Bestselling author, Simon Sinek
Credit: Simon Sinek
Simon Sinek is a leadership expert and author of multiple best-sellers including “Leader Eat Last,” “Start with Why,” and most recently, “The Infinite Game.” He is also famous for his 2009 TED Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” which remains the third most watched TED Talk of all time with nearly 50 million views. Sinek’s writing focuses on how leaders can inspire cooperation, trust and change. He has been fascinated with how leaders and organizations can change the world and continues to write on patterns of thinking, acting and communicating in the most successful ways. As Sinek notes in this interview, he does not have much of a career plan, however. He notes that he did not really play to write his latest book. The idea came to him after reading a book by James Carse, and it led him to get his band of researchers and others back together.
In this interview, Sinek talks at length about his book The Infinite Game, explaining what the difference is between finite and infinite games and what factors are most key in the latter. He warns about the dangers of playing infinite games with a finite mindset, which hurts trust, cooperation and innovation. Sinek also shares that there is no such thing as a natural-born leader, as well as the importance of having empathy in leadership.
(To listen to an unabridged podcast version of this interview, please click this link. This is the 42nd interview in the Tech Influencers series. To listen to past interviews with the likes of bestselling author Michael Lewis, Reid Hoffman, former Mexican President Vicente Fox, Steve Case, Craig Newmark, Stewart Butterfield, and Meg Whitman, please visit this link. To read future articles in this series, please follow me on on Twitter @PeterAHigh.)
Peter High: You are the author of many bestselling books, most recently The Infinite Game. You draw the distinction of finite versus infinite games. Could you elaborate on the contrast between the two and some of the learnings you have from that?
Simon Sinek: My view of how the world works, especially the business world, shifted when I discovered James Carse’s work. James Carse is a philosopher, and he wrote a book called Finite Infinite Games in 1986 in which he defined these two types of games. The finite game has known players with fixed rules and an agreed-upon objective. There is always a beginning, a middle and an end. On the flip side, an infinite game has known and unknown players, the rules are changeable which means that you can play however you want and the objective is to perpetuate the game and stay in it for as long as possible. We are players in infinite games every day of our lives. For example, there is no such thing as being number one in friendship or being number one in your marriage. There is no such thing as a winning career, winning at learning, and there is definitely no such thing as winning business. No one is ever declared the winner of business. Yet, I find it so interesting that we listen to the languages of so many leaders, especially business leaders, and they talk about being number one, being the best, or beating their competition. Based on what? Based on what agreed-upon objectives, based on what agreed upon time frames, and based upon what agreed-upon metrics? In other words, there is no finish line. What I have learned is that when we play in an infinite game, such as business, with a finite mindset thinking we can be number one, what ends up happening is we hurt trust, cooperation, and innovation. All of these factors weaken the organization and eventually contribute to its eventual demise.
High: You highlight a few different factors that are key in an infinite game. You note just cause, courageous leadership, trusting teams, a worthy rival, and existential flexibility. Could you take a moment and describe each of these with an example for each one?
Sinek: A just cause is a cause so just that we would be willing to sacrifice our interest in order to advance it. One of my favorite examples is the Declaration of Independence. The Founding Fathers of the United States wrote down an idealized vision of the future. They wrote down a future state that did not exist and still does not exist in which all men are created equal, endowed with unalienable rights, amongst which include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A vision is an idealized statement of the future that we commit our efforts, product and company towards to advance towards that idealized state. The winning of the Revolutionary War was just the first step on this long journey, and we have seen milestones along the way, such as the abolition of slavery, women suffrage, civil rights and gay rights. All of these are milestones, and they are all incomplete to themselves. However, they are all marching us towards this idealized vision that America is trying to advance. We will never get there, but we will die trying.
