Successful Leaders Play the Long Game
Randy Wolken, President & CEO

We all know leaders who play to win – in the short term. They can be brilliant at it. They get the project done, get the product out, and meet the sales goal. All of these are important, but are these leaders playing the long game?

Successful leaders must learn and play the long game. Winning the day is not enough. Leaders must focus on helping people commit to on-going contributions. Projects, products, and sales need to be daily outcomes. They are not one-and-done. To do so, means leaders must be thoughtful about how to work for long-term outcomes that are sustainable. How we accomplish our results will determine our effectiveness.

You will find that all generations want a workplace that is structured for success – day after day. Even change-focused environments need certainty and rhythms that are predictable. Processes need to support replication and repetition. Fear and uncertainty will not support long-term results.

One method that has encouraged me to think differently and act differently is to compare finite games to infinite games. Finite games have defined beginnings and ends. Many games have winners and losers. They usually have rules and referees. However, life is more like an infinite game. In infinite games the play does not end, winners and losers are not entirely clear – nor as important, and there often is no agreed upon rules and referees. Interactions that are on-going are expected – and desired. So “winning” must be done differently so that the players want to play again tomorrow – and every day thereafter.

How we treat others matters immensely. The quality of the play becomes the leading criteria – not who wins and who loses. A lot of finite games have one winner or winning team – and everyone else loses. That does not work for infinite games since no one wants to always be on the losing end. An infinite game is like a high school theater where everyone wins when the production goes well. A finite game is a sporting competition like high school basketball where one team loses, and one team wins. Different “games” that are experienced differently. Don’t get me wrong – I love sports and games, but I do ask myself when to use this method of playing – and how it will impact my team.

We can learn at a young age how to win – but is it repeatable for the long-term? What are the rules for the long-term? Must there always be winners and losers – or can we all win? What does the experience need to be like each day for our teams to show up and perform at their best? Leaders who want sustainable success must ask and answer these questions. How do you answer them?