Q&A: Simon Sinek on School Improvement, Growth Mindset, and More

Shaped staff spoke with Simon Sinek (@simonsinek), an unshakable optimist who believes in a bright future and our ability to build it together. Described as “a visionary thinker with a rare intellect,” Simon teaches leaders and organizations how to inspire people. With a bold goal to help build a world in which the vast majority of people wake up every single day feeling inspired, feeling safe at work, and feeling fulfilled at the end of the day, Simon is leading a movement to inspire people to do the things that inspire them. 

Sinek is the author of multiple best-selling books including Start With Why, Leaders Eat Last, Together Is Better, and Find Your Why. His new book, The Infinite Game, will be released in June 2019. Sinek will also be a featured speaker at this year's Model Schools Conference in Washington, D.C., from June 23–26, 2019.

We asked him questions on topics including infinite organizations, the state of K–12 education, growth mindset and social-emotional learning, and measuring success as an education leader. Here's what he had to say.

Shaped: What is an "infinite game mindset"? Why is it important for education leaders to have this mindset when overseeing their school districts?

Simon Sinek: An infinite mindset is the recognition that there is no practical end to our work. The goal is not to win or be the best in an infinite game; it is to strive to be better, to experience constant improvement. The only true competitor in an infinite game is oneself. 

ShapedWhat are the characteristics of a school district that would make it an infinite organization? 

Simon: They play to advance a cause greater than themselves, as opposed to playing to be number one in some ranking. They build a culture of trust—trust between administrators, educators, and everyone else involved in the running of the school, including parents and students. In the drive to constantly outdo themselves, they recognize other schools out there that are better than they are, not to compete with them but to benchmark against them. And they have the courage to do what is right versus what is expedient. 

ShapedMany educators want to instill a positive growth mindset in their students. As a self-proclaimed optimist, what advice can you provide to teachers looking to encourage students to continually work to improve their skills, leading to greater growth and ultimately success?

Simon: Students will never love the school until the teachers love the school first. Students will see no reason to adopt a growth mindset until the teachers do, too. Does the school provide opportunities to the teachers for continual personal and professional growth? 

ShapedFocusing on mindset and social-emotional learning are growing areas of importance for educators when working with students. As an entrepreneur, how have you created safe places for your employees and yourself at work?

Simon: When we create environments in which people feel like they belong, when we create Circles of Safety, the result is trust and collaboration. It is vital that we create a space in which people feel psychologically safe to be themselves, to express their personalities. In addition, it is essential that we create a space in which people feel psychologically safe to admit mistakes or ask for help without any fear of humiliation or retribution. 

ShapedHow do you measure the success of making sure people feel inspired, safe, and fulfilled? What data points should an education leader consider? 

Simon: Traditional performance metrics are a part of the equation. A culture in which people feel inspired, safe, and fulfilled will outperform a weaker culture over time. Other metrics will also demonstrate the benefit—recruiting costs are lower and productivity is higher, for example.

People who feel positive about their work tend to go home happier, which means educators who work in those cultures will enjoy stronger relationships with their kids and their spouses. In turn, this means marriages are more likely to endure. Data shows that happier people tend to live longer and have lower rates of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. So, working in a great culture is not only good for business—it’s key for a long life, too! 

ShapedWhat inspired you to write The Infinite Game? Was there a specific event?

Simon: I don’t set out to write books. If anything, I’ll try not to write one. What generally happens—and The Infinite Game fits this pattern—is that I personally become consumed by an idea. I start testing it in my own life as a way to help me overcome my own challenges. When it works, I share it with friends and start talking about it in meetings—not because I want anything from anyone; I just think that when I stumble upon something of value, it’s my responsibility to share it with as many people as possible. The more people I share an idea with, the more the idea takes form. The more the idea takes form, the bigger and more robust it becomes. Until someone says, “You know, you really should write a book about this,” I’ll resist as long as I can until I concede that this idea may indeed be good enough to be the subject of a book. Learning what it takes to adopt an infinite mindset over the past few years has so profoundly reshaped how I see the world and navigate within it, I had to write it down.

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Join Simon Sinek and more than 5,000 educators in 100+ sessions at the 27th Annual Model Schools Conference in Washington, D.C., from June 23–26, 2019, where you can learn what steps to take to act for impact in your school or district.