Organizations including businesses can have a just cause so just that their people would be willing to sacrifice in order to advance it. For example, their people may turn down a better paying job offer, be willing to go on frequent business trips, or work late. Even though we may not enjoy those, they feel worth it because we feel as if our work has meaning and that we are contributing to something beyond the products we sell or the money we make. If we do not give our people something to advance that is bigger than the company and the products we make and sell, then the relationships become significantly more transactional and the organization starts operating in a much more finite way. Because of this, it is essential to have a just cause in this infinite game.
The second element is building trusting teams, and we all know how it feels to work on a trusting team. It means we can come to work and feel secure to admit a mistake or ask for more training and help without any fear of humiliation or retribution. We do this and say these statements with total confidence that our bosses or our peers will rush in to support us. If we do not have trusting teams, we have a group of people who show up to work every day lying, hiding and faking. They hide mistakes, they do not admit that they do not know what they are doing, and they are never going to ask for help due to the fear that it will put them on some shortlist of the next round of layoffs or that it will prevent them from getting promoted. The problem with that is if we are hiding mistakes and people are pretending that they know everything that they have to do or can do, these elements eventually compound and it weakens the organization. To truly last in the infinite game of business, we have to commit to building trusting teams, and good old-fashioned leadership is what produces trusting teams.
The next element is worthy rivalry where, in finite games, we have competitors, and competitors are there to be beaten. There is a winner and there is a loser in a finite game. In the infinite game, there is no such thing as winning or losing. Instead, there is ahead and behind. You can be number one in whatever metric you choose or timeframe you want, but that is only temporary. Instead of viewing the other players in the game as competitors, in the infinite game, it is much healthier to view them as worthy rivals. A worthy rival is another player whose strength reveals to you your weaknesses. There are other companies out there who are better marketers, their products are better, their leadership is better, their culture is stronger, or their vision is clearer. Instead of being uncomfortable when their name comes up or trying to undermine and simply be ahead in the metrics, it is better to take all of that competitive energy, take a hard look at yourself, and see where you have room to improve. Worthy rivals point out our weaknesses so that we may become stronger and better players in the game. It is important to remember that the game is not to beat the competition, but the goal is to outlast the competition.
Existential flexibility is the willingness to make a profound strategic shift in order to better advance your just cause. This is not the daily flexibility required in business, but this is the willingness to walk away from money or time spent or invested because you find a better way to advance the cause. I believe the best example of this is when Steve Jobs and some of his senior executives visited Xerox in 1979. Apple was already a big company, and it had already had success in the Apple I and the Apple II. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had a just cause, which was to empower the individual to stand up to big brother, IBM. The personal computer gave individuals the power to compete against corporations, which is why they were so enamored by them. When Steve Jobs and his executives went to visit Xerox PARC, Xerox showed them a new invention that it had come up with called the graphic user interface. This allowed people to use computers not by having to learn a computer language, but by clicking on a mouse and moving the cursor on the screen to move around icons and folders on a desktop. Jobs saw this technology as a leapfrog to help him advance towards his cause of empowering even more individuals to stand up to big brother and take advantage of this personal computer technology. When they left Xerox, he told his executives that they had to invest in this graphic user interface. In response, one of the executives said, “Steve, we cannot. We have already invested millions of dollars and countless man hours in something else. If we invest in this, we will blow up our own company.” In response, Jobs said, “Better we blow it up than someone else.” That decision led to the Macintosh, a computer platform so profound that it changed the way we use computers today. The entire software of Windows is designed to act like a Macintosh. That is existential flexibility.
The final element is the courage to lead because all of the attributes I have just run through are extremely difficult. Being short-term focused, trying to exert control over numbers and hiring and firing people willy-nilly is easier than the hard work of good leadership. Ultimately, so many of the pressures upon us are forcing us to play the finite game. If you work for a public company, the pressures from Wall Street and the public markets are all forcing us to think shorter term. It takes tremendous courage to stand up and take an entirely different point of view of how we are building our businesses.
