What We’re Reading: “The Infinite Game” by Simon Sinek

The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek

How we can navigate the game of life with an infinite mindset


Ten years ago my then Board President, Owen Knott, introduced me to Simon Sinek and his “start with why” Ted Talk. The basic premise of Sinek’s “start with why” philosophy is that businesses thrive when people are clear about why they do what they do, not just what they do. In other words, purpose drives profit, not product.

So when my colleague and friend, Sadiq Ali at Maryland MENTOR, told me that he’s reading Sinek’s newest book entitled The Infinite Game, I immediately picked it up.

In many ways, The Infinite Game is a continuation of Sinek’s study on leadership. He praises leaders who operate with an infinite mindset, meaning that they recognize their purpose is not “winning” or “being number one” or “beating the competition.” Rather, their purpose is building a company where others develop a deep-seated desire “to contribute to that organization’s ability to keep succeeding.”

The premise of The Infinite Game is that there are two types of games in life: finite games with fixed rules and a clear path to winning or losing (like football); and infinite games with complex players, multiple metrics, and no finish line or practical end to the game (like marriage). Sinek argues that a chief weakness in business these days is that leaders often try to approach the game with a finite mindset, like adherence to a set of arbitrary metrics. Business is better defined with an infinite time horizon – the objective is to keep the game going.

Sinek upholds that an infinite mindset is rooted in five practices. Here are some of my key take-aways from his study of each practice:

  1. Just Cause: We must be able to share a clear, appealing, and deeply personal vision for the future that motivates people to contribute to our mission and work.
  2. Trusting Teams: We should prize trust over performance; i.e., when looking for a natural leader within your organization, don’t ask who the top performer is, ask who people trust the most.
  3. Worthy Rival: We do better when we can identify someone whose work we admire. That helps us adopt a self-improvement regimen and keeps us laser focused on our vision.
  4. Existential Flexibility: It’s important to be willing to innovate and adopt new strategies at all times, even if they disrupt the current business model or we feel like we’re already at the top of our game.
  5. Courage to Lead: We must strive to shift our perception of how the world works, free ourselves from depending too much on artificial performance indicators, and adopt an infinite time horizon for success.

I’ll conclude with a notion that resonated with me during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sinek writes: “An infinite-minded leader does not simply want to build a company that can weather change but one that can be transformed by it. They want to build a company that embraces surprises and adapts with them. Resilient companies may come out of the other end of upheaval entirely different than they were when they went in (and are often grateful for the transformation).”

Every nonprofit has been greatly impacted by the current health crisis. Soup kitchens have seen demand skyrocket; schools have adopted hybrid or virtual instructional modalities; fundraisers have been reimagined; and we’re all wondering about what our “new normal” will be, or if there is an end to this seemingly infinite game. We can only hope that the pivots and transformations that we’ve all made during COVID will make us stronger in the long-run, and that our mission and work will become even more relevant in the world ahead.

By Kelly Medinger i