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Lessons in Leadership

The marshmallow gene

Self-discipline is key to success


A primary job of a successful leader is building a staff of very effective people who get impressive results, who are able to work in harmony with other members of the staff, and who can build close relationships with clients.

That sounds easy, but anyone who has done it knows that these objectives are not always easy to achieve.

When selecting employees, I've found that people who have a lot of personal discipline are nearly always successful. 

The art of self-discipline

"Discipline" (i.e., training through punishment and rewards; reprimanding; correcting) for children at home these days mostly takes the form of a timeout, which may consist of sitting on the stairway for two minutes. There isn't much discipline in school because the teachers are afraid of the principal; the principal is afraid of the superintendent; the superintendent is afraid of the school board; the school board is afraid of the parents; the parents are afraid of the kids; and the kids aren't afraid of anybody. 

There's another type of discipline that's more important. Instead of discipline being imposed by others, it is self-imposed. Self-discipline provides the inner drive for certain people to accomplish great things in life. It helps them meet their personal and business objectives totally and within realistic time frames.

At a recent convention of the National Speakers Association, one of the speakers was Joachim de Posada, author of Don't Eat the Marshmallow Yet!: The Secret to Sweet Success in Work and Life. He told of an experiment at Stanford University involving marshmallows and 4- and 5-year-old kids. Each child was given a marshmallow and was told that, after 15 minutes, if the marshmallow had not been eaten, the child would be given a second marshmallow. 

As the researchers watched and filmed through a one-way mirror, about one-third of the kids ate the marshmallow immediately. Another third ate the marshmallow in about seven to eight minutes. Only one of three was able to wait the full 15 minutes and earn the reward of the second marshmallow.

The critical part of the experiment came several years later when the kids had reached early adulthood. The kids who had not eaten the marshmallow were consistently more successful. They had earned good grades in school; they had good jobs and were well on their way to successful careers; they had excellent relationships with others; they were outstanding members of society. On the other hand, those who had eaten the marshmallows were not successful.

The university researchers called this "the art of delayed gratification." I call it the Marshmallow Gene. I suggest you get a copy of the book Don't Eat The Marshmallow Yet. It's an excellent book and provides valuable insight into human traits that tend to make certain people more successful than others.

The Marshmallow Gene is simply another name for self-discipline. It's the key to achieving great things in life. Some people can accomplish two times, five times, ten times more than others even though everyone has the same 24-hour day available. Nearly always, great success is the result of self-discipline—setting priorities and pursuing dreams passionately.

I'm often asked if the Marshmallow Gene is an inherited trait or a learned skill. This must be answered by scientists more knowledgeable than I; however, based on my observation of hundreds of people through the years, for the most part I believe it results from family environment, the encouragement of parents and teachers, and a conviction that "I can do better."

Success stories

Not long ago I talked to two very successful individuals. One is the president of a major university. Another recently retired as CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company. Both were raised in families with limited means. Neither had won the lucky sperm lottery.

The university president has two brothers, both also highly successful, one becoming the CEO of one of the world's largest corporations.

I asked both individuals if they thought they would be as successful today if money had flowed freely when they were growing up and they hadn't had to work as hard to support themselves at a younger age. 

Both pondered for a few seconds and answered similarly. "Nobody knows for sure." Then both added, "But I doubt it."

Both had a dream. They wanted to achieve more in life. They had parents who believed that their sons could accomplish anything in life if they worked for it. They kept that dream alive throughout childhood, college and their work lives. They both had extraordinary determination. And they were willing to make sacrifices in order to achieve a bigger payback later. Both had the Marshmallow Gene.

This is the story of millions of very successful people. Former President Ronald Reagan was born in 1911 in Tampico, Illinois. He was raised by an alcoholic father in an apartment above the general store. He worked his way through college.

Basketball coaching legend John Wooden was born in 1910 in Hall, Indiana. The family pig farm collapsed during the Great Depression. Dreams and basketball skills took him to college.

Ray Kroc, the father of the McDonald's chain, lied about his age and at age 15 accepted a job as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. Later he tried his hand at several odd jobs, including selling paper cups. He later persuaded the inventor of the five-spindle multi-mixer to give him marketing rights for all U.S. sales. He successfully sold the milk shake mixer for 15 years.

Sam Walton, founder of Walmart and Sam's Club, was born in 1918 near Kingfisher, Oklahoma. His parents were farmers but left the farm because it didn't provide enough income for the family. They owned a cow which Sam milked, and he bottled the excess to deliver to customers. He delivered newspapers. In college he waited tables to pay for college expenses. After graduation he became a management trainee at J.C. Penney in Des Moines, Iowa, for $75 a month.

These and many other very successful people were willing to forgo immediate gratification in exchange for greater success later. 

Put together a staff that possesses the Marshmallow Gene—people who have learned to pursue objectives passionately and with self-discipline. These folks will assuredly help you build a successful organization. n

The author

Robert L. Bailey is the retired CEO, president and chairman of the State Auto Insurance Companies. He is now a public speaker and author of four books. Check out his new book, Super-Size Your Sales, at or contact him at (941) 358-5260 or .


Self-imposed discipline provides the inner drive for certain people to accomplish great things in life.











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