Leadership Lessons 7: Know The Game You’re In

Abhishek Paul
4 min readFeb 6, 2019

James Coburn’s character (Britt) in “The Magnificent Seven” thrills me every time I watch. When it’s said that he’s the best with a gun or knife, one of the seven wonders who he competes with. “With himself” is the curt response from his leader. He joins in the hunt simply to test himself. His iconic, “I was aiming for the horse”, implying his shot was a lousy one and not worthy of his team mate’s praise proved the point.

Simon Sinek’s take on most things makes me feel like Homer Simpson. His latest on infinite games is no different. His radical diagnosis of the persistent problems that businesses (and people in them) face is a lack of awareness of the game they’re in. The fundamental issues persist because we continue to commit our energies to not just playing for the wrong team (so to speak), but more seriously, towards playing the wrong game — in other words we’re not even in the ballpark. No wonder we are stuck in a quagmire!

Something didn’t compute. How can we all be wrong / blind? What have we been doing instead? The answers to these questions and many more become apparent when we contrast the 2 kinds of games that can be played, ie, Finite and Infinite games.

A finite game is characterized by having known players, fixed rules and agreed upon objective(s) (eg: cricket). The aim of the game is to win. Players will be focussed on beating their competitors, to be no.1, be the best. Unfortunately businesses, healthcare, education and even politics have started playing this game.

An infinite game on the other hand is a completely different animal. You have known + unknown players, the rules can and do change, the objective is to keep the game going, ie perpetuate it (not to win). Players drop out when they no longer have the resources to stay in the game, but the game keeps going with new players taking their place.

So what? you might ask — shouldn’t we aim to be no.1, the best? What kind of hippie utopia am I proposing?

Hold your horses.

The infinite game is not another tool/technique, but a completely different perspective on approaching work, life and everything in between. It ends up impacting our view of our colleagues, family, our pursuits and questioning our assumptions of success/failure.

Finite players pour themselves into chasing goals and metrics without the awareness that ultimately any metric / timeline is arbitrary. What’s so logical / magical about a quarter, a year anyway? Aren’t they more about convenience. There is also a fascination for measuring and trying to put a number to everything and a derision for things that don’t fit into this square peg. Short-termism is the name of the game, sacrificing and even punishing those building long term foundations and rewarding those who deliver results today by making decisions that will cause harm in the long term — we’re basically running on steroids.

Players in the infinite game make decisions based on (lasting) core values even at the expense of current interests while a finite player does the exact opposite.

An infinite player realizes that his only competition is himself and strives to become the best he can be — any competitor / colleague is simply a mirror that reveals how he can improve himself. A finite player though is always concerned with beating the competition (improving self is only incidental), the focus is getting ahead of x, not getting better.

There’s much more to playing the infinite game, but the realization for me is that I’ve been playing the wrong game for a long time. Rather than try to change the rules in the existing finite game(s), I’d rather play a completely different game. Let the chips fall where they may!

“Vaya Con Dios!”

PS: Watch the Magnificent Seven — the 1960 version.