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Leadership with Simon Sinek and Martin Boehm during The World Business Forum MAD

World Business Forum MAD | IE Business School

Martin Boehm and Simon Sinek talk leadership and the infinite mindset during The World Business Forum in Madrid.

Martin Boehm, Dean at IE Business School and leadership expert Simon Sinek, discussed leadership, empathy and the infinite mindset in an armchair interview hosted by the Canadian Embassy of Madrid during the World Business Forum in Madrid.


Martin Boehm

You are a visionary and trailblazer in the concept of why and most recently, infinite mindset.

In your book, Leaders Eat Last, when discussing corporate culture and how it inspires loyalty, you use a Canadian example – Westjet. Employees of this upstart airline refer to themselves as “WestJetters” and refer to clients as “guests” rather than calling them “passengers” as other airlines do. What do you think this illustrates and is it part of their “why”?


Simon Sinek

Good leadership and good culture is not part of a why. The leaders at Westjet understand that despite the fact that there are a lot of technical requirements in an airline, it’s fundamentally a people business. Here’s the news flash, all businesses are people businesses. We call it a company. It is a group of people.

“The worst thing that can happen in corporate culture is when the people who work there fear their own leaders.”

They know that if they take care of their people, their people will take care of their guests. It works in that order. The worst thing that can happen in corporate culture is when the people who work there fear their own leaders. Because then they are making decisions to cover themselves or to follow the rules to the letter of the law– and have no feeling of discretion in doing their job– not because they think it’s the right thing to do, because they fear the repercussions. Ultimately, the company, customers and employees who will suffer as a result.


Martin Boehm

In your most recent book, The Infinite Game, you build on the why concept and argue that those who embrace an infinite mindset build stronger organization, more innovative organizations. And in the end, they’re going to be more successful. You postulate five essential practices for an infinite mindset–one of them being the existential flexibility. Could you please elaborate on this practice? And, if we are leaders, in what way can we embrace it in our organizations?


Simon Sinek

James Carse, the American philosopher theorized that if you have at least one competitor, then a game exists and there are two types of games, finite and infinite. The finite games are defined as the known player, fixed rules, and agreed-upon objectives. Baseball. Football. There is always a beginning, middle, and an end.

An infinite game is defined as known and unknown players, changeable rules. The objective is to perpetuate the game. To stay in the game as long as possible. Business is an infinite game. Nobody is declared the winner of business. There is no finish line. Global politics, the same.

The problem is the number of leaders that attempt to play global politics and play business with a finite mindset. They try to be number one, try to win and be the best and to beat their competitors. But, there is no such thing. When we play in an infinite game with a finite mindset, there are some predictable outcomes: the decline of trust, decline of cooperation, decline of innovation are the big three. Which means when you play with the right mindset you will see those things skyrocket.

To answer your question on existential flexibility: because the objective is to stay in the game as long as possible, we have to accept that tastes change, politics change, culture and technology change and evolve. Companies with a finite mindset are married to their business models rather than trying to advance their vision. As a result, they become completely closed to adapting for the world they are in.

“Existential flexibility is the willingness and capacity to make a profound 180 strategic shift in order to stay in the game, in order to advance the cause.”

I’ll give you some classic examples. Why is it that Amazon invented itself and the e-reader and not publishing? Why didn’t the publishing industry invent the e-reader? It’s because they were more obsessed with protecting their business model of selling books than finding new ways to help people read in a changing technological world. Why is it that Netflix invented itself and not the movie or television industry? Or why is it that Apple invented iTunes and not the music industry? It is because they were all so preoccupied with protecting the business model that worked for decades that they literally became blind to the necessity of change. Now they are changing not proactively but defensively. And they’re behind.

Existential flexibility is the willingness to walk away from your business model because it is the right thing to do to stay in business.


Martin Boehm

Could you give an example of a group organization not coming in from the outside, but sticking to the industry by trying to reinvent themselves?

Simon Sinek and Martin Boehm - World Business Forum MAD | IE Business School


Simon Sinek

There is a good example, Apple. Steve Jobs had a just cause that he was working to advance. He wanted to empower individuals to stand up to Big Brother. Which is why he found the personal computer so enamoring, because he saw this technology as one way of giving the individual the ability to compete with a corporation. They already had the success of the Apple 1 and Apple 2. He was famous and it was already a big company. One day he and his senior team visited Xerox Park and in the tour he was shown a new invention called the graphic user interface that allowed people to move a mouse across the desktop to work the computer– which meant you didn’t have to learn a computer language. So Jobs sees this invention that his company did not come up with as they were leaving the tour and he says to his executives, “We have to invest in that.” Remember that his filter is “how do I empower the individual.” And that was better than whatever they were working on.

