In 1970 Stanford University professors conducted a study at the Bing Nursery School on the campus. The purpose of the study, which later became known as the marshmallow test, was to understand the control of deferred gratification.

Over 600 children participated in the study. Children were placed in a room without distractions except for a treat of their choice – a marshmallow, a cookie, or a pretzel – placed on a table. The children were told they could eat the treat right away; however if they waited 15 minutes without giving in to their immediate urge, they would be rewarded with two snacks.

Some children ate the snack right away, while others delayed for five or six minutes. Only 1/3 of the children were able to earn the reward. Researchers then followed all the participants for 25 years, and the ones who had the discipline to resist eating the snack became the most successful in life, while the ones with the least willpower were the least successful.

What does this have to do with servant leadership? I think having the patience and courage to do the right thing, as opposed to the easy immediate thing; will pay significant dividends in the long run.

I have seen this play out in a big way in an organization’s hiring practices. Servant leaders build performance by building a dream team. The first and most important aspect of building a dream team is hiring for values.

In my informal studies of clients and other organizations that I am familiar with, those that don’t take short cuts in their hiring processes, and never sacrifice on hiring for values are the most successful in the long run. When you bring people onto your team that are aligned with the organization’s values you eliminate problems down the line.

In times of great growth, or high employee turnover it can get tempting to hire anyone who comes through the front door. That would be like the children who couldn’t wait 15 minutes to eat their treat. It is very hard work to find values aligned employees, but it is worth the work and wait to have a team that is aligned with the values of the organization.

Practices I have found to help this process:

  • Invest the Time – You must take the time to clearly articulate your values, and the associated behaviors expected behind those values to effectively determine if an applicant will align. No shortcuts here!
  • Seek Internal Referrals – People from within your organization know best who might be a good fit from a values standpoint, as they experience the culture daily and know the type of people who would be successful in that culture.
  • Always Recruit – Finding people who are values aligned is not a quick process. It takes more than a 15-minute waiting period. You cannot afford to only be out looking for people when you have an opening. Recruiting should be a continual process, so you always have a bench of applicants who are values aligned.
  • Build Strategic Relationships – Developing relationships with technical schools, universities, recruiters, and communities who regularly produce employees for your organization will pay dividends. Staying in front of your main source for employees, will keep you at the top of mind for people that you most desire.
  • Create a GREAT Place to Work – There is no better way to maintain a consistent flow of great values-aligned applicants than to build the best place in town to work. People love working for organizations that have a culture of servant leadership. They realize they will be valued, challenged, and developed and that is where they most want to work.

You will not win unless you are building a high performing team! The best way to do that is to start by hiring for values. Don’t jump at the first warm body you see. Build a process that will insure deferred gratification by bringing only the right people on the team!


One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles…  Luke 6:12-13