Can you be a warrior of the infinite game?
I had the great pleasure to interview Margaret Wheatley for the Making Positive Psychology work podcast recently.
In case you’re not familiar with Meg’s work, her early writing opened up the science of systems thinking to leaders and workplaces around the world and she has been honoured for her ground-breaking work by many professional associations, universities and organisations. She has authored nine books, including the classic Leadership and the New Science and one of my favourites, Who Do We Choose to Be?
In our interview, Meg suggested, “We’re in a place right now where leaders cannot control anything. Leaders are challenged like never before and the old ways of leading, thinking, strategising simply cannot work in this intense uncertainty.”
Trying to control a living system by imposing rigid structures to solve complex challenges is a fool’s errand at any time (as I discussed in this recent post), but particularly during times of great uncertainty as we are experiencing now. Yet it’s one that many leaders are still struggling to try and do. We seem to find it hard to accept that our people, teams and workplaces are living systems.
I’ve seen it with my clients – when I recently shared with one executive team that they couldn’t really control their people’s behaviour, the blood drained from their faces in shock and dismay!
The thing is, until we let go of this belief of the role of leaders as ‘controller’, nothing much is going to change.
So how can we as leaders start to see ourselves, our team, and our workplace for the living systems they really are?
A good start point is to reframe disruption.
Whilst surprise, change and loss of control tend to be experiences most leaders, teams and workplaces like to avoid, disruption and uncertainty are actually important requirements for our learning and growth. It’s often these ‘dark times’ that offer us different gifts and abundant opportunities for possibilities of contribution and meaning.
I asked Meg, given the unprecedented challenges we are facing, what is the role of leaders right now? I was inspired by her response:
“It’s about stepping forward to claim a different role for ourselves as leaders as warriors for the human spirit. To create the conditions for people to be creative and generous and kind.
Not only to believe what’s possible in each person but to also be a presence that calms things down, that gives people a sense of confidence in what we know about human beings being human together. That we can get through anything as long as we’re together.
As a leader in the warrior role you choose service over self-interest. It’s a conscious choice.”
When we take on this ‘leader as warrior’ role, we move beyond ego, beyond ‘what’s in it for me’ and lead from a place of contribution to others and the greater good.
We are brave because it is who we choose to be in a moment that offers it to us – we ask the challenging question, we name the ‘elephant in the room’; we have that difficult but oh so necessary performance conversation.
We feel fear and walk beside it, and in doing so, we reduce its hold, open our heart and mind to its possibilities and discover fearlessness; a fearlessness in which we encounter fear and act from that space – knowing and accepting that the fear is with us.
We play what’s called the Infinite Game.
The idea of the infinite game was first proposed by Professor James P. Carse in his 1987 book, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility.
In it, he suggests that finite games have an endpoint: a time at which there is a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser’. However, the infinite game (and there is only one) exists solely for the purpose of continuing the game.
The infinite game goes beyond short term versus long term.
To quote Simon Sinek, the infinite game “…is not about the next quarter or the next election; it is about the next generation.”
When we play the infinite game:
- Our goal is to keep the game going and keep playing rather than winning the game.
- We facilitate the game and help to sustain it, to make it thrive and prosper, rather than looking to bring the game to a conclusion.
- Rather than playing to protect, gain, or expand power, we play to our limitless strengths – our own and others’, in combination and collectively – to achieve outcomes that may be felt beyond our time playing.
Playing the infinite game in this way enables us to benefit from the upsides of disruption, uncertainty, and change. And is one way that we Become AntiFragile.
As leaders, we need to accept that in the Decade of Disruption, when any illusion of control over disruption and uncertainty has been crushed, finite games are increasingly irrelevant. As we deal with ever more ambiguous and adaptive challenges in an ever more complex and interdependent world, the idea that we should compete to succeed is ludicrous. Winning becomes irrelevant because by the time it us takes to reach the level of mastery necessary needed to win, the game has changed. Playing to win is a zero-sum game.
Making a conscious choice to become a warrior-leader is a very clear way to play the infinite game.
So, will you be a Warrior of the Infinite Game today?
Will you let fear walk beside you so it can lead you to fearlessness?
Meg suggests these questions can help you replace fear with the clarity to do so:
- What do I care about?
- What do I choose to be brave on behalf of?
- Have I/Am I being faithful to that in my beliefs and actions?
Listen to the full podcast here.
Dr Paige Williams
International Speaker, Author, Mentor
Using a potent blend of positive psychology, neuroscience, systems thinking and her own research, Paige provides practical, evidence-based strategies for leaders to leverage their leadership, elevate performance and thrive through challenge and change to create positive purposeful impact.