“Lifetime regrets are more painful than delayed gratification.” – Dawn Graham. 

Delayed gratification is the exercise of forgoing an instant reward in exchange for some longer-term benefit. To exercise delayed gratification means to rise above a primal urge and let reason and logic triumph instead.

The ability to delay gratification impacts one’s life in many ways, from childhood body mass index to leadership skills.

Delayed gratification is the triumph of the mind over instinct. 

Humans are frail creatures, our minds prone to succumbing to the temptations of instant gratification. Shrewd businesspeople have never had qualms about exploiting this weakness.

Credit cards are a great example. They offer an easy path to instant gratification, eliminating the need to wait and save for physical possessions. Besides instant gratification, credit cards have also become express tickets to indebtedness and auctioned-off futures.

In the context of intelligent leadership, delayed gratification has emerged as a key leadership skill. Mature leaders routinely put company priorities ahead of their own. They operate with much longer time frames than managers. They create visions, align teams with these visions, and take consistent steps toward fulfilling their ultimate purpose. Such an approach defines delayed gratification in many ways.

Delayed Gratification and Leadership Maturity

In books like my Intelligent Leadership, I have discussed leadership maturity as a fundamental competency. I have also stated that most un-leaderlike behavior is the result of immaturity. The ability to delay gratification is a hallmark of mature leaders.

Leaders who find their careers derailed often have their immaturity and need for instant gratification to blame. Taking shortcuts, being dishonest, and falling for the easy money are all examples of leaders chasing instant gratification.

Instant gratification derails leaders. 

The same leadership traits that underpin leadership maturity also define the ability to delay gratification.

  • A strong character
  • Diligence, focus, and the ability to conjure up a detailed vision
  • The ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty
  • Resilience and the capability to see setbacks as stepping stones to success
  • A sense of optimism, rooted in a solid foundation of beliefs about what is achievable

Delayed Gratification and Greed

In some respects, delayed gratification may seem to be antithetic to greed. It does involve forgoing a reward, but it does so in the hopes of a much bigger future reward.

The CEO of an emerging startup may decide to forgo a generous salary, considering that money is better spent reinvested in the company. That way, the CEO’s equity in the organization would rise, and if successful, it would result in a bigger payout down the line than any pay increase.

Using available resources to take care of employees instead of flaunting self-importance makes sense for any mature leader.

The Crippling Effects of the Need for Instant Gratification

As I have pointed out in my book, Intelligent Leadership, the need for instant gratification and leadership do not mix. I have established the need for instant gratification as a trait of the derailing, predominantly Activist leader.

This derailing leadership trait triggers behaviors that make it difficult to work with such leaders.

  • Derailing activist leaders find it difficult to focus on a long-term vision. They shift their priorities often, confusing their subordinates, peers, and stakeholders.
  • Such behaviors can degenerate into a continuous chase after newer and newer projects, without bringing any of them to fruition.
  • Such leaders’ need to obtain instant gratification makes long-term planning impossible.
  • This type of leader starts many projects but completes very few of them, causing crises and chaos for those who report to them.

Being impulsive, erratic, and retaining no self-control make a poor leader. The need for instant gratification is like fuel for these un-leaderlike behaviors.


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