Marshmallow Test for Leaders

Marshmallows Laid Out In The Shape Of A Heart Isolated On A Gray

The famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, originally conducted in the 1970’s, has had a resurgence in popularity of late, with parents posting their child’s performance in the experiment on Facebook for all the world to see. The premise of the experiment is this: The researcher/parent puts one marshmallow in front of their child, and then tells the child that he or she can have a second marshmallow if the child can go 15 minutes without eating the first one. The researcher/parent then leaves the room for 15 minutes — all the while recording how the child handles the dilemma. As entertaining as the footage can be, it does spur the question . . . if there was a marshmallow test for leaders, how would you perform?

Do today’s leaders have the patience, the willingness to persevere, the ability to delay gratification even if waiting means doubling their reward? In a world that increasingly expects speed, agility, and the ability to change course at the drop of a hat . . . what is a leader to do when maximizing the gain requires patience and a long term view? How do you respond when board members, shareholders, staff members, and various other stakeholders seem to be figuratively chanting “eat, eat, eat!” How do you hold off?


Clarity around the goal.

Clarity about why you want to get there.

Clarity in your communications.

Unfortunately, clarity for a leader can be much harder than it is for a child. We have so many choices. So much information. So many experts telling us what we should or shouldn’t do. Someone always has a “better way,” a new opportunity, competitors are offering new features, and someone read something somewhere that we should consider. It is hard work to distill down all the possibilities into a clear path forward, because saying yes to one path means saying no to another. But once you have a clarity of focus, an amazing thing happens . . .

Clarity is like a volume button. It allows you to turn down the background noise. It allows you to look at the marshmallow and see where the rewards will take you, rather than be distracted by the voices singing the praises of the immediate sugar rush. Clarity makes decisions easier. It gives one the patience, the perseverance — and perhaps surprisingly even the agility and ability to change course — in pursuit of a clear goal.

When you have clarity, you can stare down the marshmallows before you with confidence and lead on . . . toward a reward that is twice as sweet.

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