Marshmallows, leadership and moral courage

By Kristy Muir

Wednesday June 20, 2018

Melbourne Australia – February 13, 2016: People sleep in front of Westpack bank in downtown Melbourne Australia.

I read an article this week about the marshmallow test – you know, the one about delayed gratification – that shook my fundamental understanding of psychology.

Well, sorry to break this to you, but the premise has been challenged. It turns out that it’s not so much a test of individual personalities being able to delay gratification, but rather a reflection on socio-economic status and what goes on within your home. If you’re hungry and you can’t trust the chances of getting more marshmallows in the future, you’re going to eat the marshmallow you can access now.

To the historian in me, that understands poverty and hunger, and to the social scientist in me, that understands ecological context, it’s really not that surprising.

Besides making me hungry for marshmallows, it got me thinking though about the following:

  1. Power – who holds the resources,
  2. Reward – the promise of more resources,
  3. Distribution of resources – who gets them and under what kind of circumstances,
  4. Agency – the choices we have, and;
  5. Blame – blaming the individual for particular personal traits rather than the context they live within.

So often power is held by a particular group; they get most of the marshmallows, they pass these marshmallows onto their children and they often get to decide who else is or is not deserving of the redistributed treats. And, those individuals that don’t hold the power are often held responsible for poor decision making if they do not end up with a return of lots of marshmallows. And, yet, we know that the resources you have at your disposal are critical for the types of decisions that people can and do make.

Why we need a new type of leadership

We need to think about a new type of leadership, and redistribution of power. Rather than starting with a question about “what’s in it for me?”, we need to ask “how do we get a fairer, more inclusive society?”.

In a social context, this would require moral courage of leaders to do things differently. It would require leaders to challenge, to ask different questions, to push back, to find different ways of working, to commit to and enact espoused values in the interest of a more inclusive, stronger society.

When I look around, I know many incredible leaders who have and uphold moral courage and who are working and making difficult decisions for the greater good. We work every day with leaders within not-for-profit organisations and philanthropy who focus on social change, with businesses who are striving for social responsibility and shared value, with social entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs who are challenging the status quo through social innovation, with leaders who are calling out unacceptable behaviour, and with people who support and create better communities.

Amongst this though, in general, it feels likes leadership has lost its moral compass. Individualism and the pursuit of personal gain appear to have compromised morality for social good.

It’s controversial to suggest, but isn’t hard to provide an evidence base for it when we look to some of our civic, religious and corporate institutions. We’ve seen evidence uncovered in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, which has shone a spotlight on systemic leadership failures.

Towards a more inclusive society

As we wrote about in CSI’s response to the 2018 Budget, the Federal Government’s budget was framed as a “What does this budget mean for me?” rather than a “What does the budget mean for a more inclusive society?”.

Social security for the unemployed was not increased, despite cross-sector appeals to #RaisingtheRate, and new measures will bring in a tougher environment (for example, “Encouraging lawful behaviour of income support recipients” and further restricting the availability of foreign aid and access to social security for asylum seekers and migrants within Australia).

Even in an arena where we pride ourselves on ‘fair play’, we’ve seen leadership lose its moral compass. We need not look beyond the recent ball-tampering incident in the Australian cricket team for a case in point.

Has leadership lost its moral compass? What will it take to get leadership to find the right direction? We need a greater number of leaders (no matter their role) who are willing to make difficult decisions about what they do and how they do it for positive social change. We need more people who are willing to call out unacceptable behaviour and help create better communities.

If we take Tim Dean’s philosophical view that “morality is the set of rules we live by that seek to reduce harm and help us live together effectively”, we not only need a new “moral compass” to help find our way, we will also need leaders with significant moral courage.

Because in a rich country like ours, there really are enough marshmallows for everyone.

Kristy Muir is the CEO of the Centre for Social Impact.

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