Leadership As An Infinite Game

If life is a game, you need to know whether you are playing an infinite game or a finite one. It’s especially true now as we sit still in our homes and reflect on our work and leadership. As Simon Sinek and others have pointed out, if you play the games of leadership and business as though winning is central, then you are playing a finite game. However, if the point is to keep the game going, then you’re engaged in a different game — an infinite one. Forming new habits of leadership is definitely playing an infinite game, and that’s a vital distinction.

It can be humbling when you realize the goal you’ve set for yourself to become a better leader hasn’t been accomplished. We feel worse about ourselves each time we don’t succeed at closing the gap between what we want to achieve and where we are now. It just might be because of the way we come at it.

Consider your last 360-degree feedback report. You studied the feedback, sorted through what you wanted to work on and then began. But here’s the secret that many know from experience but others haven’t yet learned: Goal-setting is overrated.

It isn’t that goal-setting is bad or not needed. It is. Starting with clarity about what leadership behavior you want to work on is vital. You need parameters and to start small. But goal-setting alone won’t get you very far.

Too many people start with the problem and then rush into correcting it. A more effective way to start is with the outcome you want to create. To genuinely create, you need to do better than react to feedback or a problem you’ve identified. So how do you set out on a path to become a better leader without it being a reaction? By getting very clear about the leader you want to be. Let me explain what I mean.

Take me, for example. As a young leader, I knew that I needed to delegate more. There were times that I was delegating, but then I’d fall back on my old habits of doing it myself. With more ups and downs, I did what most people do: I worked harder to ensure I had the right processes in place to make delegating likely. That new approach didn’t stick, either. Then something unexpected happened. I was beginning to lose interest in my goal, likely an expression that I thought my situation was hopeless. So I wrote out all the strategies I was using to see what was missing. Once done, I asked myself whether I needed more strategies. Nope, that wasn’t it. Instead, I refocused by asking myself a fundamental question that eluded me even though it was hidden in plain sight. I considered what sort of leader I wanted to be, and here’s what I learned: I wanted to be a trusting leader. Now I had a workable outcome to aspire to.

As Robert Fritz, an expert on structural dynamics for behavioral change, has written, the way to achieve a goal is to think of outcomes we want to create, not to simply react by thinking about how to remove the problem, because that doesn’t often work. With the insight about the kind of leader I wanted to be as my outcome, I resumed the game with the stakes far higher and engaged in the game far deeper than before.

Don’t Confuse The Scoreboard For The Outcome

Learning is often a game played with goals and scoreboards. Measures are helpful to know how you are doing, but we can often confuse the personal scoreboard with the outcome, and that can lead us to take a detour right back to playing a finite game where it’s about winning.

Many people know the story about Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity hack of marking an X in his calendar for each day he writes a joke and maintaining an unbroken chain of X’s. Even though he has disavowed the claim that it was his system, nevertheless, it’s a great approach for some people. But if the measure of the X’s becomes the goal, as often the measure can if you aren’t careful, it will replace the outcome of becoming a joke-writing comic. Getting and then maintaining a winning streak of X’s isn’t the same as writing high-quality jokes, for example. Too many people confuse the measure for the outcome, and that’s when they get derailed. Getting back to leadership and the skill of delegating, running a perfect streak of days delegating could mean I’ve reached my outcome of being a trusting leader, or it may not if I wasn’t mindful of also matching the work I assigned to people’s strengths and making resources available so they succeeded.

This is where identity-based habits are so vital. Those are the habits we form with deliberation that change our self-concept. The centrality of winning is not the main concern for those playing the infinite game. Playing this game shifts your mindset from winning, a place where you may have started, to building a new habit by deepening your understanding of yourself. It’s a game played outside in the world with new behaviors — and inside yourself, too. You take action while watching yourself, as I did, as an observer at the same time. I wanted to be a trusting leader; what was undermining my trust in others? How could I address it? How could I set expectations well when I delegated? These questions can show up and need addressing.

