Why Warren Buffett’s famous quote on integrity has a strong message but doesn’t reflect reality

The insurance chief executive and investor Warren Buffett is famous for quotes that are pithy and often prescient. One of his quotes often used when talking about integrity and business is this one:

“Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire , you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true.”

There’s much sense in what he’s saying, but there’s a danger in taking it too literally. Before I explore what that danger is , let’s open up his statement a little. What he’s saying is that if you recruit someone…

  • without integrity, but with energy and intelligence, you have someone who is smart and fast-moving, but who you can’t trust;
  • without energy, but with intelligence and integrity, you have a trustworthy person who has good ideas but doesn’t do anything about them;
  • without intelligence, but with energy and integrity, you have someone who people can trust, and who is fast moving, but who won’t be any good at foreseeing or tackling problems.

Much better of course to recruit someone with all three qualities. Yet if you think about it, a candidate is unlikely in reality to be lacking in any one of those qualities. If you didn’t have energy or intelligence, they wouldn’t be sitting in front of you as a candidate. Perhaps Buffett was being a bit too pithy.

In reality, the question is more about degree. Is that person intelligent enough for that role and energetic enough to produce the results you need? Do they have sufficient integrity to become a trusted member of our team? For in reality, people rarely enter business life without values of some sort. What a recruiter has to establish if whether that person’s values are the sort that will add to or endanger, their firm’s reputation for integrity.

Note that I talk about values, for firms have two sorts of values: business values like innovative and entrepreneurial, and ethical values like trust and integrity. So someone with strong values of the business sort could bring lots of energy and intelligence to your firm, but not necessarily enough integrity.

It’s common for insurance firms to assess candidates on their intelligence and energy, but less common for them to assess candidates on their integrity. That’s certainly an exposure for them, given the current direction of many regulators’ thinking on personal accountability.

The topic that recruiters need to understand is ethical decision making and the toolkit they need to have at hand is twofold: firstly, to clearly set out the competencies around which to pivot the integrity being sought, and secondly how to assess the proficiency with which the candidate is able to apply that integrity. These are topics that I’ll be exploring in considerable detail in early 2017.

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