Simon Sinek - How Great Leaders Inspire Action With an Infinite Mindset

Catherine the Great was a bad bitch.

Catherine II by J.B.Lampi (1780s, Kunsthistorisches Museum).jpg

As the Empress of Russia from 1762 until 1796, she was the country's longest-ruling female leader.

She staged a coup d'etat against her husband to take power! (He was assassinated, which seems harsh, but apparently no one liked him because he didn't speak Russian and was pro Prussia-a historic state predominently German.)

That said, no one argues she didn't do a good job. In fact, the time she was in power is hailed as the 'Golden Age of Russia'.

One thing she may not get enough credit for is raising her grandson, Alexander.

Forcing him to get married at 15 to Princess Louise could be interpretted as controlling, but then again, she did build them a Palace.

As a millenial, I can relate to Alexander.

His Grandmother was obviously fancy and very conniving, even planning to remove her son from the succession plan all together. It's no wonder he was constantly walking the line of allegience between her and his Father (...she found him a wife AND built him a Palace).

Alexander desperately wanted to be his own person, to have freedom.

His dad did become Emperor but by the time of accession (due to another assasination) he may have got more responsibility than he bargained for.

It was the end of the 18th century and what would be known as the fourth stage of the French Revolution.

Napolean was on a winning streak and his egomania and quest for power had never been stronger.

Alexander, on the other hand, felt he was carrying out a divine mission by opposing him. While there was originally an alliance between the two, Alexander said he refused to sacrifice the interest of his people for the affection of Napolean.

Alexander I of Russia

He even argued that the outcome of the war was not only to be the liberation of France, but the universal triumph of "the sacred rights of humanity".

Napolean was playing a finite game to win and Alexander was playing the infinte game of integrity.

Napolean was also a dick.

He tried to marry Alexander's younger sister out of spite.

He even annexed Oldenburg, a state ran by Alexander's uncle.

By 1812 neither party were honoring their Treaty commitments and it was inevitable there would be a war.

Napolean was planning to, "send a message", by assembling a massive army (estimated >500k men) to invade Russia.

He was hoping for a quick victory that would force Russia to negotiate. Instead, Alexander planned a tactical retreat.

They abandoned the battles at Vilna, Vitebsk, and Smolensk, leaving a literal scorched earth in their wake.

Image result for alexander i of russia borodino map

Napolean's army was famished. They were contracting disease and many were even disserting the cause in search of food.

They were all there in support of an unneccesary power move. After all, Russia was a natural ally with no territorial conflicts with France.

It wasn't until the famous battle of Borodino, depicted in War and Peace, that the Russians finally put up a defense.

70,000 people died that day, roughly an even split on both sides - without a decisive victory. Alexander continued his strategic retreat back through the city of Moscow.  He again lit fire to the town leaving no resources for Napolean to salvage.

At this point the French army didn't have enough food for even their healthy soldiers, yet Napolean insists on waiting 3 more weeks in late October for Alexander to surrender.

His surrender would never come and the French troops, now only 100k strong, would begin their trip back home "victorious".


This story exemplifies the characteristics of leaders playing finite versus infinte games.

By definition, finite games have a single metric that declares a winner or loser

In infinite games the players simply drop out when people lose the will or resources to keep going.

Leaders playing infinite games instill a culture of trust, cooperation, and communication that increases the speed of innovation.

Leaders playing finite games have a growth at all costs mentality, focused on short term metrics in sacrifice of a larger vision.

A finite minded leader will ask, "how do I get more out of my people?"

An infinite minded leader will ask, "how do I create an environment where my people can become the best versions of themselves?"

The Battle of Borodino isn't the only time we've seen leaders focus all their energy on winning a battle only to lose the war or take the pyrrhic victory (a win at too great of cost).

Ballmer did it when he took over Microsoft.
Skully did it when he took over Apple.
Welch did it at GE.

Of course, as a new CEO you want to prove your worth and have an immediate impact but losing sight of the vision is a strategic error that has never played out well.

It's easy to delude Steve Ballmer's success as a leader with the success of Microsoft as a company and the fact he's rich.

Make no mistake, Microsoft had a lost decade.

They shifted their focus from Bill Gates' original mission, a computer on every desk, to focusing on their competition and market share.