There’s a powerful myth that strong leaders come ready-made and fully developed. Maybe that’s why people think that strong leaders are born and not made. Yet people are growing around us all the time.

When we look at leadership development as the infinite game it is, with identity-based goals and not as a problem to be solved, we can experiment with who we are and how we show up with greater freedom.

What To Do When You’re Overworked

“No one takes their foot off the pedal when they’re in the game.” 

Be forewarned, this idiom tells us, you need to go full tilt without letting up if you’re going to be successful, meet the deadline, or delight the client. As the belief goes, maybe those people who slow down “just don’t think like champions.”

That’s what a new client of mine said was the reason why he was exhausted at work. It resonated with me because my own work ethic used to be driven in this way. When I used to work intensively for years, I didn’t see the point of pausing or celebrating my milestones. It just slowed me down. When people around me insisted I take better care of myself or leave time for other interests beyond work, I felt they were distracting me from getting things done. My resistance seems nonsensical to me now, all this time later, but for many, this is still their reality.

For so many leaders, keeping your foot on the accelerator is an admonition not to slow down no matter what. Although giving up may not be a great idea, the belief in going without stopping can be dangerous. I’m not referring to the few who end up fully burned out and hospitalized, but there’s an agreement in the workplace that ceaseless change and churn will never stop, and we all know that it’s unsustainable. Just yesterday an executive told me that although it was crazy at work, he was going to take some time off to re-energize because “it never stops.” The charged-up velocity of change has many more people lamenting and asking themselves how much longer they can go on this way. The “slow season” is no longer. There’s only one season — it’s full-on.

Leaders often say that they don’t want to pull back because they want to model productivity. Ask yourself what you are really doing when you stay at work yet again dragging yourself from meeting to meeting with your head down, shoulders rounded, and maybe even shutting yourself away to “get work done” in your office. It’s easy for others to see when someone is working late most of the time and is tired and frustrated. Your emotional skills as a leader are what we know now as a social contagion. This means that if you are grouchy, showing stress and frustration, you’ll soon see it spread and reflected in the culture.

You don’t need an executive coach to tell you that this is real. You or someone you know probably lives this. The question on leaders’ minds is what to do about it. There are many good strategies to consider. Consider these three.

  1. If you’re feeling that you are doing too much, you most likely are. Capture your activities in an audit of your own making, documenting how and with whom you’re spending your time. I’ve observed many leaders discover that they have been over-involved with their team, for example. There’s an opportunity to pull back and nudge your rock stars forward without your full involvement. Too often, CEOs who are new to the role or leaders who have assembled a brand new team have let close stewarding go on for too long. Think about efficiencies for you while nurturing those around you. Where else can you elevate yourself to fly at the right altitude doing high-value work while providing new opportunities for others?
  2. How do you start your day? Do you set yourself up to be hooked by urgent matters? If you’re searching for business problems and urgent matters, as many do, you are looking to be helpful, but ask yourself if your work is really moving forward. Instead, begin with your strategy and then reverse engineer it so that your daily to-do list sets you up to achieve strategic objectives.

A client of mine was a fastidious list maker and then gave it up, priding herself that she could store her to-do’s in her head. It was one thing she started doing before she became a CEO for the first time. Then when she took a job as CEO, she continued to keep much in her head until she realized that she was prioritizing fighting other people’s fires. Without a written list she committed to of what she wanted to accomplish each week and day, she was easily taken off track.

She’s back at list-making now, and it didn’t take much effort to restart the daily habit. They say that our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction. It can be much easier than people imagine. Consider the productivity hacks that have worked for you and assess if it’s time to bring them back. Winging it just means you are receptive to whatever comes up. There’s not much strategic thinking in that.

  1. It’s necessary to give yourself a break, no matter how strong you enjoy your black coffee or how long you claim you can keep going on with little sleep. What often holds leaders back is their belief that they’re indispensable. Don’t believe your own good press. You wouldn’t tell your own team to postpone their vacations indefinitely, would you? Or encourage them to avoid organized social activities at work because it’s busy? Start planning so that you can absent yourself from a meeting or take the two-week vacation you are owed.

