I spent the holidays digging into Simon Sinek's latest treatise - The Infinite Game (which I highly recommend to everyone by the way). The manifesto (it's far more than a book) deals with an important perceptual shift that needs to occur in terms of how we understand the ultimate goal of business, government, education, politics, and many other institutions in which we participate. The key insight is that we are playing these "games" as if there is a way to win them (finite-ness), when in reality the goal of the game is to perpetuate itself (infinite-ness). An infinite game is therefore bigger than simply sales and profits - it encompasses the positive development of the community, environment and people involved.
I was quite inspired by this novel idea. And as someone who has never simply evaluated my performance by the balance sheet or P&L at the end of the year - Sinek was likely preaching to the choir in my case. The problem is the choir at this juncture is too small. So I want to appeal to you leaders out there to begin your immersion into infinite-mindedness by taking one important step - Stop Donkey-Konging!
One of the troubling trends I've noticed in both the traditional corporate world and in the tech startup world as it relates to leadership is the intensity of the ego and me, me, me at the center of most leaders' motivations and approaches. When leadership becomes self aggrandizing it almost guarantees finite-ness which is a leading indicator of short-term unsustainable success according to Mr. Sinek. Applying finite rules to an infinite game nearly always means suffering tremendous losses in terms of intrinsic financial value, reality versus expressed values, and losing the valuable people who made the biggest positive difference.
So what does infinite leadership look like?
Well, let's start with the contrasting behavior - Donkey Konging. And yes, I'm aware this is a cultural reference that may go over some of my younger reader's heads. Donkey Kong is a video game from the 1980's pitting Mario against boss Donkey Kong. The objective of the game is to save the princess who has been captured by the boss at the top of the screen and Mario must jump, dodge, and smash the flaming barrels that Donkey Kong tosses down to stop him. Finite leaders often lead by Donkey-Konging, that is setting themselves up as adversaries for their people to conquer on their way up the corporate ladder. The flaming barrels they chuck come in the form of busy-work, uninspiring tasks, dumping, and overchallenging their Marios (people).
Infinite-minded leaders understand that business is not a videogame. It can not ultimately be conquered. Therefore they set themselves up as organizational sherpa's steering everyone up the boundless mountain as they chase their Just Cause. Importantly, they know how to scale the mountain; they know their people's strengths, weaknesses, and skill levels as it relates to this particular mountain; and they know how to keep the group together as they ascend. And that is how they understand and judge their performance in the role of leader. Not how high or how fast they can get everyone up the mountain (because it is endless), but how successful they are in supporting, aligning, and achieving the myriad milestones and signposts of progress.
Still, if leaders today don't play the game in the right way, who's fault is it? It's certainly not due to the leadership gurus dating back to Stephen R. Covey and all the way up to Simon Sinek today - they've been loudly advocating the need for leadership transformation for over thirty years. Perhaps it's Wall Street and investor greed that have led to a system that reinforces and rewards short term decision-making versus the triple bottom line of social, environmental, and financial impact. Or maybe it's the players themselves looking to hack the rules of the game for their own benefit and career progression. Whatever the case, it must stop. Or else the game will not be perpetuated and in that scenario, everyone loses.
Still, I recognize that there must be a benefit to change and many times team alignment, trust, and engagement are no match for hard numbers like overachievement on sales or profitability objectives. I have always intrinsically understood that if I deliver the former then the latter becomes a matter of course, but even I have suffered from being perceptually devalued as a leader because my teams may not have delivered sales as quickly as someone else's. Yet I stay the course because over time, I understand that this game will never end and maybe, just maybe, slow and steady really is the better approach to such a reality. You out there reading this must make your own decision about both the nature of the game and therefore how to play it. For your people's sake, for the environment's sake, and for business continuity's sake - I hope you lean into the infinite because at precisely that moment you will realize that more listening, learning, and laboring is required but the rewards, like the game itself - are limitless!
What are your thoughts on leaders who Donkey Kong in 2020? Is this a positive practice that should continue or should we work to eradicate such bullies from our businesses? let's discuss in the comments below. And please like/share this article if you were at all inspired!
Omar L. Harris is Associate Vice-President and Country Manager for Allergan PLC in Brazil. He is the author of Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams available for purchase in ebook or print on Amazon.com. Please follow him on instagram, twitter, and/or LinkedIn for more information and engagement.