration of Independence intuitively understood.

  • This is what “servant leadership” means. It means the primary benefit of the contributions flows downstream. In an organization where service orientation is lacking (or treated as a sideshow rather than the main event), the flow of benefits tends to go upstream instead. Investors invest with the primary intention of seeing a return before anyone else. Leaders make decisions that benefit themselves before those in their charge.

  • The reason a service orientation is so important in the Infinite Game is because it builds a loyal base of employees and customers (and investors) who will stick with the organization through thick and thin. It is this strong base of loyalty that gives any organization a kind of strength and longevity that money alone cannot provide.

  • Leaders who wish to lead with an infinite mindset would do well to keep the example of the Declaration of Independence in mind. The founders’ stated commitment to equality and unalienable human rights are evergreen. Over the course of more than 240 years, even as the nation’s leaders, landscape, people and culture have changed, the Just Cause has remained as relevant and inspiring as ever. It is a Just Cause for an infinite time frame.

  • If we articulate our Cause in terms of our products, then our organization’s entire existence is conditional on the relevance of those products. Any new technology could render our products, our Cause and indeed our entire company obsolete overnight.

  • Had the railroads defined their need to exist in terms related to moving people and things instead of advancing the railroad, they might be the owners of major car companies or airlines today. Publishers saw themselves in the book business instead of the spreading-ideas business and thus missed the opportunity to capitalize on new technology to advance their cause.

  • Indeed, leaping from goal to goal can be fun for a while, but if that’s all there is, over time the thrill of each achievement becomes less, well, thrilling. I often meet senior executives who seem to suffer from a kind of “finite exhaustion.” Because they did well and were paid well for hitting each goal set for them, they kept repeating that pattern. At some point in their careers, they traded any fantasy of feeling like their work would contribute to something bigger than themselves for a rat race or a hamster wheel or some other unfulfilling running rodent metaphor. Racking up finite wins does not lead to something more infinite.

  • “Being the best” and statements like that are egocentric statements that place the company as the primary subject (and thus the primary beneficiary) of their vision. They don’t help make the company relevant to those who buy from the company.

  • For companies that place their product above all else, which is fairly common among technology or engineering companies, it leaves people who are not engineers or product designers feeling like (and sometimes actually treated like) second-class citizens in their own companies.

  • Infinite-minded leaders understand that “best” is not a permanent state. Instead, they strive to be “better.” “Better” suggests a journey of constant improvement and makes us feel like we are being invited to contribute our talents and energies to make progress in that journey. “Better,” in the Infinite Game, is better than “best.”

  • What happened at Walmart happens all too often in public companies, even the Cause-driven ones. Under pressure from Wall Street, we too often put finite-minded executives in the highest leadership position when what we actually need is a visionary, infinite-minded leader. Steve Ballmer, as we’ve already discussed, was one such example. John Sculley, who replaced Steve Jobs at Apple in 1983, was another. Instead of trying to continue advancing the Cause, Sculley was more focused on competing head-to-head against IBM. The damage he did to the culture seriously hurt Apple’s ability to innovate.

  • Leaders in the Infinite Game will be better equipped to fulfill their responsibilities if they understand that they are stepping into the role of a “Chief Vision Officer,” or CVO. That is the primary job of the person who sits at the pointy end of the spear. They are the holder, communicator and protector of the vision. Their job is to ensure that all clearly understand the Just Cause and that all other C-level executives direct their efforts to advancing the Cause inside the organization. It’s not that an infinite-minded leader is entirely unconcerned with the organization’s finite interests. Rather, as the keeper of the Cause, they take accountability for deciding when short-term finite costs are worth it to advance the infinite vision. They think beyond the bottom line. As the ultimate infinite player, the CVO must go up and out.

  • Whereas CVOs focus on up and out, CFOs and COOs focus on down and in. One requires eyes on the infinite horizon, the other requires eyes on the business plan. One envisions the very distant, abstract future. The other sees the steps to take in the tangible near term. This is one of the reasons the best organizations are often run in tandem. The combination of the keeper of the vision (CVO) and the operator (the CFO or COO). It is a partnership of complementary skill sets.

