I’ve long been a fan of Simon Sinek’s work. His leadership frameworks and concepts are simple and compelling to understand, and what’s more, he communicates them in a way that is accessible, engaging and inspiring. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise given his purpose (his why) is to “inspire people to do the things that inspire them so that, together, each of us can change our world for the better”.

When I heard Sinek was coming to Sydney earlier this year, I jumped on tickets. Alas, like so many other events, this one was pushed back from March to November and inevitably pivoted to a virtual environment. Nonetheless, I was enthralled to spend two mornings last month hearing directly from the man himself.

Today’s most pressing leadership issues

As we waited for the event to start, a poll popped up on the screen asking attendees to reveal, in just one word, their most pressing leadership issue right now. It was eye-opening to watch the word cloud evolve as people across Australia, NZ, Canada and the USA entered their answers.

Unsurprisingly Covid-19 made an appearance, but it was perhaps not as prevalent as you might expect. Rather, the most common answers reflected the impact Covid has had on organisations and the aftermath leaders and employees alike are now battling with.

With 1,225 responses in, the top 5 response were:

  • Trust
  • Engagement
  • Culture
  • Resilience
  • Change

The poll set the scene perfectly for Sinek to explain why leaders should focus on playing an Infinite Game, the title of his latest book, and provide an overview of his latest leadership framework.

What is an Infinite Game?

In finite games like football or chess, the players are known, the rules are fixed, and the endpoint is clear. The winners and losers are easily identified.

In infinite games, like business or politics or even life itself, the players come and go, the rules are changeable, and there is no defined endpoint. There are no winners or losers in an infinite game; there is only ahead and behind.

Sinek believes that many of the struggles organisations and teams face exist because their leaders are playing with a finite mindset in an infinite game. This results in them lagging behind in innovation, discretionary effort, morale and ultimately performance.

The leaders who embrace an infinite mindset – Sinek gives the examples of Disney, Walmart, Airbnb and Southwest Airlines – build stronger, more innovative, more inspiring organisations. Their people trust each other and their leaders. They have the resilience to thrive in an ever-changing world…and if 2020 has taught us anything it’s that global change can happen in a near-instant, requiring us to be more resilient than we might ever have thought.

1 leadership framework; 5 leadership concepts

On the first morning, Sinek took us through his leadership framework for playing an infinite game. It involves five key concepts, though he’s quick to point out that you’ll never be able to focus on all five at once, 100 per cent of the time. In fact, over the course of the event, he explains that leadership is a pursuit, much like parenting or a healthy lifestyle. It’s something you strive to be good at. Some days you are ahead, other days you fall behind, but every day you keep moving forward in your pursuit because you’re committed to the cause. And that’s why having a cause is the first of the five leadership concepts.

    1. Follow a Just Cause: As a leader, you have to have a specific vision of a desirable future state that does not yet exist. This should be at the core of everything you do, the lens through which you make decisions. A leader is like the Chief Vision Officer or CVO.
    2. Build a Trusting Team: Leaders are no longer responsible for doing the work that drives the results. Now you are responsible for the people who are responsible for doing the work that drives the results. You need to create an environment in which those people can thrive – a place where they feel safe and secure to express themselves and work at their natural best.
    3. Find a Worthy Rival: The only competitor in an infinite game is yourself but every company (and every leader) should have at least one ‘worthy rival’ – an individual, team or organisation that does at least one thing better than you. You don’t necessarily like or agree with them, but you do respect them. Instead of trying to beat the competition at a game where there are no winners or losers, focus on studying a worthy rival – they can help identify your weaknesses so you can learn and grow.
    4. Have the Capacity to be Existentially Flexibility: A reminder not be too rigid and stuck in your ways. Be open to changing your strategy or approach if it advances your just cause, even if it means short term pain. Of course, you can’t achieve this if you don’t follow a just cause or have a trusting team!
    5. Have the Courage to Lead: Leadership, like parenting, is often a thankless task. It’s hard! It takes courage and vulnerability. Sometimes you’ll have an ahead day; sometimes you’ll have a behind day. But you keep taking steps forward, no matter how small, to help advance your Just Cause (vision) because you truly believe in it. You’re the leader because you went first, you led the way and others followed. Courage comes from the strength and quality of our relationships; from knowing that someone believes in you and has your back, even if things go wrong.
Which leadership concept will you apply?

At the start of the second day, a second poll popped up on the screen. This time it asked attendees which of the five leadership concepts in The Infinite Game they will apply immediately. Echoing the sentiment of the first poll, the unwavering response was to build trusting teams.

In today’s increasingly distrustful world, the leader that pours their focus and efforts into understanding where trust has broken down in their team, why it has broken down, how to solve the root cause (not just apply a band-aid), and how to harness the ingredients of trust, they will be the leaders who connect with and unite their teams. And when a trusting team is united behind a common cause, their potential and the possibilities they can pursue are endless……or should I say infinite?