The Qualities Warren Buffett Most Respects in Managers

4 min read

You might reasonably ask: Why does it even matter what qualities Warren Buffet respects in managers? Who cares? Fair enough.

Well, to that, I’d just answer that Buffett is widely regarded as one of the best investors and business leaders of all time, still going strong at 93, with a net worth of over $100 billion.

Source: Tim Sullivan / Stocksnapio

Warren Buffett is well known for his integrity as well as his insight.

Source: Tim Sullivan / Stocksnapio

Plus—not unimportantly, given all the chicanery that often passes for normal in the business world—he’s an individual of highly respected integrity.

Fanboy admission: I’m not an admirer of many famous folks, but (like many in business) I love Warren Buffet’s annual report letters. They’re a mixture of wisdom, honesty, insight, and general business acumen, sprinkled with pleasant asides such as where to get a great breakfast in Omaha, where his company’s annual meeting is held.

Mission Critical

I’ve been reading The Warren Buffett Way by Robert Hagstrom, and, as one long-fascinated by what makes a good manager, have been especially focused on the attributes Buffett believes are mission-critical for managerial success.

The author discusses several, but the two I found most interesting are candor and independent thinking.

At first glance, an emphasis on these particular qualities may seem somewhat commonsensical. But I believe these characteristics have broad value for managers—not just at the senior executive level Buffett works with, but at all levels of an organization.

Candor Counts

Let’s consider candor. Even though candid communication seems like it should be a fundamental aspect of solid management, the simple fact is, it isn’t. In reality, many people in business, especially in management, are unwilling to admit mistakes.

This is why, when Buffett is trying to evaluate a company accurately from an investment perspective, being able to trust what a manager says is essential.

“Buffett holds in high regard managers who report their company’s financial performance fully and genuinely,” Hagstrom writes, “who admit mistakes as well as share successes, and are in all ways candid with shareholders.”

Similarly, Buffett is famous for being openly self-critical, for dealing straightforwardly in his annual report letters with his own shortcomings, miscalculations, and errors in judgment.

My own observation, however, after decades in the business world, is that Buffett’s level of self-criticism is rare. So many people in business, especially in management, are unwilling to admit mistakes. They may feel it makes them look bad. Or weak. Or it will just somehow work to their disadvantage, either politically or economically.

Simply put, it takes a lot of confidence for business folks to admit they seriously screwed up. So, people often shade the truth in ways that work to their advantage. The number of business fraud trials invariably in the headlines is just one especially high-profile indicator of a common problem.

Lemming Alert

While candor is in short supply, so too, according to Buffett, is independent thinking. He describes it as an “institutional imperative”—the lemming-like tendency to default to groupthink and adopt the safest course of action.

Businesses are usually regimented and rigidly hierarchical, and lower managers typically defer to those above them. In the corporate world, I saw scads of this. During my own career, I often wasn’t the smartest person in the room, but I wasn’t afraid to look at problems creatively or differently, and I believe this general openness to new ideas served me well over the years.

In short, I believe Buffett is completely correct here. What I’d call “man in the gray flannel suit thinking” is prevalent in management ranks. Being able to think independently and take well-reasoned chances can help an individual stand out in a positive way.

The Value of Simplicity

Warren Buffett is a billionaire a hundred times over. But he’s also famous for his simplicity, advising people, for example, to invest in businesses they actually understand rather than chasing a new “bright shiny object” they likely know little about.

Insights involving candor and independent thinking may not be profound, but that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable. As I like to say about the business world, just because something is common sense doesn’t mean it’s commonly practiced.

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