For organisations ranging from Disney to the United Nations, Simon Sinek is the go-to guru for insights on how to inspire trust, co-operation and positive change. In an exclusive interview, the author of bestseller Start With Why urges business leaders to ditch short-termism and start playing ‘the infinite game’
In September 2009, a then-unknown Simon Sinek went in front of a modest audience at a TEDx conference on the outskirts of Seattle to speak about the power of purpose in business. That talk has since clocked up more than 45 million online views.
Over the past decade, Sinek’s incisive assessments of everything from the value of trust to the problems facing millennials have earned him an avid following in the business world. Indeed, when Director interviewed all winners of the IoD Director of the Year Awards last year, more than a third of them cited him as an inspirational figure.
At the time of his meeting with Director, the author of bestsellers Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last is poised to launch The Infinite Game. Sinek’s latest treatise expounds on his observation that business leaders too often focus on arbitrary, short-term targets. In this exclusive interview, he draws on game theory to explain why leaders need to adopt an “infinite mindset” – and, crucially, how to do it – if their ventures are to continue thriving long after they have gone.
What inspired you to apply game theory to your take on leadership?
There’s a way in which business is conducted today that makes me and many others feel uncomfortable – namely: the way leaders act, their priorities and how they treat their people. I’d become tired of people in positions of power telling me that I was naive or that I didn’t understand how business works whenever I said that something needed to change. And then I discovered Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse, an emeritus professor at New York University. The ideas that this book introduced explained my discomfort.
What are finite and infinite games?
A finite game is one in which there are known players, fixed rules and agreed objectives – the main one being to win. Take football: we know who the players are; we all agree on its laws; and there’s always a beginning, middle and end. With an infinite game, some of the players are unknown, the rules are unfixed and the main objective is to perpetuate the game in order to keep playing it for as long as possible.
There is no such thing as winning an infinite game, since it has no end. It occurred to me that business meets the criteria of an infinite game.
So business is a no-win game?
That’s right. You can’t win in business. You won’t always know who your competitors are – anyone can join the market at any time and they can all do business in whatever way they want. Yet, if you listen to the language of so many leaders, they talk about “‘beating the competition”, which is impossible when the game is infinite. So it turns out that the people who were saying that I was naive are the ones who are naive. It turns out that the world isn’t flat, despite what we’ve been told.
Why do many business leaders have the finite mindset that you describe?
The fragility of their egos plays into it – humans like to win. But also the balance of business philosophy has tipped too far in the wrong direction over the past 30 or 40 years. In the 1970s the influential economist Milton Friedman theorised that the responsibility of business was to maximise profit [by any means necessary] within the bounds of the law. When you think about it, that’s a very low standard. What about ethics? Then we started to see decisions that over-indexed profit above all – for instance, the use of mass redundancies to cut costs. That was unheard of before the 1980s. Now it’s standard – someone is laid off because their company missed an arbitrary revenue target. Taking that person’s livelihood away because we didn’t make as much money as we wanted is insane. To say that the responsibility of business is to maximise profit is to misunderstand the value of business.
What are the main risks of finite-minded leadership?
Business leaders who prioritise winning above all else are focused on achieving near-term results. When this happens, they instinctively respond to known factors instead of exploring unknown possibilities. In some cases, leaders are so absorbed in what their competition is doing that they’re blind to opportunities to strengthen their organisations. Reducing investment in R&D, growing through acquisition and extreme cost-cutting are all favoured options. As a result, businesses see a decline in innovation, co-operation and trust over time. Today the average lifespan of an S&P 500 company is under 18 years, compared with 61 years in the 1950s. Although there are many reasons for this decline, we have to acknowledge that too many leaders are building companies that aren’t made to last.
So what is the responsibility of business?
One of the practices of infinite-minded leadership is advancing a just cause…
The full interview with Simon Sinek can be read exclusively by IoD members in the October-November 2019 issue of Director magazine
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