Are You Playing with an Infinite Mindset?

February 03, 2020

Case categories include: Founder’s Insights   Leadership   Strategy & Planning   

As a student of leadership, I greatly enjoyed Simon Sinek’s breakthrough book, Start With Why, which discusses the value of starting with a purpose in both our business and personal lives. Therefore, I was eager to read his newest book, The Infinite Game, and it didn’t disappoint.

Sinek expands on the work of James Carse, who communicated the difference between the strategies used to play infinite games and finite games. Finite games, such as football and chess, have known players, defined rules and result in clear winners and losers. Infinite games are commonly found in areas such as business, politics and life itself. Although we can debate who may be healthier, happier or wealthier, no one can claim to be the absolute winner in life.

I’ve had the privilege to get to know thousands of CEOs and, although some are more competitive than others, I’ve never met a leader who lacked a competitive streak. Even CEOs who don’t need to win at everything compete with themselves to constantly improve. And it’s only human to take pleasure after beating your toughest competitor for a critical deal.

Building successful organizations requires winning many battles along the way, and Sinek believes the critical difference is in the leader’s mind. In business, Sinek states that leaders who embrace “infinite mindsets” build stronger organizations, while those who lead with “finite mindsets” focus on achieving short-term goals such as market share or growth targets. Leaders with infinite mindsets don’t focus on beating specific competitors. Instead they focus on achieving their long-term visions and may even view direct competitors as potential partners who share the same vision.

In 1981, when IBM launched the IBM PC to challenge Apple to see who would dominate the growing personal computer market, Apple responded with a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal titled “Welcome, IBM. Seriously.” The ad said Apple “looked forward to responsible competition in the massive effort to distribute this American technology to the world … what we are doing is increasing social capital by enhancing individual productivity. Welcome to the task.

It so happened that IBM gained the dominant market share, but Apple had a vision to enable people to express their individuality. IBM eventually sold their PC business when it became commoditized, while Apple has continued to build the most profitable company in the world.
Great leaders are able to communicate a clear and compelling vision that inspires others to join their cause and go over and above all expectations. Sinek describes this as a “just cause,” which is a very specific vision of a future state that does not yet exist. A just cause is not simply to be the best. It must be:

  • For Something – affirmative and optimistic
  • Inclusive – open to all 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

Sinek’s desire to persuade more leaders to communicate a just cause and embrace an infinite mindset is inspiring. However, not all businesses actually have a just cause that fits Sinek’s definition, and that’s okay. Leaders should not feel obligated to play the infinite game in each and every business they lead. We owe a ton of gratitude to all entrepreneurs who create companies that simply provide products and services that customers value, and jobs that provide stable incomes for their employees.

Organizations of all sizes can have a just cause. However, CEOs of larger organizations with financial investors (public shareholders, private equity or venture capital) will typically feel much more pressure to achieve certain finite goals that can be easily measured, such as quarterly earnings or market share gains. Sinek makes the case that great CEOs who lead companies with an infinite mindset will often face challenges to the authenticity of their just cause, which require courage to address.

Examples of organizations that have a just cause are all around us. In 2014, physicians and hospitals were asking the CEO of CVS Caremark why they continued to sell cigarettes when their just cause was to “Help people on their path to better health.” Although there was no public pressure to do so, the CEO decided to take a $2 billion revenue hit by removing cigarettes from all stores. If they were playing a finite game, they would never have considered such a move. They took a beating from Wall Street analysts and their stock dropped. However, their customers appreciated the move as a demonstration of their commitment to their health and, during the next 18 months, their stock doubled. Even better, studies showed many CVS customers were finally able to stop smoking.

The world is changing at exponential rates and, as a result, the competition for talent, customers and investors is more intense than ever. Competitors are now global, and new entrants can appear at any time and from any place. So that others may feel they can make a meaningful difference in this dynamic new world, leaders must be able to communicate the opportunity of joining them in their cause.

If this is true for you, there is no better time to cultivate an infinite mindset than now.