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Seven deadly sins of leadership: Lust

In the fifth part of his seven-part series, Nick Humphrey takes a look at the fifth deadly leadership sin, Lust.


What is lust?

Uncontrollable desire or yearning, lack of self-control.

Lust in a performance context is a lack of discipline in managing desire. It is succumbing to distractions and instant gratification, rather than having the self-control to focus on the long term or delay gratification.

In our modern hyper-connected digital world, we can pretty much have anything we want right now, without waiting or having to work for it. You can order fast food at a drive-through or it will be urgently delivered to your door by UberEats. You can turn on Netflix and binge watch an entire season. In the old days you’d have to wait for your TV show to come on once a week. You can while away the hours watching YouTube videos or looking through Instagram. You can swipe right on Tinder for an instant date. You can get an instant hit of adrenaline playing Call of Duty. Millennials are constantly connected to their phones, checking messages on average 150 times a day.

With all these distractions and avenues for instant gratification it is becoming harder and harder to find the discipline to embark on a major project like studying your Masters degree, writing a book, launching your own podcast or tackling a new venture.

Why is controlling lust and instant gratification important?

Walter Mischel, a Standford psychology professor did some famous studies in the 1960s known as the “Stanford Marshmallow Experiment".

He tested young children and their ability to delay gratification. He put a child into a private room sitting at a table with a marshmallow in front of them. He then offered them a deal. He said he was going to leave the room and be back in fifteen minutes. If the child had not eaten the marshmallow they’d be rewarded with a second one. Effectively they had a choice: one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later.

The researcher then left the room but the children were being filmed by a hidden camera. Some kids leapt in straight away and ate the marshmallow as soon as the researcher had closed the door. Some bounced, squirmed, wiggled and tried desperately to restrain themselves but eventually gave in a few minutes later. Some even licked the marshmallow or scooped out the inside. Only a relatively modest percentage managed to wait the full fifteen minutes (about 30%).[1]

The important part of the study came later. The researchers followed up and tracked the children’s progress over the years. They found that those children who were willing to delay gratification (and waited for the second marshmallow) ended up having better SAT scores, lower obesity levels, less risk of substance abuse and better stress coping skills.[2] The researchers have been following these children for over 40 years and found that those who patiently delayed gratification were more successful across a range of life measures.

It seems that a key indicator of success is our ability to sacrifice in the short term to achieve long term gains and the ability to sustain discipline over the ease of procrastination and distraction.

Strategies for managing procrastination and instant gratification

One important issue is whether the self-control to delay gratification is an inherited trait or can you learn to develop it? The marshmallow experiment was replicated by University of Rochester with a new perspective.[3] Researchers split the children into two groups, one was exposed to a series of unreliable experiences (eg, being promised better stickers or more crayons but then not delivering) whilst the second group was exposed to a series of reliable experiences (eg, they were given the promised stickers or big box of crayons).

The second group were then far more likely to wait for the second marshmallow (on average waiting four times longer). This experiment shows that your ability to display self-control is directly impacted by the environment surrounding them and not a pre-determined trait.

The second group were being trained to see delayed gratification as a positive. Each time the researcher delivered on a promise, their brains were learning that they have the capacity to wait and that it is worth doing it.[4]

As a leader, the second experiment shows the importance of building trust. It is critically important that we deliver on our promises, day in and day out. Leaders must do what they say they are going to do - whether the promise is big (pay rise or promotion) or small (getting better printers).

Here are some strategies for managing procrastination and building self-control:

  • Don’t break the chain: Without doubt, Jerry Seinfeld is one of the most successful comedians of all time. Worth over a billion dollars, he has been able to write, create and perform consistently to a high standard over decades. He apparently once told a young comedian who asked for tips on how to be successful, to simply get an annual calendar and mark an X on each day that you write. After a few days, weeks you’ll have a chain of Xs. It is satisfying to see the chain growing. Your only job he said was not to break the chain. Interestingly it just focuses on the process, rather than the outcome. So pick a task that is important yet simple and replicable. If you want to write a book, then start writing. Do a bit every single day. If you want to get fit, start exercising, just a bit every day and don’t break the chain.

  • Remove the distraction: If your source of distraction is Instagram or Facebook then you need to remove the distraction. Delete the app from your phone or put your phone in your top draw where you can’t see it. Another strategy is to set an alarm for say half-an-hour – when it goes off you know it’s time to stop surfing the web, looking at YouTube etc.

  • Start small and build from there. If your goal was to do 10 push-ups every day, start by doing just one or two. If you goal is to read more, keep a book by the bed and read for five minutes before you go to bed.

  • Plan: Plan ahead and prepare in advance. If your goal is to go for a walk or run in the morning, the night before put out your sneakers and some track pants. When you see them you will be reminded to go for a walk and it is less of a hassle to get going.

  • Celebrate: If you achieve a small activity consistent with a good habit make sure you celebrate. This is not about eating a cookie or having a champagne. Do something small but positive to note your success. Fogg in his recent TED talk suggests you simply raise your arms above your head and say “Woo Hoo” or do a little dance in your chair.[5]

  • Visualisation: If you find yourself procrastinating or succumbing to poor self-control, try to visualize the negative consequences. Being aware of consequences is one thing but actually trying to visualize what will happen in the long-term if you don’t change your behaviour is a more difficult but powerful exercise.


About the author

Nick Humphrey is the managing partner of Hamilton Locke. He is the Chairman of the Australian Growth Company Awards and author of a number of best-selling books on business and leadership. His latest book is Maverick Executive: strategies for Driving Clarity, Effectiveness and Focus, published by Wolters Kluwer.


1. Positive Psychology Program, “Delayed Gratification: Learning to Pass the Marshmallow Test”, 29 November 2016,

2. Positive Psychology Program, “Delayed Gratification: Learning to Pass the Marshmallow Test”, 29 November 2016,

3. James Clear, “40 Years of Stanford Research Found That People With This One Quality Are More Likely to Succeed”,

4. Clear, ibid

BJ Fogg, “Forget big change, start with a tiny habit”, TED Talk,