  • Such a model has precedence. In the military there are officers and enlisted ranks who work alongside each other. To rise in the enlisted ranks is a different trajectory than a rise in the officer ranks. They are entirely different career paths. There is no conflict of interest when they work together because the most senior enlisted leader on a base cannot aspire to take the job of the most senior officer, and vice versa. When these partnerships work, the CVO and the COO or the CFO spend more time thanking and celebrating each other than competing for attention.

  • In a watershed article from 1970, Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, who is considered one of the great theorists of today’s form of capitalism, laid out the foundation for the theory of shareholder primacy that is at the heart of so much finite-minded business practice today. “In a free-enterprise, private-property system,” he wrote, “a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct responsibility to his employers. That responsibility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.” Indeed, Friedman insisted that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business, to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game.”

  • Adam Smith. The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and economist is widely accepted as the father of economics and modern capitalism. “Consumption,” he wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “is the sole end and purpose of all production and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.” He went on to explain, “The maxim is so perfectly self-evident, that it would be absurd to attempt to prove it.” Put simply, the company’s interests should always be secondary to the interest of the consumer (ironically, a point Smith believed so “self-evident,” he felt it was absurd to try to prove it, and yet here I am writing a whole book about it).

  • Smith accepted that it was human nature for people to act to advance their own interests. He called our propensity for self-interest the “invisible hand.” He went on to theorize that because the invisible hand was a universal truth (because of our selfish motivations we all want to build strong companies), it ultimately benefits the consumer. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” he explained. The butcher has a selfish desire to offer the best cuts of meat without regard for the brewer or the baker. And the brewer wants to make the best beer, regardless of what meat or bread is available on the market. And the baker wants to make the tastiest loaves without any consideration for what we may put on our sandwiches. The result, Smith believed, is that we, the consumers, get the best of everything . . . at least we do if the system is balanced. However, Smith did not consider a time in which the selfishness of outside investors and an analyst community would put that system completely out of balance.

  • Prior to the introduction of the shareholder primacy theory, the way business operated in the United States looked quite different. “By the middle of the 20th century,” said Cornell corporate law professor Lynn Stout in the documentary series Explained, “the American public corporation was proving itself one of the most effective and powerful and beneficial organizations in the world.” Companies of that era allowed for average Americans, not just the wealthiest, to share in the investment opportunities and enjoy good returns. Most important, “executives and directors viewed themselves as stewards or trustees of great public institutions that were supposed to serve not just the shareholders, but also bondholders, suppliers, employees and the community.”

  • Capitalism today is, in name only, the capitalism that Adam Smith envisioned over 200 years ago. And it looks nothing like the capitalism practiced by companies like Ford, Kodak and Sears in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before they too fell prey to finite thinking and lost their way. What many leaders in business practice these days is more of an abuse of capitalism, or “capitalism abuse.”

  • Companies exist to advance something—technology, quality of life or anything else with the potential to ease or enhance our lives in some way, shape or form. That people are willing to pay money for whatever a company has to offer is simply proof that they perceive or derive some value from those things. Which means the more value a company offers, the more money and the more fuel they will have for further advancements. Capitalism is about more than prosperity (measured in features and benefits, dollars and cents); it’s also about progress (measured in quality of life, technological advancements and the ability of the human race to live and work together in peace).

  • It is due in large part to Milton Friedman’s ideas, for example, that corporations started tying executive pay to short-term share price performance rather than the long-term health of the company.

  • As Dr. Stout explains in her book, The Shareholder Value Myth, “If 80 percent of the CEO’s pay is based on what the share price is going to do next year, he or she is going to do their best to make sure that share price goes up, even if the consequences might be harmful to employees, to customers, to society, to the environment or even to the corporation itself in the long-term.”

  • Technology companies, like Facebook, Twitter and Google, certainly look like they are more comfortable asking for forgiveness as they run afoul of ethical customs, as opposed to leading with a fundamental view of how they safeguard one of their most important assets: our private data. Based on Friedman’s standards, they are doing exactly what they should do.

Build Trusting Teams

  • 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.

  • As King Louis XV of France said in 1757, “Après moi le dèluge.” “After me comes the flood.” In other words, the disaster that will follow after I’m gone will be your problem, not mine. A sentiment that seems to be shared by too many finite leaders today.

  • If the investor community followed Smith’s philosophies, they would be doing whatever they could to help the companies in which they invested make the best possible product, offer the best possible service and build the strongest possible company. It’s what’s good for the customer and the wealth of nations. And if shareholders really were the owners of the companies in which they invested, that is indeed how they would act. But in reality, they don’t act like owners at all. They act more like renters.