High: You further highlighted that you need to think of yourself as the competitor. This includes having the courage to cannibalize your offering, to re-think elements, to cancel projects, and to develop a new product that competes with your own. Could you elaborate on this?
Sinek: In the infinite game, the only true competitor is yourself. The goal is to make our products better this year than they were last year, to make our culture stronger this year than it was last year, and to make our leaders better leaders this year than they were last year. If we are trying to outdo anyone, it should be ourselves. We still pay attention to the other players in the market because we have to know what they are doing since what they are doing may challenge us. Back in the day, Microsoft had this finite view of the world, while Apple had an infinite view. While Apple was trying to advance a cause, Microsoft was trying to beat Apple. In the days of the iPod, Microsoft kept coming up with new and improved Zunes, which was their MP3 player. Their expressed purpose was that they were trying to beat Apple’s products, and Steve Ballmer was open with the fact that he was trying to beat Apple. What is funny is that Apple was playing a different game. While Microsoft was trying to make a better MP3 player, Apple had already moved on to developing the iPhone, which rendered both the iPod and the Zune completely obsolete.
High: Across your books, a common theme is leadership. You are a big believer that leaders are not just born as some people say, but rather, leadership can be learned. Could you elaborate on that perspective?
Sinek: I do believe that leaders are made, not born. Leadership is a skill similar to many other skills. If somebody seems to have natural capacity, it might have just been because they learned it when they were younger. They might have learned it from teachers or had a great boss, but no one is a natural leader. It does not exist in the same way that being born self-confident is not natural. We learn self-confidence from our parents and our teachers, and it requires constant nursing and attention. It is a learnable and practicable skill, and the people who become great leaders are students of leadership. You do not get promoted and suddenly become a great leader. If you want to be a good accountant, you have to study, and if you want to be a good leader, you similarly have to study and practice. Even if there is natural capacity such as talent, you still have to hone that talent and work extremely hard. Even professional athletes who have talent or musicians all practice and rehearse a great deal to hone their craft. Leadership is exactly the same.
High: You talk about the need for great leaders to have a combination of empathy and perspective. Can you talk a bit about that combination with some examples associated with each?
Sinek: One of the essential skills of leadership is to have empathy. Listening skills, the ability to give and receive feedback, and patience are all critical. An example of empathy in work is a fairly common scenario in which you walk in someone’s office and say, “You have missed your numbers for the third quarter in a row. We have had this conversation before. If you do not fix your numbers in the fourth quarter, I do not know what is going to happen.” That interaction is fairly normal. However, if you have empathy, you walk into their office and say, “You have missed your numbers for the third quarter in a row. We have had this conversation before. Are you okay? I am worried about you. Is everything okay? What is going on?” That is empathy. It is having concern for the person rather than just thinking that they are a problem.
When we are junior, we are responsible for getting the work done, and we are responsible for the results of our work. When we are senior, we are no longer responsible for getting the job done because we do not do the job. There is not a CEO on the planet responsible for the result. A CEO is responsible for the people who are responsible for the people who are responsible for the people responsible for results. It is the effect of hierarchy and good leadership that produces great work. A senior executive is not responsible for customer service because they do not talk to the customer. An executive is responsible for the people who are responsible for the people who are responsible for the people who talk to the customer. The former CEO of the Ritz-Carlton said it best. He says, “My lowest paid employees have all the contact with my customer.” How do you ensure a luxurious, high quality, and high customer service brand if it is not for good leadership? We cannot scream and yell at people to take care of the customer because that obviously is not going to work. Those people have to feel as if their bosses care about them as a human being. That is why they direct their energy into taking care of the customer. Leadership is a people experience, and I believe we often forget that.
High: I found it particularly interesting that you highlight some examples of organizations that have gone from great success to a downward trajectory only to pull themselves back into better performance with better leadership. You mentioned the contrast of Mike Duke and Steve Ballmer at Walmart and Microsoft respectively compared to Doug McMillon and Satya Nadella. The larger the scale in many ways, the more difficult it is to change the culture that is necessary in order to regain a leadership position. However, these are two of the largest companies in the world, and they did so. Can you highlight a couple of lessons from that?
