The first article in this series featuring Stephen Shedletzky focused on the difference between finite and infinite thinking, why that matters, and the power of an infinite mindset. Stephen is the Head of Brand Experience and Lead Igniter at Simon Sinek’s organization.
The aspirations of infinite-minded organizations are “to advance a purpose, to protect people, and, of course, to generate profit, as profit is used to reinvest in number one and number two,” Stephen explained.
Today in part two, we’re unpacking how to adopt an infinite mindset for yourself and your organization using the five practices of infinite-minded leadership highlighted in Simon Sinek’s book, The Infinite Game.
· Advance a just cause
· Build trusting teams
· Study worthy rivals
· Prepare for existential flexibility
· Demonstrate the courage to lead
Note that these are called “practices” intentionally, implying that there’s neither a beginning nor an ending to any of them. Mastery doesn’t exist. Rather, the practices outline areas for continual exploration and improvement over time.
Advance a Just Cause
In part one, we highlighted three organizations with infinite mindsets: Patagonia, Victorinox (maker of the Swiss Army Knife), and Chobani. Today, we’ll add CVS Pharmacy to the list.
“A number of years ago, the leadership team at CVS realized they had a purpose which is to inspire people to lead healthier lifestyles,” Stephen explained. “Then, they looked at the products they sold, which included $1.5 billion in cigarettes every year.” As a result, they decided that selling cigarettes didn’t align with that purpose, and in 2014 removed them from the shelves in every single store. To be clear: CVS, which is a publicly traded company, made a decision to walk away from $1.5 billion in highly profitable revenue.
Here’s what happened as a result of their decision: At first, quite predictably, the company’s stock price went down, as they sacrificed both market share and profit as the short-term cost to honor their just cause. But simultaneously, the entire market for cigarettes in the US shrunk because a major player decided not to sell them anymore, which provided less opportunity for individuals to engage in an unhealthy habit.
What’s more, when people came to CVS to buy their cigarettes, the store staff would offer them smoking cessation products instead, ultimately helping more people quit smoking (which 70% of smokers say they’d like to do).
Eventually, new vendors and customers flocked to CVS because they recognized that the company made a decision based on its values—not its shorter-term interests. Strategic choices like this attract loyalty in the long run, as they attract those who are truly part of the same “tribe” with shared values.
This dovetails with a concept I discuss frequently with my coaching clients: A focused strategy requires you to say “no” more than you say “yes.” You have to be willing to let go of things that you previously thought provided value. Although that can be a difficult concept to wrap your head around, as was the case with CVS, a virtuous cycle ultimately occurs. When you let go of the things that do not serve you, you inevitably make more room for those that do.
Questions to Consider:
· Have you identified and articulated your Just Cause?
· If so, how can you continually improve how you use it as a filter for decision-making?
Build Trusting Teams
Several years ago, Google conducted a study designed to identify the root causes of team effectiveness. Psychological safety was at the top of the list of the five traits that emerged and is directly linked to building trust. The point of linkage is a willingness to be vulnerable; to admit mistakes, to speak your mind, to admit ignorance, to take (moderate) risks, and more. Psychological safety leads to increased vulnerability which, in turn, leads to higher trust.
Stephen explained, “building trusting teams is about creating an environment in which people can operate at their natural best. This is about creating the condition where people can raise their hand and say, ‘I’m struggling. I don’t have the training for the job that I’m in. I’m having trouble at home and it’s affecting my work. I have fear, uncertainty, and doubt.’ And the response is to provide support, not reprimand.”
He added, “Too often, leaders ask the flawed question, ‘How do I get the most out of my people?’… The right question is ‘How do I create conditions in which my people can operate at their natural best?’”
Those conditions create a circle of safety which allows your team to show vulnerability—exposing their weaknesses and their strengths. Knowing what each person is good at and where they struggle makes for an even stronger team as they use their knowledge about one another to have conversations with candor and care that provide meaningful feedback.
Trusting teams engage and retain high-performing employees and make it easier to attract more to your organization, further strengthening your teams and advancing your just cause.
Questions to Consider:
· How can you improve psychological safety in your organization?
· How can you better lead by example and demonstrate more vulnerability as a leader?
Study Worthy Rivals
Although infinite games don’t produce winners or losers like finite games do, there is a perennial competitor: It’s you. The goal is to continually improve everything that matters—your leadership, culture, skills, processes, and more—to become a better organization next year than you are this year. Stephen shared the story of a friend who leads a religious congregation. Every year, he tells his congregants, “Next year, I hope you have a better leader. And I hope that leader is still me.”
Humility and self-awareness set the stage for continual learning and growth.
Often, other players in the game will be ahead of you, and that’s OK. In fact, it’s great, because—as painful as it might sound—you can learn from them. They are your worthy rivals. Worthy rivals have skills, capabilities, and attributes that either make you insecure or spark your admiration. Either way, it’s a signal that you should start paying attention. Leaning into the discomfort of speaking to your worthy rivals, particularly with the intent to learn, yields valuable insights.
Focus on worthy rivals who can help you improve, like a person or an organization that does something much better than you. Your aim, after all, is to study their skills, thinking, and behaviors such that you can continue improving your own.
Questions to Consider:
· Who are three worthy rivals that make you uncomfortable, but who you could learn from?
· How do your beliefs and assumptions need to change such that you’ll be able to engage and learn from your worthy rivals?
Prepare for Existential Flexibility
Existential flexibility is the capacity to make a proactive, extreme disruption or change to your business or operating model, should you find a better way. Preparing for existential flexibility requires you to play offense, rather than defense. As such, instead of reacting to market pressures or fads, any pivot you make should be in pursuit of your just cause.