  • A healthier way for all shareholders to view themselves is as contributors, be they near-term or long-term focused. Whereas employees contribute time and energy, investors contribute capital (money). Both forms of contribution are valuable and necessary to help a company succeed, so both parties should be fairly rewarded for their contributions.

  • Saying a business exists for something bigger and actually building a business to do it are not the same thing. And only one of those strategies has any value in the Infinite Game.

  • Our current system of capitalism is so unbalanced, and those on the inside are well advised to make the necessary corrections themselves, for a failure to do so increases the chances of correction being forced upon them. For if the palace refuses to change from within, it increases the chances that the people will try to knock the whole thing down. Be they against government incompetence, corruption or lopsided economic models, this is what populist uprisings are so often about. Remember the American Revolution itself would have been avoided if Great Britain simply relaxed the economic restrictions it placed on the colonies, gave them greater representation in government and allowed them to share in more of the wealth they helped produce. That’s it. Where there is unbalance, there is unrest.

  • It is now self-evident that we need a new definition of the responsibility of business that better aligns with the idea that business is an infinite game. A definition that understands that money is a result and not a purpose. A definition that gives employees and the people who lead them the feeling that their work has value beyond the money they make for themselves, their companies or their shareholders.

  • In order to increase the infinite value to our nation, our economy and all the companies that play in the game, the definition of the responsibility of business must:

  • Advance a purpose: Offer people a sense of belonging and a feeling that their lives and their work have value beyond the physical work.

  • Protect people: Operate our companies in a way that protects the people who work for us, the people who buy from us and the environments in which we live and work.

  • Generate profit: Money is fuel for a business to remain viable so that it may continue to advance the first two priorities.

  • The responsibility of business is to use its will and resources to advance a cause greater than itself, protect 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.

  • The goals of a nation founded with an infinite mindset are also the people’s goals. A nation exists to serve and include ordinary people as it strives forward. This is what makes us feel emotionally connected to our country, why we feel patriotic. Translated into business terms, it means that a company’s goals must also align with people’s goals, not simply the goals of shareholders.

  • A better question to ask is, “How do I create an environment in which my people can work to their natural best?”

  • Too often, when performance lags, the first thing we do is blame the people. But in Noah’s case, he is the same person in both his jobs. The only difference is the leadership environment in which he is asked to work.

  • Leaders will work to create these environments when we train them how to prioritize their people over the results. And this is the true definition of what it means to lead.

  • When we talk about will, we’re talking about the feelings people have when they come to work. Will encompasses morale, motivation, inspiration, commitment, desire to engage, desire to offer discretionary effort and so on. Will generally comes from inside sources like the quality of leadership and the clarity and strength of the Just Cause. Will represents the sum of all the human elements that contribute to the health of the organization.

  • The problem is, will and resources can never be equally prioritized. There are always circumstances in which one is pitted against the other, times in which a leader must choose which one they are willing to sacrifice. The question is, which one will they choose? Every leader has a bias.

  • Most of us have sat in a meeting and listened to a leader present their priorities . . . and it often looks something like this:

    1. Growth.
    1. Our customers.
    1. Our people. Though that leader will insist that they do care about their people (“our people” is one of their priorities), the order in which they appear on the list matters.
  • The finite-minded leader tends to show a bias for the score. As a result, they often opt for choices that demonstrate results in a short time frame, even if doing so, “regrettably,” comes at a cost to the people.

  • Infinite-minded leaders, in contrast, work hard to look beyond the financial pressures of the current day and put people before profit as often as possible. In hard times, they are less likely to look at their people as just another expense to be cut and more willing to explore other ways to save money, even if the results may take longer to realize.

  • “Why invest in people who aren’t gonna stick around?” This is a one-dimensional and finite view of the way business works. Focusing on the money they can save by not investing in their people, too many finite-minded leaders overlook the additional costs they actually incur when they don’t. Hiring new people to fill the empty slots costs money. Losing experienced staff and waiting for people to get trained and adjust to a new culture all affect productivity. Add in the low morale in high-turnover jobs, and it makes one curious whether the money saved was actually worth it.