Sinek: Oftentimes, when you have these new executives that have come into perform a turnaround, the question is if they are doing it with an infinite mindset or a finite mindset. If an executive comes in and does a turnaround with a finite mindset, it is all about cost-cutting. They may get the numbers back on track, but it does not last. As soon as that leader leaves, the company is back in trouble again. I believe a more effective turnaround is stabilizing the foundation, which includes strengthening the culture and restoring trust. It is not just this exercise and cost-cutting. We saw Steve Ballmer take over Microsoft and bring a finite mindset to the company. The company became much more short-term focused, it became much more numbers focused and it was much more Wall Street focused to the detriment of the organization and the culture. As a result, it could no longer attract top talent. On the flip side, Satya Nadella has come in with a sense of vision and cause, he has restored trust and the culture, and he has brought back the grandiosity and vision to the organization. Now, Microsoft has become a great place to work again, and it is far more innovative.
Doug McMillan is doing the same thing at Walmart. Mike Duke brought an awful sense of short-termism to Walmart, and it did great damage to the brand. How it treated its employees and its customers was scandal-ridden. Doug McMillon is going back to the roots of the organization to what Sam Walton himself stood for, which is taking care of the average working American. He has restored that sense of cause once again, so Walmart is moving back in the right direction. These are large organizations, and these changes do not happen overnight. However, both of these CEOs are bringing an infinite mindset to their organization, which is having a profound impact.
High: I would like to talk a little bit more about how you got involved in leadership, writing, and developing your own firms and partners after an early career spent in advertising. What has inspired you to go down the path that you have?
Sinek: To be honest, my career has been largely an accident. I had a small marketing firm called Sinek Partners many years ago, and everything superficially seemed to be going well. We had good clients, and we did good work. However, I did not want to go to work anymore because I had lost my passion. People gave me some poor advice saying to follow my passion, but I did not know what to do with that. I was doing the same thing and I did not love it anymore, so that was not helpful. It was a dark period. I was embarrassed by the fact that I did not want to go to work because I superficially was living the American dream. I owned my own business, and I was my own boss. I kept my opinions to myself, and all of my energy went into pretending that I was happier, more successful, and more in control than I truly felt. It was not until a dear friend came to me and said, “I am worried about you. Something is wrong. Something is different,” that I came clean. I told her how I truly felt, which lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. I could take all of that energy that I put towards lying, hiding and faking every day and redirect it to finding a solution.
The solution that I found was called the “why,” where I knew what I did and how I did it, but I did not know why I did it. I became obsessed with the “why” and it restored my passion to an extraordinary level. I did what anybody else would do when they discover something beautiful and shared it with my friends. They started making crazy life changes, and people kept inviting me to come talk to them about it and share it. I kept saying yes and before I knew it, I was being invited to speak and was offered a book deal. It was quite an accident. I was just so inspired by this idea of “why” and I was so open to talking about it. As a result, opportunities arose, and I was just open to following a new and uncertain path.
High: As you now turn to your next topic, how does that process look? Do you have several ideas that are in the hopper that you evaluate and re-evaluate to determine whether or not they are worth your time for a deeper investigation? Are you wandering the world in search of that inspiration?
Sinek: My work is semi-autobiographical in that it is my own journey. It turns out that my journey is pretty similar to many other peoples’ journeys in that it is simply the journey of life. My first book was about the loss of my own passion, and many of us feel that we are not passionate about our work even though we want to be. My second book was about trust. I was struggling to trust people. At work, I did not feel as if I trusted people, which caused me concern. I went to try and find out how to learn to trust. While it was supposed to just help me solve a problem instead of being a book, it ended up becoming Leaders Eat Last.
