It’s How You Play the Game

Photo by Gonzalo Kenny on Unsplash


In the The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek outlines the stark contrast between the short-term focused thinking that has become such a large part of our enterprises and the seemingly rare, long-term focus that is found within certain endeavors where we feel we are “…contributing to something bigger than ourselves, something with value that would last well beyond our own lifetimes.”

In a Finite Game like the one where my team, Liverpool Football Club, tried in vain to beat the defending English Premier League Champions, Manchester City, last week, after the 90 minutes, along with a bit of injury time, are up, that’s it. Whatever the score is, it is all over. In this case, there was not a winner (since it was a 2-2 draw), but the game is over.

Infinite Games, as Sinek clarifies, “…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….The manner in which each player chooses to play is entirely up to them. 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.”


Infinite Games Are the Important Games of Our Lives

Infinite Games are really what we mostly grapple with in life. As Sinek points out, ”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. We can beat out other candidates for a job or promotion, but no one is ever crowned the winner of careers….No matter how successful we are in life, when we die, none of us will be declared the winner of life. And there is certainly no such thing as winning business. All these things are journeys….”

So then, why do we humans consistently confuse ourselves and try to play in Infinite Games with a Finite Game mindset? Perhaps a more productive question for those who seem to insist on applying a finite mindset to every situation: do we understand the true cost of this mistake? Sinek illustrates this cost in a section of Infinite Games entitled a “Tale of Two Players.” This is a story that may be familiar to many readers:

Some years ago, I spoke at an education summit for Microsoft. A few months later, I spoke at an education summit for Apple. At the Microsoft event, the majority of the presenters devoted a good portion of their presentations to talking about how they were going to beat Apple. At the Apple event, 100 percent of the presenters spent 100 percent of their time talking about how Apple was trying to help teachers teach and help students learn. One group seemed obsessed with beating their competition. The other group seemed obsessed with advancing a cause. After my talk at Microsoft, they gave me a gift—the new Zune (when it was still a thing). This was Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s iPod, the dominant player in the MP3-player market at the time. After my talk at the Apple event, I shared a taxi back to the hotel with a senior Apple executive….I couldn’t help myself. I had to stir the pot a little. So I turned to him and said, ‘You know . . . I spoke at Microsoft and they gave me their new Zune, and I have to tell you, it is SO MUCH BETTER than your iPod touch.’ The executive looked at me, smiled, and replied, ‘I have no doubt.’ And that was it. The conversation was over.


Sometime later, it begins to sink in for Sinek what exactly was at play during his impromptu conversation with the Apple executive:

It’s easy now to see why the Apple executive with whom I shared a cab could be so nonchalant about Microsoft’s well-designed Zune. He understood that, in the Infinite Game of business, sometimes Apple would have the better product, sometimes another company would have the better product….(Apple) was looking ahead to what would come after the iPod. Apple’s infinite mindset helped them think, not outside the box, but beyond it. About a year after the Zune was first introduced, Apple released the first iPhone. The iPhone redefined the entire category of smartphones and rendered both the Zune and the iPod virtually obsolete….(Apple’s) infinite perspective…opened a path for them to innovate in ways that companies with more finite-minded leadership simply could not.


In an Infinite Game, we are looking to achieve something that is perhaps never achievable; something seemingly beyond us. For those who truly understand this approach, it is all very clear what we — the entire organization — are trying to achieve together. The challenge is to avoid getting lost in the Finite Games — for example when a Wall Street analyst (More on those Wall Street types later) derides and undermines leadership because of a single quarterly result — that can derail the Infinite Game.


A Just Cause — It’s How You Play the Game

What’s a Just Cause from an organizational point of view?

In addressing this question, Sinek relates the story of “Howard’s Little League team.” It may have been the worst team in the league, but at the end of each game, Howard’s coach “would say to the players, ‘It doesn’t matter who wins or loses, what matters is how we played the game.’ At which point…Howard would raise his hand and ask the coach, ‘Then why do we keep score?’”:

The motivation to play in an infinite game is completely different—the goal is not to win, but to keep playing. It is to advance something bigger than ourselves or our organizations. And any leader who wishes to lead in the Infinite Game must have a crystal clear 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.


A Just Cause provides that reason to get up in the morning and come to work. It gives us something that is bigger and more meaningful than a Finite Game win. As Sinek puts it: “In an organization that is only driven by the finite, we may like our jobs some days, but we will likely never love our jobs.” In contrast, when you work for an organization with a Just Cause, you may only like your job on certain days, but you will always love your job.