  • Costco, which pays their cashiers an average of $15.09 (in addition to offering a 401(k) and health insurance), has found that they make up for the additional cost because of reduced turnover and higher productivity. Plus, customers tend to enjoy better service when employees feel looked after, which likely translates into higher average sales.

  • Where finite-minded organizations view people as a cost to be managed, infinite-minded organizations prefer to see employees as human beings whose value cannot be calculated as if they were a piece of machinery. Investing in human beings goes beyond paying them well and offering them a great place to work. It also means treating them like human beings. Understanding that they, like all people, have ambitions and fears, ideas and opinions and ultimately want to feel like they matter.

  • Unlike resources, which are ultimately limited, we can generate an endless supply of will. For this reason, organizations that choose to operate with a bias for will are ultimately more resilient than those who prioritize resources. When hard times strike (and hard times always strike), in companies with a bias for will, the people are much more likely to rally together to protect each other, the company, the resources and their leaders. Not because they are told to, but because they choose to.

  • There is a difference between a group of people who work together and a group of people who trust each other. In a group of people who simply work together, relationships are mostly transactional, based on a mutual desire to get things done. This doesn’t preclude us from liking the people we work with or even enjoying our jobs. But those things do not add up to a Trusting Team. Trust is a feeling. Just as it is impossible for a leader to demand that we be happy or inspired, a leader cannot order us to trust them or each other. For the feeling of trust to develop, we have to feel safe expressing ourselves first. We have to feel safe being vulnerable. That’s right, vulnerable. Just reading the word makes some people squirm in their seats.

  • “Trust is the stacking and layering of small moments and reciprocal vulnerability over time,” says Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston in her book Dare to Lead. “Trust and vulnerability grow together, and to betray one is to destroy both.”

  • True trusting relationships require both parties to take a risk. Like dating or making friends, though one person has to take a first risk to trust, the other person has to reciprocate at some point if the relationship has any chance of succeeding. In an organization, it is the leader’s responsibility to take the first risk, to build a Circle of Safety. But then it is up to the employee to take a chance and step into the Circle of Safety. A leader cannot force anyone into the circle.

  • The most anxiety-inducing place to be is alone—where we feel we have to protect ourselves from the people on our own team. Real or perceived, when there is danger, we act from a place of fear rather than confidence. So just imagine how people act when they work in constant fear of missing out on a promotion, fear of getting in trouble, fear of being mocked, fear of not fitting in, fear of their boss thinking they’re an idiot, fear of finding themselves on a short list for the next round of layoffs.

  • Fear is such a powerful motivator that it can force us to act in ways that are completely counter to our own or our organization’s best interests. Fear can push us to choose the best finite option at the risk of doing infinite damage. And in the face of fear, we hide the truth.

  • To help them feel safe from humiliation, for example, he depersonalized the problems his executives faced. “You have a problem,” he would tell them. “You are not the problem.”

  • People will trust their leaders when their leaders do the things that make them feel psychologically safe. This means giving them discretion in how they do the jobs they’ve been trained to do.

  • Infinite games, remember, require infinite strategies. Because crime is an infinite game, the approach Chief Cauley’s officers are taking is much better suited to that game than an attack-and-conquer mindset. The goal is not to win in the overall scheme of things; the objective is to keep your will and resources strong while working to frustrate the will and exhaust the resources of the other players. Police can never “beat” crime. Instead, the police can make it more difficult for the criminals to be criminals.

  • In weak cultures, people find safety in the rules. This is why we get bureaucrats. They believe a strict adherence to the rules provides them with job security. And in the process, they do damage to the trust inside and outside the organization. In strong cultures, people find safety in relationships. Strong relationships are the foundation of high-performing teams. And all high-performing teams start with trust.

  • They know that good leaders sometimes suffer mission failure and bad leaders sometimes enjoy mission success. The ability to succeed is not what makes someone a leader. Exhibiting the qualities of leadership is what makes someone an effective leader. Qualities like honesty, integrity, courage, resiliency, perseverance, judgment and decisiveness, as the Marines have learned after years of trial and error, are more likely to engender the kind of trust and cooperation that, over the course of time, increase the likelihood that a team will succeed more often than it fails. A bias for will before resources, trust before performance, increases the probability a team will perform at higher levels over time.

  • It’s a phrase I will repeat again in this book: leaders are not responsible for the results, leaders are responsible for the people who are responsible for the results. And the best way to drive performance in an organization is to create an environment in which information can flow freely, mistakes can be highlighted and help can be offered and received.

