By Twan van de Kerkhof
Imagine that you are a four-year old child. You are brought into a room and sat in a chair in front of a juicy marshmallow on a table. The adult who brought you to the room tells you you can eat the marshmallow now, or get two if you are willing to wait until he comes back from running an errand. Are you the kid that swallows the marshmallow as soon as the adult turns his back or are you able to wait?
In the marshmallow test, described by Daniel Goleman in his famous book ‘Emotional Intelligence’ impulse control turned out to predict how well those kids were doing fourteen years later, as they were graduating high school. Those who waited, compared to those who grabbed, were more popular with their peers, had less trouble delaying gratification, and scored far higher on achievement tests. Partly based on this test Goleman lists impulse control as one of the features of emotional intelligence and hence a quality of leadership.
Impulse control is very important for leaders. They cannot and should not act out everything that comes to their mind.
An example is that CEOs have to manage their anger. They cannot burst into flames whenever they feel like it. The CEO of a large company once told me that he travelled to all foreign subsidiaries at least once every three years, to enable all employees of the company to be in touch with him personally. During one of those visits he became angry with an employee. The man responded as if struck by lightning because the big CEO from headquarters came out against him. Although it was for good reasons in the CEO’s perspective, he was unhappy with the fact that this man, and the colleagues witnessing the incident, then had an image of an angry CEO as their main anchor for the next three years.
Another example is that most senior executives I know are very modest in their eating and drinking habits. They often have lunch and/or dinner in restaurants. Most of them don’t drink any wine at lunch and not more than two or three glasses at dinner. They also are careful with what they eat. They have a tremendous self-discipline. Look around you: despite of all the wining and dining there are very few fat CEOs.
Controlling your impulses doesn’t mean that you can’t be spontaneous, neither that anything is wrong with showing your emotions. It is only human – and just as well – to shed a tear when an employee tells you about their dying spouse or to show your happiness when your sales people won that large order. It depends on the situation if leaders have to build in a delay to their responses, just like the kid in front of the marshmallow. The ability to delay will have the best results in the long run.