Ballmer would shout when interviewed, "there's no chance the iphone is going to get any significant market share" or "Google is not a real company, it's a house of cards".

In his defense, his priorities weren't that different than most CEO's:

  1. growth
  2. resources
  3. people

Finite games can be seductive and even addictive but once a milestone is hit the feeling passes.

Chasing the ever moving goal post is exactly why people get burnt out.

Because incentives are structured around performance, trust faulters and people switch to self preservation mode by hiding information and colluding internally against their peers.

Companies try to mask these problems by aligning their mission to an even bigger growth metric or trying to become the best in the industry.

Even the idea of "best" or winning is not an indefinite status.

In an infinite game - better is better than best, consistency becomes more important than intensity.

Growth is an output result, not a reason for being.

People don't move their families across the country or turn down higher paying jobs in support of an arbitrary growth metric.

I think we subconsciously know that trust is more important than performance yet we track no metrics related to trustworthiness. It's easier to come up with arbitrary performance metrics than to define a just-cause or vision.

If you don't believe that to be true, consider even Navy seals would prefer high trust over high performance in their new recruits.

"Pick people to work with who have high intelligence, high energy, and high integrity - you cannot compromise on this. The world is full of smart and lazy people this is why high energy is important. But high integrity is most important, otherwise, you just have smart hardworking crooks who will eventually cheat you." - Naval Ravikant

So how does Simon Sinek suggest great leaders inspire action with an infinite mindset? 

In his new book and recent interview, Simon Sinek says you need these 5 ingredients:

1. The willingness to advance a just-cause.
2. The ability to build trusting teams.
3. Study worthy rivals.
4. Prepare existensial flexibility (acknowledge change)
5. The courage and desire to lead.

A just-cause is a specific vision of a future state that does not exist. It's an inclusive statement that stands FOR something. It's an idea of what a better world would look like where the primary beneficiaries are people other than the contributors. It's big, bold, and ultimately unachievable.

John F. Kennedy's famous moon speech is an example of how a great leader inspires action with an infinte mindset and a just-cause.

"We choose to go to the moon," the president said. "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept."

This type of leadership is natural for most parents who want to lead their children to BECOME the best they can and lead a better life than they had.

Becoming better is the difference. 

Infinite leadership is not about being In charge, it's about taking care of those in our charge.

As a leader, If you've ever felt anxious about moving targets or a lack of motivation from physical things, it's likely because we're born to seek infinite games.

We're even drawn to nature because of its infinite bounds. Even though we can't control nature, we're not defeated by it. We stand in awe of that which can't be explained.

Image result for infinite games nature

We have the same attraction to the infinte nature of travel. Despite what Instagram will lead you to believe, most people will admit they don't travel to arrive at a destination and take a picture. We go for the boundless nature of the experience, the evolution of our perspective. True travel is to see the same things through different eyes.

Carse uses the same juxtaposition to explain how we incorrectly think about time and freedom.

For the finite player, freedom is a function of time. We must have time to be free. The finite nature of how we observe time gives us fear of the future because we're constantly running out of time or there's never enough time.

The infinite player does not consume time, they generate it. Their time is time lived, not time viewed.

They don't fear a lack of time because they don't begin working for the purpose of filling time. When you play infinite games work becomes a way of creating new possibilities. It's a way of moving towards a future which itself has a future.

infinte players do not avoid finite games, they enter into them with the appropriate energy and self veiling but without the seriousness of finite players. They embrace the abstractness, and take them up playfully.

The desire of all finite players is to be a master player, infinite players expect to be surprised and continue their play in pursuit of it.


Personally, I think even being able to spot people playing infinite games gives you a big advantage. You'll be able to find jobs and partners who prioritize trust and integrity over growth. This is especially important when things go bad. The way to spot this is in the order people talk about what they are working on or hope to accomplish (order uncovers priorities).

The other connections or ideas I want to explore further after reading these two books are: 
- the idea of human systems first being discovered in nature (fibonacci sequence, golden ratio)
- are there other triggers to identify infinite mindedness at scale (hiring trends, ratio of earnings to # of employees, number of press releases, etc.)
- what other social constructs can be seen differently when you live with an infinite mindset (sexuality, death)

“Only that which can change can continue: this is the principle by which infinite players live.”― James P. Carse