Perversely, if you don’t let up, you’re likely underperforming and dragging your people with you.

This article was first published here on Forbes.com. Photo credit: Matthew Henry.

You say you want open debate and disagreement

Creating a climate where people speak out even when there is agreement is something many leaders say they want. A measure of group and team effectiveness is how it approaches diverse points of view. I find it surprising that I haven’t yet seen a team assessment or a leadership competency model that includes the courage to disagree in the face of agreement as a measure of team productivity. It’s sorely missing. The closest we come to it in organizations is the measure of valuing diverse views, but that isn’t quite the same thing. And it isn’t about generating buy-in either: that is easily achieved by complying. So how do you support an environment that is open to dissent? Consider telling a story.

Just today I coached an executive who was looking to create a vulnerable climate in a group so that no one holds back their ideas or disagreements. My client said he knew plenty of classic b-school stories but he acknowledged that these stories were well known and that re-telling them wouldn’t likely move the dial. Greater rapport building was among his chief development goals so we dove in to search and shape a story of his own that would produce the results he wanted for his team, the business and ultimately, the culture. A story in the recent past where he contradicted agreement in the room provided an example of the positive result that was the consequence of his contribution.

Reversing the train by speaking up

One of my current favourite stories of disagreement comes from the political world during a recent US primary election campaign that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez waged in the district that covers the Bronx and parts of Queens NY. You don’t have to follow politics or live in the US to enjoy the story. There was a lot at stake. With the present decline of democracy in the US, the strong distrust in government institutions, persistent polarization and many disenfranchised people who don’t vote or vote contrary to their interests, another victory for her long-seated Congressional opponent would have meant no change and would have generated greater cynicism about politics. This candidate’s platform was different and what she needed were ways to transmit her non-traditional message. Alexandria faced a formidable opponent in her own party, is only 28, unknown, and this was her first political campaign.

When the design studio began the work on creating her visual identity (campaign signs, logo, etc.) they went back in time to research civil rights movements to learn about how others successfully communicated a candidate promoting great change. Just a few days before their finished design was going to press, someone spoke out that what they had created had to be scrapped. It just didn’t resonate in a powerful way. So they started over and their brand new design went to press. The result, like Obama’s hope poster in 2008 by the artist Shepard Fairey, did the job and helped Alexandria win the primary by bringing out the vote even from those who had traditionally stopped voting. Speaking up to nix the design and recommend starting again seemed crazy so close to the print date. But that’s what was needed and that’s what worked.

One way leaders can support the groups and teams we work with to contribute is by coaching people on the skills of dissent. There are people around us who may want to disagree, but who don’t know how and fear embarrassment, uncertain how their view will be received. At the other end of the spectrum, I once asked someone I worked with how she tempers her persistent tendency to question with a concern about being perceived as too negative and it turned out that she wasn’t aware that it was a risk and hadn’t noticed the impact on others.

Here’s what to keep in mind

This list of tips is as useful for the hesitant and cautious as it is for the outspoken:

  • Get out of your way. It’s not about you. Keep your higher objective in mind and let that fuel your courage to disagree and guide you in thetiming of when to do it.
  • Ask a question rather than be oppositional. Become skilled at influencing and negotiating gently and firmly without raising the heat.
  • State what you agree on. And then present your concerns.
  • Call out the ‘sunken cost’ principle when it’s at play so that the group can review it and change direction.  (sunken cost: continuing down the road even though there is evidence that you need to pivot)
  • Build on what’s being said. Show you are listening and taking other’s views into consideration.
  • An effective way of influencing is to tell compelling stories.

The reason you as a leader invited others to the meeting is because of the contributions they can make and the value they can add. Don’t just tell people you want them to speak up and disagree, coach them on the skills to do it and acknowledge them when they do.