Leadership by Example, Buffett Style

Warren Buffett with Bill & Melinda Gates
Warren Buffett with the Gates

It is no secret that I find Warren Buffett a remarkable man. I have been fortunate enough to have dinner one seat away from him; he captivated the table with nothing more than large doses of common sense. His ability to take complicated problems and give clear, simple insights is fun to be around. It’s much more than that grandfatherly wisdom you hear it portrayed so frequently. He is a brilliant man with a gift for reducing complexity.

So when he stunned the philanthropical world yesterday, I was smiling from ear-to-ear. This move was in complete character for him. And it reflected a sentiment that he has expressed and shared with his friend Bill Gates for many years:

With great wealth comes great responsibility. Wealth derives from society so it should be returned to society.

I heard Bill express these same sentiments years ago, and it spawned the creation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Further, I know it was one of the things that he and Melinda found in common as they first dated. For Warren to follow suit is not a surprise, only the timing and method were unexpected.

The details of Warren’s largesse are well known by now, and available elsewhere. What strikes me as interesting is the leadership that this shows. In perfect Buffett style, there is a leadership lesson to be found here, even for those of us without billions to give.

In perfect Buffett style, there is a leadership lesson to be found here

I’ve long felt Warren has lessons to give in his “delegation almost to the extent of abdication” approach. I like it so much, that I’ll discuss it more elsewhere. With this contribution he leads by example, by off-loading the giving to the more capable Gates Foundation. He explains that the reason he has given so little in the past is that he simply is better at accumulating than giving. And he now has a friend who will be devoting himself to effective giving. A perfect match.

But more interesting to me in this donation is the resounding rebuff of the “do as I say, not as I do” crowd. He is thumbing his nose at the CEOs who constantly flount their good deeds, but in fact give little more than “couch change.” Time and again we see CEOs and their companies going to great lengths to make a big deal of each and every small gift they give, working hard to get the most PR mileage they can from each miniscule effort. The PR wire is thick with photos of CEOs holding up oversized checks for $10,000 — from a person worth 100,000 times that much. Rarely do you see any of these people give more than a tiny fraction of their wealth, preferring instead to amass it for… ummm… their children? Or their ego?

Rarely do these people give more than a tiny fraction of their wealth

Here Warren leads by doing. He’s giving away the vast majority of his wealth (something like 75%) to a charity that can do great things with it. And while he’s still alive no less. No waiting for the inevitable probate fight, just handle it now, while he’s sentient, and before any kids’ expectations are mis-set.

Sure he did it with some fanfare, but it’s the largest charitable gift in history. He has a right to toot his own horn. And if it plays as he hopes, others will follow. So making a big event is part of the mission.

The lesson for the rest of us is in the core value of leading by example. As a leader, you need to ask yourself: “do I lead by example or by fiat?”

You need to ask yourself: “do I lead by example or by fiat?”

One of my clients was very passionate about having people show up on time. He had very specific time limits and penalties for people who showed up late for the start of the work day at 8:45am. And with Seattle traffic as unpredictable as any in the country, the sanctions got invoked quite frequently. Yet he often wandered in around 10:00. The smell of hypocracy was ripe in the air, and the employees resented it deeply. All my admonitions to the contrary, he continued to insist that they “do as I say, not as I do.” Today, the company is in Chapter 7 bankruptcy. [OK, not because of this, specifically…]

In any case, here again, Warren is leading by example. Rather than saying how important it is for people to give, he simply gave away most of his fortune. And in a field that can’t help but make the world a better place. How neat is that? Thanks, Warren, for both the gift, and the leadership.