Wanted! Leaders who can manage more than one marshmallow

I listened with fascination to Vanessa Feltz’s daytime radio programme on BBC London Radio. The subject being discussed was the marshmallow test. Whilst teaching at Stanford University in the 1960s, Walter Mischel carried out this now well known squidgy pink and white experiment.

A group of four-year-olds were given a marshmallow and promised another, only if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Some children could wait and others could not. The researchers then followed the progress of each child into adolescence and demonstrated that those with the ability to wait were better adjusted and more dependable (determined via surveys of their parents and teachers), and scored an average of 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

People were phoning the show getting excited about how little Timmy, who was off school sick that day, had just passed the test. Someone’s little Timmy had managed to go forty minutes on the promise of three marshmallows, praise be! I couldn’t help but wonder how easy I would find it to pass on the marshmallow if I was off sick. Forty minute Timmy must’ve been at death’s door.

I had to leave Vanessa and Timmy at this point, but I couldn’t get this pink and white dilemma out of my mind. In particular, I couldn’t stop wondering why, when so many children choose to pass this test, many business leaders don’t, or won’t, or can’t. I realise that a lot of short term thinking and acting is likely to be a result of the pressure for more profit, lower cost, and greater dividend yield.

Clearly whilst these things are necessary for businesses to sustain themselves in the long term, they aren’t all essential for the day to day leading of an organisation. If leaders were recruited for their leadership skills, and were trusted to lead, and in turn trusted those closer to the customer to manage, think, act and do, then maybe the profit, efficiencies and other benefits would flow more naturally.

What do you think? And have you got any examples of true leaders? Leaders who can rise above the noise and pressure to create a culture through which trust and autonomy can permeate. Leaders who can deploy real employee engagement to build sustainable, great experiences for their colleagues and customers?

Only those who can manage at least two marshmallows need apply.