Reflective Reading: Simon Sinek’s “The Infinite Game”

Many educational books offer methodological insight – they focus on ‘how’ we do something, and why we should adopt a certain method of doing it. There are an increasing number of excellent books – and a scan of my bookshelves shows that I’ve learned huge amounts from many of them. There are also books which take stock of the “system” – where we are, and how we express our values in it – with examples from Kat Howard, or Sam Strickland the most recent in a long line of “sanity checks” that offer a wide angle lens on our profession.

And yet, the teaching profession itself operates in a weird dichotomous mindset. There’s often an unwritten assumption that teaching is a ‘vocation’ – that it’s a passion, a cause, something we believe in, and therefore we teach. For some people, for some schools, this is undoubtedly true – but often, we are working in systems, schools or settings which aren’t quite so quixotic. How, then, do we address those conceptual, and mental models of how we want to approach the world? How do we get a foothold in the morality and mentality of our work?

For me, with a range of volunteering experiences allied to the cadet world, I’ve drawn great inspiration from thinking and leadership writers outside of the education world. One of my favourite thinkers is Simon Sinek, whose original work on “Starting With Why”, and “Leaders Eat Last” have been really influential in many areas of my relationships, coaching and work with others – particularly in Sixth Form teaching and reviewing personal statements! There are undoubtedly limits of the business world’s applicability to the sphere of education – but I find great simplicity and superb insight in Simon’s work, and I have always enjoyed his work as a mechanism to reflect on my own development. So, I was very excited by the new videos and thinking about The Infinite Game.

Put simply, the book argues for a change in mindset and approach – that playing to win, playing against “a metric” generates what Sinek calls a ‘finite mindset’. It prioritises short term gains, results, short term investments, measurements and structures. There are some excellent examples of how this works: GE’s former CEO Jack Welch talking about the “long term just being a series of short term goals” – the pressure to perform, perform, and perform again was hugely resonant with many of my experiences of education, and the step by step rituals of each academic year!

While the concept of leaping from goal to goal can be fun, there is a point where you trade in the fantasy of feeling like your work could contribute to something bigger. 

In education, we have a real challenge – that our metrics are often externally imposed, by exam boards, by OfSTED or ISI, by the financial imperatives and challenges that many of our schools face. And yet, we often have a strong sense of the essential work that we do, and a clear sense of the fact that huge amounts of schools and the education industry are run on the delicate balance of goodwill versus resources. It’s been hugely powerful to read this book in a time when huge numbers of schools are adopting so many different approaches to the COVID pandemic, and the interesting challenges of ‘no exams’. 

Sinek argues that we need to change our approach. To take the view that there are no winners or losers, that we are playing in a game with no rules, no measurements, no metrics, and no end points – an infinite game, with many participants and players.

Sinek argues that there are five key pillars to the leadership required by the infinite mindset: (i) building a just cause; (ii) trusting teams; (iii) having a worthy rival; (iv) having existential flexibility and having the (v) courage to lead. 

First, the concept of a “just cause” builds and extends on his work in “Starting With Why”. Sinek argues that the best mindsets are created when people believe what you believe; that you live with a lifestyle of leadership and your vision, built around your ultimate end state. There are a number of excellent examples given, together with some really good counter-examples of what looks like an infinite mindset but isn’t really! Some of the big ideas – like having a moon shot (you can succeed, or not!), having a “being the best” or “getting the best results” mindset  – are debunked and unpicked. For me, there is a real challenge to grapple with in terms of education and how we understand our own “just cause” – I think “education” is too big for many of us to really consider it our just cause. I like the idea of having a just cause, and I’m also a big believe that it doesn’t have to be mine – as a long time fan of the concept of servant leadership, I’m comfortable with the concept that someone else can inspire me to their cause, and that I can choose to devote my service to theirs! But I think refocusing on our just cause will be vital for schools in the next year – reminding ourselves what we do, and why we do it, will be crucial as we transition back to what we hope is normal life. 

Second, Sinek builds on the leadership work from Leaders Eat Last and the ‘circle of safety’ to talk about “trusting teams” – places where we can feel authentic and safe, and bring our whole selves, including insecurities, concerns and doubts – to the work place. Telling the story of measurement of performance vs trust in the US Navy SEALs, for instance, it’s interesting to think about how often we measure our trust and competence in a school environment. If we performed some of the simple workplace checks he advocates, I wonder what would flag and show up? 

