James Carse has written a wonderfully provocative book on the nature of our interactions in the world. His work is particularly relevant now, during the Solstice season, when all seems to pause, reflect, refocus, and, with the increasing light, return to growth and activity.
– I approach leadership as a game to be won, with clear rules, goals, and opponents.
– I approach leadership as a game to be played with others in order to advance the play through our collaborative work and ensure its continuity over time.
If you picked the first, you are not alone. In fact, this is the leadership model that has been in play for the last 50 years at least. If you picked the second you are also in good company. Your peers are the trailblazers of the Internet world and Gen X corporate leaders. In either case, we are facing a world in which Finite Play (defined by option 1) limits our abilities to respond to the challenges and surprises 21st Century leaders confront daily. The answer to this conundrum is not to jettison Finite Play, but rather to embed it into an Infinite Game.
Finite Games have three characteristics that I feel are key for leaders to understand, least they overuse this form of interacting with the world.
- Finite Games come to a definitive end. For example, promotion, profit, or beating your competition in market share. Like sports, these are games in which everyone can agree on who is the winner.
- This leads to the second important aspect of Finite Games: The rules and procedures are externally defined. This means that the rules cannot be changed during the course of play. Hence, these games are slow to adapt to changes in the environment or changes of context, both of which are important in business today. Additionally, the rules are different for each type of Finite Game. For example, leaders who are awesome on the shop floor may not do well in the home office, and promoting expert leaders into roles that require the people skills of a generalist can cause problems. Rule makers can also remove players at any time, especially when they are no longer needed for the game, very common during downsizing.
- Finite Games have definitive boundaries. These boundaries are designed to limit the players involved based on their skills, knowledge, and expertise , which are specific to the game being played. Hard boundaries produce silos, the rigidity of hierarchical organizational structures, and the inflexibility of jobs, roles, and titles (not my problem syndrome).
In my mind, Infinite Games are where leaders can really shine, but they are inherently paradoxical and require an open, inquisitive mindset.
- Infinite Games are played for the purpose of continuing the play. These are the corporate games led by visionaries, strategic wizards, leaders who navigate turbulence, embrace surprise, and manage paradox by engaging with the game as it unfolds. Leaders who play Infinite Games transform organizations and develop (not just promote) those around them.
- The rules and procedures of Infinite Games are internally defined. As the environment and context in which the game is played changes, these change as well. In fact, the rules of Infinite Games are designed to deal with specific threats that would end or limit the game. This creates a system that is adaptive and resilient – encouraging learning and enlarging the pool of players to meet the demands of the situation.
- Infinite Games have soft, semi-permeable boundaries. Players form networks (formal and informal) and actively enroll others who can contribute. Players can self-select, coming and going as the game changes and the need for their skills and talents changes.
- Infinite Games can contain Finite Games. This changes the way the Finite Game and its players are perceived by leaders.
infinite players… enter into finite games with all the appropriate energy [but] without the seriousness of finite players. …For that reason they regard each participant in finite play as that person playing and not as a role played by someone.“ James Carse, emphasis the authors
Integrating the Two
Carse’s book presents a view in which ceaseless change is met with the continuity generated by Infinite Games rather than discontinuity generated by Finite Games. Leadership in this model is fluid, engaging our humanity and creativity in a form of play that can hold the rigidity of Finite Games and still advance the overarching Infinite Game. To blend the two requires a leader that, in the words of psychologist Edwin Friedman,
can shift [their] orientation… from one that focuses on techniques that motivate others to one that focused on the leader’s own presence and being.”
Look back at the characteristics of Infinite Games; they fit with Friedman’s assertion that leadership is an emotional process rather than a cognitive process. To lead an Infinite Game requires one to have clarity about themselves and their own emotional processing. This allows them to manage their own reactivity when others around them are anxious and uncertain. To be sure, this is not easy. But neither is it available to only a few, any leader can improve their capacity for being present and connected to those around them.
This brings us back to the Solstice – the end of exhale … the pause before drawing a fresh new breathe of air. Is 2012 the year you begin playing the Infinite Game of leadership?
 Carse, James P. Finite and Infinite Games. Random House, New York. 1986.
 Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of Quick Fixes. Seabury Books, New York, 2007.