The Courage to Lead a Just Cause

Perhaps the biggest challenge that embracing the Infinite Game mindset embodies is the societal pressure that Finite Game mindsets continually place on leaders. It really does take a strong leader to cope with these pressures and continue on the right path, leading the Infinite Game. Sinek relates yet another impactful, and — in this case — a highly symbolic story about what this pressure can look like:

In 1973, two Princeton University psychology professors, John M. Darley and C. Daniel Batson, conducted an experiment to better understand how situational variables can affect our ethics, specifically, how pressure impacts our will to help someone in distress. They asked a group of seminary students to travel across campus to give a talk about the story of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan is a parable from the New Testament in which a Samaritan, traveling from Jericho to Jerusalem, is the only person to stop to help a man who had been beaten, robbed and left on the side of the road. To recreate the scene, the professors hired an actor to lie in an alley, slumped over like he had been mugged or hurt in some way. The students would have to pass him as they made their way across campus. Each time the experiment was conducted with a different group of students, the professors added a little bit of pressure to see how it would affect the students’ behavior….When there was low pressure, 63 percent of the students stopped to help the injured man. With medium pressure, 45 percent stopped to lend assistance. And under high pressure, only 10 percent of the students stopped to help someone in apparent distress. Some even stepped right over him. The conclusion was stark. The students were good people who cared about service. They were all studying to be priests, for heaven’s sake. However, when pressure was placed upon them… their will to do the right thing gave way to demands placed upon them.


As the above story illustrates, even a leader with a high degree of Servant Leadership (See the GlobeBlog Post The Servant Leader), as undoubtedly a group of seminary students would possess, can be so pressurized by finite considerations that they can completely lose their perspective. This shows how internally strong and courageous a leader must be to continue with an Infinite Game approach.

The good news is that the benefits of maintaining this Infinite mindset and remaining aligned to a Just Cause are often very apparent. In February 2014, when CVS Caremark announced that they would stop selling tobacco-related products, it was a decision that (according to Sinek) “would cost the company $2 billion per year in lost revenue.” There wasn’t a scandal nor a cover-up of a scandal that drove this decision.

The decision was met with overwhelming public support. Of course Wall Street and certain of its pundits were not as pleased. According to Sinek, “one Illinois-based sales and marketing consultant pointed out that the decision translated into seven hundred packs of cigarettes a week per store that would now be sold by some other retailer, adding that ‘retailers know that winning the adult tobacco consumer generates incremental sales from ancillary purchases during the same visit.’”

What happened next is predictable only be those who truly understand the nature of the Infinite Game. As related by Sinek:

The total sale of cigarettes actually decreased. An independent study commissioned by CVS to see the impact of their decision showed that overall cigarette sales dropped by 1 percent across all retailers in the states where CVS had a 15 percent market share or greater. In those states, the average smoker bought five fewer packs of cigarettes, which totaled 95 million fewer packs sold over an eight-month period. On the other hand, the number of nicotine patches sold increased by 4 percent in the period immediately after CVS stopped selling cigarettes, indicating that CVS’s decision actually encouraged smokers to quit. As for the lost revenue, other purpose-driven companies who previously refused to do business with CVS also took notice. Companies like Irwin Naturals and New Chapter vitamins and supplements, whose products are available at Whole Foods and other specialty health stores, finally agreed to allow CVS to carry their products, too. A move that allowed CVS to offer a greater selection of high-quality brands to their customers and open new sources of income. When a company with the stated Cause of helping people live healthier lives made a courageous decision to deliver on that purpose, not only did it help make Americans a little healthier, but it also had a positive impact on overall sales at their pharmacies.…. Indeed…CVS’s stock price did fall 1 percent the day after the announcement, from $66.11 to $65.44 per share. Only to recover the very next day. A year and a half after the announcement and eight months after the plan was implemented, the stock hit $113.65 per share, double what it had been before the announcement—and a record high for the company.


Well, it’s a great story isn’t it? But it also depicts how much is required to lead an Infinite Game for an organization. The good news is that, although this kind of leadership can be very difficult, at times, it is not required (or even suggested) that Infinite Game leaders go it alone. As Sinek, points out:

In every case I wrote about to demonstrate the Courage to Lead, the hard decisions were not made by great women and great men. They are done by great partnerships. Great teams. Great people who stood together with deep trust and common cause. Like a world-famous trapeze artist would never attempt a brand-new death-defying act for the first time without a net, neither can we find the courage to lead without the help of others. Those who believe what we believe are our net. Courageous Leaders are strong because they know they don’t have all the answers and they don’t have total control. They do, however, have each other and a Just Cause to guide them….The Courage to Lead begets the Courage to Lead.



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