Simon Sinek keynoting at the Globoforce WorkHuman conference in Austin was one of the highlights of the annual turbo charged Inspirational event. He made his appearance on day three – a day when typically conferences can begin to lag despite the octane fuelled speakers that went before.

In what can classically be called Sinek-style, he strode onto the main stage exactly on time and began recounting a historic anecdote without preamble. On this occasion, he parabled the Vietnam war. This war, he explained, saw the Americans win all the battles but lose the war. How could that be? For Sinek the answer was the pitching of two incompatible forces. The Americans, notwithstanding the growing opposition from home, were fighting a finite battle, the Vietnamese an infinite one.

So what was the difference? Sinek described a finite game as an operation where the players are known, where the rules are understood and moreover agreed, and there is a fixed objective – ie to win the game. Sinek said: “Just like baseball.”

However in an infinite game, there are both known and unknown players, the rules can and will change, and the objective is to keep the game going.

“Where a finite player is pitched against a finite player then the outcome can be judged,” said Sinek. “Likewise infinite verses infinite. The trouble comes when a finite player gets into an infinite game. Then the finite player will eventually run out of the will or resources to compete and ultimately concede the game.

“And that is what happened in Vietnam.”

Business according to Sinek is also an infinite game. “There is no such thing as a winning business,” he said. “As soon as a business bases its strategic decisions on winning then it is doomed to either run out of will or resources.  Finite strategy leads businesses into bankruptcy or acquisitions and mergers.

“For example, look the companies listed on the Dowe Jones. They are all 35 years or younger. Where did all the old companies go? They failed their finite test.”

Sinek maintains that in business, as an infinite player, sometimes you are ahead and sometimes you are behind – but you are always in the game.

“The only competition for an infinite player is yourself,” he said. “But to have the will and resources to compete in an infinite game requires five key attributes.”

The first attribute according to Sinek is a just case, the second courageous leadership, the third a trusting team, the fourth a worthy adversary and finally a flexible playbook.

“Why a just cause to succeed?” asked Sinek. “If you go to work you are spending time away from your family and your hobbies. For you to perform well, you really need to feel you are doing something better than just coming to work. If you believe in what your work stands for then it makes your time more valuable and more valued.”

Sinek quotes the example of the Apple Corporation which was born out of the desire to fight the big Microsoft.  “Apple is not just a product – it is a way of empowering the little man to stand up to big brother.”

Courageous leadership is vital as well. “Leaders need to prioritise that cause. It is not enough to have corporate policy statement hanging in the boardroom.”

Sinek gave the example of CBS: a pharmacy outlet with national coverage. They sold medicines and claimed to care about their customers’ health. However, they also sold cigarettes.

“It’s a proven fact that cigarettes can be an impulse buy,” said Sinek. “CBS’ stocking  policy was not compatible with their stated aim to look after their customers’ health. So the management decided to stop selling cigarettes.

“At first the share price bombed with analysts saying this was a very bad move as it would negatively impact sales. But,” and here Sinek smiled. “The public rallied, sales and stocks both went up and the rest is history.”

According to Sinek there is an aligned issue with leadership – trust. “Navy seals when asked to pick leaders used the ‘performance over trust’ equation. A high performer with low levels of trust is not as important as an average performer with high levels of trust.

“This also translates into employees being able to make mistakes and still talk to management without fear of reprisal.”

Here Sinek paused for emphasis. “If employees cannot ask for help then your organisation is going to get into trouble. Remember the recent United Airlines fiasco when they ejected that passenger? Share prices fell and it was a terrible time for the company – but I bet that the other employees watching that incident knew what was happening was wrong but they did not have the security to intervene. They were not safe.”

Sinek addressed the audience more forcibly at this juncture. “You,” he said. “You are the HR managers and you must protect your employees. This is on your watch.”

Sinek outlined a worthy adversary as what gives businesses an edge – a form of upping their game. And finally explained the flexible playbook concept.

“Businesses cannot afford to be finite. They cannot afford not to change over time. While remaining true to their just cause, businesses have to adapt to the infinite if they want to stay in the game.”

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