  • When leaders are willing to prioritize trust over performance, performance almost always follows. However, when leaders have laser-focus on performance above all else, the culture inevitably suffers.

  • 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. Ethical fading often starts with small, seemingly innocuous transgressions that, when left unchecked, continue to grow and compound. While ethical lapses can happen anywhere, organizations run with a finite mindset are especially susceptible to ethical fading. As discussed in the previous chapters, cultures that place excessive focus on quarterly or annual financial performance can put intense pressure on people to cut corners, bend rules and make other questionable decisions in order to hit the targets set for them. Unfortunately, those who behaved dubiously but hit their targets are rewarded, which sends a clear message about the organization’s priorities. Indeed, the reward systems in these organizations work to incentivize such behaviors.

  • Remember, ethical fading is about self-delusion. Anyone, regardless of their personal moral compass, can succumb to it. The leaders we point out and vilify for running their businesses unethically and then accepting a handsome reward for doing so don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. And if you don’t think you are doing anything wrong, what incentive do you have to do things differently?

  • When problems arise, performance lags, mistakes are made or unethical decisions are uncovered, Lazy Leadership chooses to put their efforts into building processes to fix the problems rather than building support for their people. After all, process is objective and reliable. It’s easier to trust a process than to trust people. Or so we think. In reality, “process will always tell us what we want to hear,” Dr. Wong points out. “[Process] gives us a green light,” he continues, “but it may not be telling us the truth.” When leaders use process to replace judgment, the conditions for ethical fading persist . . . even in cultures that hold themselves to higher moral and ethical standards.

  • “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession,” Dr. Wong and his research partner Dr. Stephen Gerras, both retired army officers who now work at U.S Army War College, discovered systemic ethical fading as a result of excessive process, procedure or demands placed on soldiers. Some of the things leadership was asking of their soldiers weren’t unreasonable—they were impossible. Soldiers were required, for example, to complete more days of training than were available in the calendar.

  • And because the punishment for being honest is sometimes greater than for lying, soldiers are put in a position in which they feel they have to lie or cheat in order to meet the requirements placed upon them. It’s a Catch-22. The result is that it has become commonplace for soldiers to find creative ways to complete their requirements while feeling that their high moral standards remain uncompromised.

  • Rather than seeing their actions as cheating or lying, many soldiers saw it simply as “checking the boxes,” “part of the bureaucratic process” or just doing what “leadership wanted them to do.” Some didn’t see their actions as unethical at all because they viewed the demands as so trivial that they existed outside of any standard of integrity or honesty, like me and my time sheets. It’s like telling someone we have to cancel plans because of a “family issue” when in reality there is no family issue; we just want to get out of the plans without hurting someone’s feelings. And though we told a lie, because it’s just a little “harmless” white lie, we still believe ourselves to be honest.

  • There’s a great irony in all this. When we apply finite-minded solutions to address an ethical fading problem that finite-minded thinking created, we get more ethical fading. When we use process and structure to fix cultural problems what we often get is more lying and cheating. Little lies become bigger lies. And the behavior becomes normalized.

  • We act ethically because we don’t want to do anything that would do damage to the advancement of the Just Cause. When we feel a part of a Trusting Team, we don’t want to let down our teammates. We feel accountable to our team and the reputation of the organization, not just to ourselves and our personal ambitions. When we feel part of a group that cares about us, we want to do right by that group and make our leaders proud. Our standards naturally rise.

  • As I’ve said before, leaders are not, by definition, responsible for the results. Leaders are responsible for the people who are responsible for the results. It’s a job that requires constant attention because when little things compound, things eventually break.

  • Operating with a bias toward resources before will, the leaders willingly adjust their cultures to meet their priorities. At Patagonia, like any other infinite-minded organization, they turn to their Just Cause to help set their priorities and the behavior follows accordingly. It’s not just about how much money they can make this year. “We plan to be here in the next one hundred years, so we think about long-term results,” says Dean Carter, vice president of Human Resources and Shared Services at the company.

  • Ethical decisions are not based on what’s best for the short-term. They are based on the “right thing to do.” Whereas short-termism at the expense of ethics slowly weakens a company, “doing the right” thing slowly strengthens it.

