What Game Are You Playing? Mastering the Art of Leadership: Navigating Finite and Infinite Games
As a leader, whether in business or non profit, you are playing a game. Maybe several games, often without realising what kind of a game you’re playing. Getting them mixed up can lead to no end of frustration or loss of direction. Let me explain.
James P Carse suggested there are two kinds of games: Finite and infinite games. Knowing which you are playing and whether it’s appropriate for your outcome is the art every woman leader needs to master.
First, an explanation. All games, finite or infinite, have players who willingly choose to play the game. That’s where the similarities end.
A finite game, as its name suggests, has a beginning and an end. It has rules; players play by those rules or are usually penalised if they transgress them. Sometimes that doesn’t happen in business or life. The sole purpose of a finite game is to win. In every finite game then, there are winners and losers. We’re very familiar with finite games. Whether it’s chess or a rugby or tennis match, finite games are all around us, and can stir up intense loyalties and rivalries.
An infinite game, as its name suggests, has no beginning or end; it simply goes on and on. Players join the game; others leave the game; play continues. We’re so accustomed to finite games that it’s hard to imagine what an infinite game might be like. They don’t usually make the headlines on the sports pages, yet they are amongst the most important games we play in life.
Like parenting, storytelling, making music, career and skill development. Business itself. These are all infinite games. Another key characteristic of an infinite game is that it has no rules. Guiding principles, accepted norms, but no rules.
Now back to my initial question. What game or games are you playing? And are you trying to play an infinite game by finite game rules? If so, you may well feel frustrated at your lack of progress, or out of sorts because you feel something is missing in your life and work.
Let’s get some clarity here.
If you have a project to deliver on by next Friday, it’s a finite game. You’ll either win that game, by bringing in the desired outcome on time and to budget, or you won’t. Going for a promotion or a new job? You can easily discover the rules, and play that finite game.
Note though, that something else is at play here: Who you need to be to deliver that project, get that promotion or new job. This is where you engage in a continuous leadership activity of personal growth and development. Of finding and living on purpose. Of bringing meaning and fulfilment to all the finite games you play and the leadership qualities required of an effective leader.
Because when it comes to realising your vision for a better world, the bigger your vision, the bigger the infinite game. Few people and few businesses realise their big vision. Other players step in to carry that game forward into the next generation. If you are to make a positive impact, as so many women leaders wish to do, then know it’s an infinite game. Inspire and enrol your team players; build this as your legacy.
And along the way, there will be plenty of finite games to play as part of making that positive impact. Projects and tasks, initiatives with clear outcomes, players and rules. Games to win. Know which game you’re playing at any one time.
Don’t confuse one with the other. Realising your vision is not a game to be won. There is always more scope to make your unique positive impact on your world and your role within it. That game is never over. Getting a promotion is. Though it too, sits within the bigger infinite game of honing your leadership skills and advancing as an enlightened leader.
Know your games. Play on!