To illustrate, Stephen shared the timely example of Dimo’s Pizza in Chicago. “Dimo’s Pizza was seven months old when the pandemic hit in March,” he said. “Seventy percent of their revenues were from slinging slices on the street during lunch, which stopped completely. So, they looked at their assets. They had a pizza oven, and that oven got hot. They asked, ‘What does the world need?’ The answer: more personal protective equipment (PPE). So, they bought industrial-grade plastic, and molded it into face shields. Now, they sell those. And coming out of the pandemic, they can be both Dimo’s Face Shields and Dimo’s Pizzeria.”
As was the case with Dimo’s Pizza, existential flexibility often leads to diversified sources of revenue, lower business risk, and higher profits. These three factors, in turn, help advance the long-term pursuit of a just cause.
Stephen continued, “We never know when we’re going to have to do it, but we must prepare our leaders to have the mindset that they should bet the farm if they find something that will keep them relevant for the next 30 or 100 years, rather than the next 5.”
Questions to Consider:
· What innovations, technologies, and/or risks could significantly disrupt your current business model in the next 5-10 years?
· How can you allocate time quarterly to assess and discuss emerging opportunities and threats with your team?
Demonstrate the Courage to Lead
Stepping into courage enables leaders to make right, hard decisions and ensure they’re properly executed. A lack of courage, on the other hand, prevents otherwise capable leaders from building trusting teams and advancing a just cause.
Courageous leaders take risks and make decisions based on their values, not their interests, often moving toward an unknown future. The result is increased loyalty from employees, customers, and the public alike—as we learned from CVS Pharmacy’s decision to stop selling tobacco products.
But where does courage come from? “It doesn’t originate internally,” Stephen said. “Courage is actually external. A trapeze artist would never try a death-defying move for the first time without a safety net. It’s that external safety net that gives them courage.”
Similarly, we build our own courage from mentors, from friends, and from those we call when we doubt ourselves. They tell us they believe in us, that our work is important, that they have our backs, and that we have their unconditional support.
Courage also emanates from purpose. Early in my coaching career, I belonged to a network of trainers and coaches. Each time we met, I would look around the room and marvel at how the more seasoned practitioners seemed “fearless.” Years later, I realized that what I had perceived as fearlessness was actually purposefulness. Although these practitioners may have felt fear, they acted despite it in service of something bigger than themselves.
Stephen emphasized the point further: “I don’t believe in fearlessness. I believe in feeling fear and doing it anyway. And the reason you do it is because there’s something more important than you as an individual. You say, ‘I’m willing to sacrifice my interests and put myself on the line because I believe in that more and I need to bring that to life.’”
That’s the courage to lead!
Questions to Consider:
· Where would an external safety net help you act as a more courageous leader?
· What are you tolerating in yourself or in others that interferes with the pursuit of your just cause? How can you eliminate counterproductive attitudes and/or behaviors?
How to Get Started
Here’s how Stephen suggests you get started implementing the five practices: “The first module is always self-awareness. I think it’s really healthy to look at yourself and ask, ‘where do I need to grow?’ And don’t just look in a mirror by yourself, but hire a coach or ask a friend or your colleagues, and actually listen.”
He recommends that you either study worthy rivals or build trusting teams from there, because both are readily accessible and actionable. Unless you already have a clear just cause, begin working on that with your team after advancing these first two practices, which help pave the way.
What if you’re not the CEO or a senior leader in your organization?
Although those in formal leadership positions certainly have the most opportunity to make a difference, everyone can embrace an infinite mindset—even if you work within a finite-minded organization, or with finite-minded leaders.
We all have a choice about how we show up.
You can choose to be the leader you wish you had. You can focus on the causes you care about and try to bring them to life. You can make your team—even if it’s a small portion of a larger department or organization—high trust and high performance. You can make a difference!
At the end of The Infinite Game, Simon challenges his readers to live a life of service. With that in mind, Stephen concluded, “The thing that has made us most successful as a species is our ability to look out for and help one another… When we show up with an act of generosity and expect nothing in return, we produce the hormone oxytocin. It makes us feel warm and fuzzy and good. It’s biology’s way of saying, ‘Keep doing that. It’s in your best interest.’”
For more on Simon Sinek, Stephen Shedletzky, and their work—including books, online classes, Simon’s podcast, and other resources—visit www.simonsinek.com. Stephen also invites you to connect with him on LinkedIn.
In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share just two or three in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.
You’re Only as Good as Your Worst Day (FS Blog)
“We tend to measure performance by what happens when things are going well. Yet how people, organizations, companies, leaders, and other things do on their best day isn’t all that instructive. To find the truth, we need to look at what happens on the worst day…”
The Art of Hansei–How the Japanese Philosophy of Self-Reflection Can Improve Your LIfe (The Ladders)
“Self-awareness is one of the best ways to improve or make progress — it’s a must for anyone interested in growing, personally and professionally.
Hansei is a Japanese word meaning “self-reflection”, or “introspection”. It’s a fundamental part of Japanese culture. It is both an intellectual and emotional introspection.
Hansei also incorporates the concept of greeting success with modesty and humility. To stop Hansei means to stop learning. With hansei, one never becomes convinced of one’s own superiority, and feels that there is always more room, or need, for further improvement…”
Next Steps to Accelerate Your Leadership Success…
Buy a book: Activators – A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done -or- Creating a Culture of Accountability