Prepare for Existential Flexibility

  • If we are a player in an infinite game, however, we have to stop thinking of other players as competitors to be beaten and start thinking of them as Worthy Rivals who can help us become better players.

  • From the mid-1970s into the 1980s, Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova were two of the dominant players in women’s tennis. Though they were competitors when they met on the court, each driven to win, it was the respect they had for each other that helped both of them become better tennis players. “I appreciate what she did for me as a rival, to lift my game,” Lloyd said once, speaking fondly of Navratilova. “And I think she appreciated what I did for her.” It was because of Navratilova, for example, that Evert had to change the way she played. She could no longer rely on spending time on the baseline. She had to learn to become a more aggressive player. This is what a Worthy Rival does for us. They push us in a way that few others can. Not even our coach. And in the case of Evert and Navratilova, it elevated their own games and the game of tennis.

  • An infinite mindset embraces abundance whereas a finite mindset operates with a scarcity mentality. In the Infinite Game we accept that “being the best” is a fool’s errand and that multiple players can do well at the same time.

  • Cause Blindness is when we become so wrapped up in our Cause or so wrapped up in the “wrongness” of the other player’s Cause, that we fail to recognize their strengths or our weaknesses. We falsely believe that they are unworthy of comparison simply because we disagree with them, don’t like them or find them morally repugnant. We are unable to see where they are in fact effective or better than we are at what we do and that we can actually learn from them. Cause Blindness blunts humility and exaggerates arrogance, which in turn stunts innovation and reduces the flexibility we need to play the long game.

  • After the Soviet Union left the game, America suffered a sort of Cause Blindness and believed itself to be unrivaled. And so, it acted accordingly. It acted like a victor. Even if well intentioned, it started to impose its will on the world, unchecked, for about 11 years. It anointed itself the world’s police force, sending troops to the former Yugoslavia, for example, and imposing no-fly zones over sovereign nations. Things that would have been much harder, if not impossible, to do if the Soviet Union were still around. Without identifying our Worthy Rivals, strong players start to falsely believe they can control the direction of the game or the other players. But that’s impossible. The Infinite Game is like a stock market; companies list and delist but no one can control the market.

  • 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. It is an infinite-minded player’s appreciation for the unpredictable that allows them to make these kinds of changes.

  • Without that sense of infinite vision, strategic shifts, even extreme ones, tend to be reactive or opportunistic. Existential Flexibility is always offensive. It is not to be confused with the defensive maneuvering many companies undergo to stay alive in the face of new technology or changing consumer habits.

  • To all the finite-minded observers, it is existential because the leader is risking the apparent certainty of the current, profitable path with the uncertainty of a new path—which could lead to the company’s decline or even demise. To the finite-minded player, such a move is not worth the risk. To infinite-minded players, however, staying on the current path is the bigger risk. They embrace the uncertainty. Failure to flex, they believe, will significantly restrict their ability to advance the Cause.

  • Abandoning that work to ostensibly build a new product from scratch would add significant strain on the company. According to Apple folklore, the executive went on to say: “Steve, if we invest in this, we will blow up our own company.” To which Jobs replied, “Better we should blow it up than someone else.”

Demonstrate the Courage to Lead

  • The Courage to Lead is a willingness to take risks for the good of an unknown future.

  • So how are we to find the courage to change our mindset? We can wait for a life-altering experience that shakes us to our core and challenges the way we see the world. Or we can find a Just Cause that inspires us; surround ourselves with others with whom we share common cause, people we trust and who trust us; identify a Rival worthy of comparison that will push us to constantly improve; and remind ourselves that we are more committed to the Cause than to any particular path or strategy we happen to be following right now.

  • However, trust is not built by pressure or force, trust is built by acting in a way consistent with one’s values, especially when it’s least expected. Trust is built when we do the right thing, especially when we aren’t forced to.

  • In my life, the only common factor in all my failed relationships is me. The common factor in all the struggles and setbacks that finite leaders face is their own finite thinking.

  • Like children who mirror their parents, so too do employees mirror their leaders.

  • To live a life with an infinite mindset means thinking about second and third order effects of our decisions. It means thinking about who we vote for with a different lens. It means taking responsibility for later impact of the decisions we make today.

  • And like all infinite games, in the game of life, the goal is not to win, it is to perpetuate the game. To live a life of service.