Leadership and culture

Introducing sysadmins—and other leaders—to the infinite mindset

Published on July 30, 2021

Happy SysAdmin Day! If you’re reading this on your smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop, you can thank the folks on the front lines of IT. They’re the ones making it possible at every stage – from managing and securing your device to maintaining network connectivity, balancing loads in data centers, and more. And if you’re a sysadmin, thank you.

We often celebrate sysadmins as superheroes. They have the power to rise up on a moment’s notice to pull the organization back from the brink of digital catastrophe. And they have the humility to return to their day-to-day responsibilities, working behind the scenes to keep the organization up and running and open for business.

No doubt, the sysadmin-as-superhero portrayal is accurate. But this SysAdmin Day, let’s consider another portrayal: sysadmin as leader.

Sysadmins have the power to lead, even when they don’t have anybody reporting to them. That may sound naïve or misguided, but it’s backed by C-level wisdom. Just listen to Joanna Drake, CIO of The Hut Group, expand on her view that everyone in a business should be a leader during a conversation with CIO WaterCooler host David Savage.

“We can’t just rely on anyone with a CxO job title to lead because that’s like 0.001% of the work force,” Joanna says. “So we need to equip everybody with skills and also behavioral traits to make sure that they’re having a positive ripple effect on the area they’re leading. And that doesn’t matter if you’re a junior engineer, if you’re a CEO, if you’re a full-time parent, if you’re a football coach, I think we can equip people with practical skills.”

Going forward, the sysadmin’s ripple effects will undoubtedly grow, driven by the digital transformation that’s pushing IT deeper into every organization and driven by their own career advancement. In honor of sysadmins everywhere, here’s a practical way to keep those ripples positive.

Mind your ripples

Too many leaders are playing the game of business with the wrong mindset. This is true at every level of every department, including IT. As a result, these leaders are damaging trust, cooperation, and innovation and leading their organizations into struggle and decline.

They don’t have to keep playing that way, but most do. Why? Because they haven’t been introduced to a better way, one that builds trust, cooperation, innovation, and the health of the organization as a whole. This article is that introduction.

Meet Simon Sinek and his book, The Infinite Game. Simon is an unshakable optimist and best-selling author whose views on business and leadership parallel the spiritual capitalism we advocate at ManageEngine and our parent company, Zoho Corp. The Infinite Game presents a better way to play the game of business, an infinite mindset that works for us and will work for you, too, regardless of your title or role.

Infinite underpinnings

A few key ideas underpin Simon’s infinite mindset. First, the concept of “playing a game” goes beyond common leisure or sporting events, like playing darts at the pub or softball on your company’s team. Playing a game includes any competitive or cooperative activity that involves two or more people.

Next, the game itself doesn’t always look like the ones you grew up with. The games that are most familiar to us are finite games. They have known players, set rules, and agreed-up objectives. When the objective is reached, the game ends with a clear winner and loser. Soccer, cricket, and poker are finite games. So are “GDPR compliance,” “2FA implementation,” and “Q3 performance targets.”

Less familiar to us are infinite games, which have their own distinct characteristics—known and unknown players, no set rules, no agreed-up objectives, and no end. Players don’t win or lose an infinite game. Instead, they stop playing when they exhaust their will or resources. Or they continue playing as new players enter the game or old players return. Marriage and politics are infinite games. Business is, too.

A crucial difference between finite and infinite games is our motivation and mindset. We play a finite game to win, so we set our minds on ending the game (to win). On the other hand, we play an infinite game to play, so we set our minds on extending the game (to continue playing).

Of course, we need both mindsets in the business world. But the one needed to play “meet the SLA,” “patch the endpoints,” and other finite games tends to dominate our workdays and grow stronger. Meanwhile, our infinite mindset atrophies, and we end up mistaking the infinite game of business for the finite games taking place within. In turn, we focus on winning the game of business instead of playing it.

Embrace the infinite

To help sysadmins as well as other IT and business professionals, Simon has created a practical framework for embracing and enhancing the mindset needed to play and lead in the infinite game. Presented below, the framework’s practices include advancing a just cause, building trusting teams, studying worthy rivals, developing existential flexibility, and demonstrating courageous leadership.

Just cause. Think of a just cause as a vision of the future that shines so brightly that others are drawn to it like moths to a light. It’s a mission that’s bigger than us and our organization. It’s enduring, meaningful, and fulfilling. We commit to a just cause at a deeply personal level; and we’re willing to make financial, personal, and professional sacrifices in order to advance it.

Simon identifies five qualities of a just cause:

  1. Affirmative and optimistic—It represents what we stand for and believe.

  2. Inclusive—It is open to all those who would like to contribute.

  3. Service oriented—Its primary benefit is intended for others.

  4. Resilient—It can endure political, technological, and cultural change.

  5. Idealistic—It is big, bold, and ultimately unachievable.

Zoho’s mission—to expand prosperity through technology—qualifies as a just cause. It inspires us to keep going, to keep playing the infinite game.

Trusting teams. We’ve looked at team trust and team performance before, thanks to Simon’s colleague and Navy SEAL officer, Rich Diviney. The bottom line? Trust is essential to the high performance of any team. Consistently cultivating trust within a team sustains high performance over the long haul.

According to Rich, members of a trusting team don’t turn off their feelings at work; they lean into them. Emotions are inescapable. You can’t stop them. But you can create a safe environment that tolerates fear, shame, and other potentially debilitating emotions, because this tolerance ultimately improves the team’s performance and its level of trust. In addition to creating safety, Rich advises leaders to cultivate trust by showing vulnerability, using candor, and living the culture they espouse.

Worthy rivals. A worthy rival is not your garden variety competitor. In fact, worthy rivals may not even be competitors. They might be players in another industry. They might be colleagues. But regardless of their relationship to us, worthy rivals do something (or many things) as well as or better than us—make better products, establish more loyal customers and employees, and demonstrate a greater sense of purpose—and thereby encourage us to improve ourselves.

Worthy rivals help us become better players. They bring out the best in us as we strive to compete at their level. Then, we strive further, working to compete beyond their level. The worthy rival’s opposition tends to push us forward in ways that we fail to push ourselves.

Existential flexibility. Simon defines existential flexibility as the capacity to initiate an extreme disruption to an existing, successful business model or strategic course in order to more effectively advance your just cause.

An existential flex is an offensive maneuver. You flex when you believe your current path will significantly restrict your ability to advance your cause. And you flex when you believe a new technology will do a better job of advancing your cause. You risk the known path for the unknown because, as an infinite leader, you realize the known path poses the bigger risk to your just cause.

Courageous leadership. The glue that holds the infinite framework together is courageous leadership. Without the courage to lead, take action, and adopt new perspectives as demanded by the rest of the framework, the whole thing is simply a thought experiment.

Fortunately, our courage to lead grows as we follow the framework’s practices. Seek a just cause that you believe in, commit to it and advocate for it. Align yourself with like-minded, trusting people. Find worthy rivals who inspire you to become better at advancing your just cause and better at the infinite game overall. And picture your cause so clearly that the path forward is unmistakable no matter its degree of difficulty.

Time for the infinite

Whether you’re sitting in the C-suite as an officer, in the call center as a tech support admin, or anywhere else in the organization, you are a leader. What you do ripples throughout the organization, for better and for worse.

You may not have been aware of your influence before, but you are now. So now’s the time to start playing business in a way that benefits everyone—you, your team, your organization, and the customers, partners, and communities you all serve. Now’s the time to start leading with an infinite mindset.

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  1. “sysadmin as leader!” very true, they have the ringside view of all things IT, and Business Transformation is made possible because of them.

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