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The Ultimate Marshmallow Test: Applying Buell Leadership Lessons 

A young child sits at a table with a marshmallow in front of them

by Kath Courter, cohort 14

In 1972, Stanford Professor Walter Mischer, conducted a now famous experiment that tested children’s ability to delay gratification. Sitting before a marshmallow in an otherwise empty room, individual children were essentially told, If you don’t eat this marshmallow, when I come back, you can have another one. Then you’ll have two. It’s up to you.

You may be wondering, what does the marshmallow test have to do with Buell and leadership lessons? Well… I’ll get there, but first I need to share some details. 

Click here to watch a short remake of the original study.

Headshot of Kath Courtner, cohort 14

This past spring we surveyed the teachers at the school where I work. We were just coming out of three years of teaching and living in a world paralyzed by Covid. We knew that we needed to get a better grip on how our teachers were feeling, what they needed, and how we could better support them. I knew that they were tired and crabby. However, I also believed that they were okay and the survey results would show that they believed in our leadership team, and specifically in me. Afterall, I had worked tirelessly and I thought they would see how I had committed so much time and energy to their well-being and keeping our school healthy, safe, and open. 

I was wrong. The data was bad. Really bad. 

As I read through the results, I wondered… How can this be? The feedback was meant to be helpful, however, it felt hurtful. I found myself in a funk – and questioning whether I have what it takes to work as a school leader today. I wondered if it was time for me to retire. 

Then I recalled the words of a wise mentor: In every challenge there is opportunity. And, in every opportunity there is challenge. I cleaned off my glasses and reexamined the survey. Changing my lens allowed me to flip the situation from a “This is terrible!” to a lens of curiosity and wonder and doing so helped me to see the results with a new perspective. With a different lens, I was able to see that the people I supervise feel highly supported. However, they need me to be more predictable and consistent. That’s when I had a lightbulb moment and made the connection with the infamous marshmallow test. 

The Importance of Trust

In Mischer’s original study, the children were tracked over time and those who resisted the temptation to gobble down the marshmallow in order to earn another – performed better academically, handled frustration with greater ease, and managed their stress more effectively. Simply put, they did better in life. While a few additional studies debunked Mishner’s findings, several other researchers have tried to replicate his work and better understand why some children are able to resist. Of particular note is a  study done by Celeste Kidd. In her research, Kidd set up a different slant – one that measured children’s ability to delay gratification as directly correlated to stability and predictability of the adults in their world. Unsurprisingly, the children who felt a sense of trust with adults did better. 

The feeling of trust and security in life is critical for all humans – children and adults alike. Clearing my head and approaching the survey data with a sense of wonder, allowed me to see that what my colleagues were telling me is that they needed to know that my actions were predictable and that if I said I was going to do something, they needed to trust that I would follow through. Framed in this way, I could easily see that they were right. The data was not an insult. It was the truth. I was not as consistent as I might/could/should have been. Additional time with the survey information offered other insights. It was not just me…we were struggling across campus in all areas of our school community. Covid had turned all of our lives upside down and the need for follow-through and predictability was screaming through the data like a siren.

Using Reflection and Data

Figuring out how to better understand data became a top priority for me and other members of our school’s senior leadership team. We met several times over the summer to talk about, analyze, and digest our survey results. This process was difficult; we were all feeling a bit bruised and somewhat fragile – like our faculty group, we were broken and tired. However, after honest dialogue (and a bit of heated debate) we acknowledged that nothing would change unless we changed how we work. The problem started with us. We had a pattern of working in silos and isolation. This had to stop.

We calibrated our work and committed to the importance of rebuilding trust with our employees, community, and each other. We zeroed in on a model that put consistency, connection, and collaboration (our “3 C’s”) at the center of everything we do. 

Consistency, Connection, and Collaboration

Committing to the 3 C’s is the ultimate marshmallow test for our leadership team. We need to resist temptation and delay our urge for quick fixes, immediate gratification, and unrealistic goals/KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that look good on paper. These efforts do not mean that problems will vanish. That would be unrealistic thinking. As individuals we are all learning to work together in new ways, change our communication patterns, work styles, and use of time. There will always be another challenge and something that tests our leadership strength and courage. However, uniting around the 3 C’s will serve as a north star. 

My sleeves are rolled up and I am ready. I’m also confident in my ability and the collective strength of our leadership team. I know change will not happen overnight. However, I’m confident in our commitment and willingness to do the work that goes along with transformational leadership.