Similarly, the example of the new CEO Alan Mulally at Ford, presented with lots of his ‘positive, green’ data by his C-team, despite knowing that there were major challenges across the company, highlights that “though Mulally said he wanted honesty and accountability; until the executives felt safe, he wasn’t going to get it”. How many SLT meetings would have a similar ethos, I wonder – how many HoDs meetings, how many Departments? Creating that culture – through persistent focus on values and behaviours – is hard work, and often requires an active approach to fight the process-driven flank of lazy leadership. I like Sinek’s emphasis – perhaps borrowed from a famous RIchard Branson aphorism – that

Leaders are not responsible for the responsible for the results; leaders are responsible for the people who are responsible for the results

This is one of the areas I’ve worked hardest on in my own leadership – but I acknowledge the inevitability of huge work still to be done here, and the persistence needed to keep fighting the battle to keep my people safe. Perhaps this is the biggest overlap with some of the existing literature – a lot of what Kat Howard talks about in her exploration of systematic perception of staff support overlaps with Sinek’s work on making people feel safe and within their circles of trust.

How do I create an environment where everyone performs at their best?

The third concept, of having a “worthy rival” is a really interesting and exciting one. Looking both personally and professionally, some of Sinek’s reflections on individuals and great historical comparisons in business and sport offer a real insight to the spirit of “the game” that having a worthy rival brings. Thinking about those big names – IBM vs Apple, or Evert vs Navratilova, Federer vs Nadal – all of them would argue that having a worthy rival brings out the best in them, and makes them fight harder to define themselves, and bring the best version of themselves to the table. Even if it’s about defining the spirit of the firm – Apple’s constant search for someone to be the “Navy” while it resolutely sticks to its’ colours as the “pirates” – this recognition of another player in the game to help you improve, rather than to beat and “win” a finite game – is perhaps the thing that I think we, in education, struggle most with. For a lot of us, education is dominated by finite metrics. Grades are distributed on a bell curve – for every A*, someone has to get a worse grade. For plenty of schools, every successful application to a high ranking university means that someone else *doesn’t* get an offer; or every place offered in a scholarship means someone else misses out who needed that money. 

Who can we set as worthy rivals in the education world, without creating and succumbing to a finite mindset approach? 

I think this pillar is potentially the one that offers us the biggest challenge in the education industry: those who have done best with it, have probably advanced a Just Cause that is bigger than the metric. But even there – and I’m thinking of people like Katherine Birbalsingh at Michaela, for instance – would she claim to have a worthy rival? Or is she defining herself, and her school, against “the system” and a set of values? I’d love to talk more about this – who can we conceivably consider to be worthy rivals in an education world, without creating and succumbing to a finite mindset approach? 

Sinek’s fourth concept is existential flexibility: the ability to initiate an extreme disruption to a business model to effectively advance a just cause. Again, the educational world has a lot to learn in this pillar – although many would argue that the rapid online technology shift in the face of COVID has got some green shoots of disruption in there, I think that it’s about survival rather than disruption. Few schools are rethinking their business model and approach – and probably, would not be legally allowed to do so even if they wished. We are, as ever, constrained by the fact that education isn’t quite a market product – the regulation and state requirements on attendance, or safeguarding as examples, mean that we can’t innovate in the same way as a truly free enterprise. 

Finally, and perhaps most critically, Sinek describes the “courage to lead” as a lifestyle change. Like working out – it’s about persistence and consistency, and about playing for the long game, and recognising that you won’t always see short term results, and may even suffer short term pain. I think this is perhaps the least controversial of his pillars: we are a bit more comfortable with a longer term trajectory in education, and are happier when talking about leadership in these terms. I don’t know if everyone has the courage to adopt an infinite mindset, and challenge the system of fixed mindset, but I think we all have a little bit of that vision in us – it’s that tiny portion of vocationalism that is really important in understanding why we teach. 

Reading this book at a time of significant disruption and a global crisis has been particularly poignant, but I’m really impressed with the built philosophy that Sinek has developed over his nearly ten years’ work in this area. In education, we have a lot of challenges to overcome, and many of them often feel imposed “upon us” by “the system” or “OFSTED” or some external forces. I think many of the best schools and leaders are the ones who adopt elements of infinite game mindset – even if that’s not what they call it, or haven’t read this book! 

This is a great book that I think more people in education ought to read, and I’d encourage people to look at the book (or just some of the video links available: https://simonsinek.com/the-infinite-game) if you are interested. Lots of the earlier work on Starting with Why and Leaders Eat Last are also well worth the read, if you like this one! I think it’s excellent to think about how and why we operate the way we do, and there’s a lot of value in reconnecting with thoughts outside of the educational landscape – for me, Simon Sinek is one of the best and most insightful thinkers that you can read, and very much worth the investment. 

I’d be delighted to discuss any of this with people who’d like to adopt it – and I’m hoping that Simon will eventually apply some of his lens to education and the challenges of our world!

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