One of the executives, the voice of reason said, “We can’t. If we do that, we are going to walk away from millions of dollars of investment, countless hours of manhours and we can’t simply walk away from our investment we will blow up our own company.” To which Jobs actually said, “Better we should blow it up than someone else.” That decision led to the Macintosh. They literally walked away from what they were working on to start up something entirely new and four years later introduced to the world the Macintosh. A computer algorithm system so profound that the entire software of Windows is designed to act like a Macintosh.

We can argue that the reason individuals have the capacity to compete with corporations today was because of his willingness to blow up his own business model and walk away from that investment. Very few leaders have that capacity. It’s not just courage and it’s not just vision. What he had was that his entire company understood the vision and there was a strong culture of trust, because what they were going to put the company through was unbelievable short-term stress and short-term losses. For the company to be willing to do that and people not abandon ship, they had to agree with him even if they knew it was going to hurt, be able to stick together and help each other. The capacity for existential flexibility requires clarity of cause and a strong trusting team otherwise it will backfire.


Martin Boehm

These concepts can also apply to geopolitics, especially the idea of infinite games. Canada already generously invests and supports the private sector innovation through multiple programs. In your opinion, how could the public and the private sector better collaborate or enhance the collaboration in order to thrive and push this innovation?


Simon Sinek

The answer is of course. Like in any partnership there has to be a common vision. If we show up selfishly– like if Canada is only investing so that they can get something back irrespective of how the company is or what they do– if they are doing it to enrich themselves or find investment, then that is a transaction and it will function like one. It may be profitable in the short term but is not going to last and is definitely not going to empower innovation. It’s just not going to happen.

It’s imperative in all partnerships that at least one of the parties–but preferably both– are able to clearly articulate the vision of the world that does not yet exist that they are devoting their time energy and resources to help advance. Even if it doesn’t have an immediate payback to Canada, for example, for them to see technologies of organizations that they believe are essential to building towards their vision of the way the world should work. Then, that is a high integrity investment. In time it should pay back. That’s how friendships work.

As individuals, we know that when we give selflessly to help people we get along with, we share the values and good moral character, we don’t give and do nice things for them only to get something back. Those are transactional relationships. Rather when somebody senses that we actually care about what they believe in, at some point we find out they are the most loyal friends, the most loyal investors. And, when the chips are down, we find out that they are the first ones to show up and sacrifice with us. So just take that interpersonal relationship which we all understand and add a few hundred thousand or a million more people and a bunch more zeros to the equation, and it’s the same dynamics.


Martin Boehm

What competencies do executives and leaders need to possess in order to have this infinite mindset and help their organizations perform?


Simon Sinek

The concept of leadership is not a new one. It’s as old as the human animal. We are tribal animals so we evolved in very large populations with natural hierarchies. Hierarchies exist and we show deference. We call the ambassador Mr.Ambassador to show deference and we are okay with that, even if we disagree. The idea of leadership is thousands of years old.

The question is are we being good leaders? Especially in these modern day times.

And that I think we have an uncomfortable answer. We have a leadership crisis in the world in politics and in business. There are too many leaders leading in a finite mindset. Idealism is something we seem to have abandoned. Its okay to want to win an election or to sign a deal those are finite. But once the election is won, governance is in an infinite. We have to learn to adapt between the two. We can’t play to win all the time. It just doesn’t work.

“We have to bring back empathy and other characteristics that have been forgotten like listening, giving and receiving feedback.”

The best equation for good leadership is good parenting. A leader is just like a parent, as a leader’s responsibility is to help those around themselves thrive. We should be committed to their growth, their education, sometimes discipline–when necessary. And, done with love so they can thrive even beyond our imagination. That is the best analogy to good leadership. And, like parenting you don’t get to choose your children and you don’t always get to choose your team. You love your kids and you didn’t pick those either so it’s the same.

I hate the term soft skills. There’s nothing soft about them. What we need is more human skills. The balance has been over indexed on decisiveness, aggression and hard-nosed stuff. I think we have to recalibrate this with more human skills.