GLWS at the WGS: Part four

by | Mar 13, 2019 | Business

We’re bringing you part four of our series from the World Government Summit (WGS) in Dubai – a global gathering of world leaders from public, private and global organisations from over 150 countries.

Today, our detailed breakdown of a fascinating talk from Simon Sinek – author and leadership expert.

Simon spoke about finite vs. infinite games – and the leaders and companies that are in it for short-term gain vs. those that are in it for the long haul. He also spoke about what leadership means in 2019, and what we need to do to cultivate a new generation of thoughtful, human leaders.


Notes from Simon Sinek’s presentation at the WGS: How to live an ‘infinite’ life

In the Vietnam War in 1968, just as US troops were thinking the war was almost won, they were hit with a couple of surprise attacks.

Hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese troops hit a number of American targets. The momentum of the war immediately turned. America couldn’t stay in the game, so they dropped out.

How do you win all the battles yet lose the war?

Stories like this one challenge our concepts of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’. This is because of the lens we view games and competitions through. They fall into two categories:

  • Finite games – fixed rules with a clear winner at the end. You play to win.
  • Infinite games – known and unknown players, changeable rules, and the goal is simply to keep the game alive. You play to stay in the game.

When everyone’s playing an infinite game, it’s stable.

Same when everyone’s playing a finite game.

But problems arise when we pit finite against infinite. The North Vietnamese were playing a game that had no end. The US troops were counting the days until they could go home—and their government was under pressure to get out of there. They were playing a finite game against an infinite opponent.


The finite and infinite battles of leaders

Simon’s argument was that there is no such thing as winning politics, winning businesses or winning governance. According to him, it’s nonsense. When we play with a finite mindset in an infinite game then cooperation, innovation, resources, and ultimately the ‘will to play’ run out.

As an example, Simon compared Apple and Microsoft recent summits:

At the Apple summit, leaders talked about how to go forward. They shared their visions and discussed the best ways to help teachers teach and help students learn.

At the Microsoft summit, leaders (allegedly) spoke mostly about how to beat Apple. If that’s true, then they were playing a finite game against an infinite opponent.

In business, the goal is not to ‘win’ but to outlast; the only true competitor is ourselves, and the only true measure of success to improve ourselves.

If too many leaders are leading with a finite mindset, we have to change the way we lead, so that we’re actually playing the right game.


Leading with an infinite mindset requires

Sinek is compelling in his articulation of the attributes of an infinite mindset. As he rattled through them, I found myself wondering (of course) about the link with wellbeing and how difficult it must be for some leaders with lower wellbeing to stand a chance of upholding the infinite outlook.

Here’s what I was thinking:

  • A just cause. A vision of the world that does not yet exist. Steve Jobs believed in individual power, and the creative and young were drawn to the idea of standing up to Big Brother. This goes to the heart of the GLWS ‘Meaning, Purpose & Direction’; those who feel their role affords scant opportunity to do something valuable, important and purposeful must feel they are fighting without a cause.
  • Trust in your team. Create an environment where people can say they are unsure, have made a mistake or need more help without fear—of humiliation or reduction of perceived value. In GLWS language this is about ‘Authentic Relationships’ and specifically the absence of damaging or toxic relationships and politics, and of feeling there is reciprocal trust and respect.
  • A worthy rival. Despite what you’ve just read, worthy rivals remind you of your weaknesses, and can push you to become a better version of yourself. From a wellbeing perspective one of the most significant differentiators we see is those people who feel driven to conform to others’ ideals of perfection and success, versus those who are focused on striving to expand and challenge themselves for personal growth and fulfillment.
  • Existential flexibility. The ability to make a profoundly different strategic shift because you find a better way to advance your cause. Be willing to blow up your own company. Don’t be like Kodak and resist change. To do this requires great ‘Resilience & Equanimity’, nerves of steel, a strong heart and a steadiness of mind and emotion.
  • The courage and capacity to lead. Long-term leaders are working for the greater good. Short-term leaders are working for ‘what’s good for me’. It takes tremendous courage to lead in a way that is different. In GLWS terms, one of the most frequently ‘pinged’ questions is the ‘I doubt myself more than I probably should at work’. Whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing and can be associated with humility and credible vulnerability, where it’s extreme the associated insecurity can limit people’s courage and lead them to take the ‘playing it safe’ action that makes them ‘look good’ in the short term rather than being a true leader.

Leadership is hard. It’s an imperfect mix of science and heart; juggling egos and other human beings.

Leaders need to provide meaning to the work and clear a path for their teams. They need to ensure their teams have what they need and then stay out of their way. It takes humility and it takes well, stable, secure, inspired and confident leaders.


How to play the infinite game

There are two keys to playing the infinite game:

  • Break the infinite game down into a series of finite ones – the markers and milestones, progress reports and steps along the way towards the vision. Finite games allow us to measure and see progress towards the cause.
  • Don’t take any result as final – don’t take a bad result as the end, but also don’t believe good results are the end—it’s an infinite and evolving game. Every great leader has had tremendous adversity and failure on their journey.

Going against the status quo to drive evolution

Good leaders can bring their organisations forward in huge leaps (Jobs at Apple, for example). But how do they actually do it? Especially when they have to bring their people with them?

The answer is that it’s all about selling the vision.

As Simon explained, people don’t fear change. People fear sudden change. As in, revolution. Change as an evolution is subtly different.

When there is stability, evolutionary change is a good thing so long as there is purpose and cause. Visionary leaders paint a picture of the future so vividly the details are clear, in visual terms. It’s a vision because we have to be able to see it. Visionary leaders speak in the present tense – they think of the future so clearly it might as well be here now; and we feel we can commit ourselves to this noble cause.

The best leaders ensure the right balance between shared values and shared cause without surrounding themselves with ‘yes men’.

To this point, Simon advised leaders to allow subcultures to flourish and feel like they’re where they belong most.

Simon likened the infinite mindset with diet and exercise. You go to the gym, you eat healthy. You don’t see a result straight away, but you stick with the process because you know that long-term healthy habits are better than short-term intensity. It’s lots and lots of little things that over the course of time pays dividends. An infinite lifestyle is not an event. Like exercise, it works 100% if you keep it up.

Leadership is a lifestyle.

Be well,

Audrey (& Karen)

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