With my most recent book, I am an idealist. I talk about a world in which the vast majority of us wake up every single morning inspired, feel safe at work, and return home fulfilled at the end of the day. I am constantly accused of being a crazy idealist, or people will tell me that, “Your ideas will not work in the real world, and you do not understand business.” When I discovered James Carse’s work of this articulation of finite and infinite games, it made me realize, “Oh my goodness, all these people that keep telling us that we do not understand business are the ones who do not understand business. They do not know the game that they are in.” It made me realize that this discomfort that so many of us feel at work cannot be the right way to run a business. We are the ones in the right, and the people who keep telling us that we are the clueless ones are actually wrong.
This is just my own journey. Every time I write a book, I believe it is the last one I will ever write. I believe this one might be the last one too. My journey continues and assuming that I have more struggles and am able to find solutions for those struggles, there may or may not be another book in the works, but I have no clue. I never had ambitions to be an author and it is amazing to me that I am one. I am not in search of another book. I am just on my journey. For me, my books and my talks are just a way of inviting people to all go on the journey together.
High: How do you involve others in your projects once you have been inspired about it?
Sinek: We have a team because we have a company. I write my own books, but I do invite somebody to help me do research and an editor to help me. When I have an idea set, I have a dear friend to bounce it off. I formed the idea that long before all of that comes to bear. I am not doing research looking for an idea. I am an anthropologist at heart, and I am constantly taking in the world looking for patterns to solve real problems. They are not academic in nature. None of us can do things completely alone, and I definitely need help. Once I have decided to write a book, then I pick up the phone and start calling everybody and saying, “Okay, here we go again.”
High: I saw a fascinating lecture that you gave where you describe millennials, which is a generation that is often dismissed by those older than them and those employing them. You talk about some of the real struggles that they face due to factors such as the way in which they were parented and the impact that technology has on them as well. You were tongue in cheek talking about how they are broken and difficult to lead and so on, but you peel back the onion as to the rationale behind that and then ultimately conclude that it is the rest of us that need to find ways to change in order to lead them in a better way. Could you please share some of those perspectives?
Sinek: I believe millennials are accused of being hard to lead and being too entitled. I try to be a little more empathetic and shed a little light on why we may perceive them that way. Every generation forms a worldview based on the experiences they have when they come of age. Our grandparents may have been frugal because they grew up during the Great Depression and the Second World War. There is nothing wrong with them, but their worldview was formed based on world events as they came of age. Baby boomers came of age during Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War, so it is not a surprise that they tend to be cynical of authority figures. Millennials are the first generation who came of age at the millennium and the first generation to come of age where cell phones and social media were ubiquitous. This formed their worldview. Further, they grew up in a world where the business practices of the ’80s and ’90s had fully taken hold. Aspects such as shareholder supremacy and mass layoffs were now normal. These were theories proposed in the late 1970s that were normalized in the ’80s and ’90s, so this generation came of age watching their parents work extremely hard only to lose their jobs through no fault of their own. They lost their job because the company missed its arbitrary projections at the end of the year, so their parents were asked to pay a steeper price because they were part of a cost-cutting effort as a means of balancing the books. They were right to be cynical about business today, and they are right to mistrust leaders in companies today because that is what they saw growing up.
Unfortunately, because cell phones and social media were ubiquitous when they came of age, similar to the early days of cigarettes, we did not previously realize the deleterious effect and the addictive quality of these devices. The addictive qualities of these devices have hurt many millennials’ ability to form deep and meaningful relationships, learn to cope with stress, or ask for help. It is less of a criticism and more of an empathetic view that although they are an extremely open-minded and inclusive generation, similar to every generation, there are pluses and minuses. I believe it was just more about learning to understand a different generation rather than default to criticizing them.
Peter High is President of Metis Strategy , a business and IT advisory firm. His latest book is Implementing World Class IT Strategy . He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs . Peter moderates the Technovation podcast series. He speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.