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Timothy R. Clark: Why we trust Warren Buffett

Published: Monday, April 11 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

In this Feb. 22, 2010, photograph, Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett is interviewed before lunch with officials from Salida Capital, a Canadian Investment firm, in New York.

Associated Press

It is one thing to be admired. It is quite another to be trusted. As I thumbed through the recent edition of Fortune magazine featuring the world’s richest people, with all the attendant embarrassment of riches, I thought I heard the strains of the "Sesame Street" song, “One of these things is not like the other.” Indeed, there is at least one person on the list that keeps company with the rest on the basis of net worth, but in many ways is a breed apart. That person is Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett is the third-richest person in the world. He is the 80-year-old chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, a corporate conglomerate with holdings in such things as railroads, candy, insurance and furniture. He is a genius in the public mind and rightly so. His track record is astonishing. But I don’t think that’s the story — at least not the most important story.

Buffett is embroiled in a bit of controversy at the moment. One of his chief lieutenants abruptly resigned after purchasing shares in a company that Berkshire Hathaway subsequently acquired. Buffett is being taken to task for allowing this to happen, for having what may be loose internal controls and a laissez faire structure of corporate governance. In the end, Buffett may need to strengthen the accountability in his organization, and the reason is that most people are not like him. This is the real story.

When it comes to money, the man is incorruptible. Here’s an individual who wears off-the-shelf white shirts with rumpled collars, who would rather sit in a diner and have a cheeseburger and a Cherry Coke, who lives in the same house in Omaha, Neb., that he purchased in 1958 for $31,000. He is likely the last person on earth who would accept a bribe. He’s a post-materialist in a fraternity of billionaires who think money is the show. Why does this man with dynastic wealth live a life of modesty and moderation?

The genius of Warren Buffett is his rare combination of mental and moral discipline, and it is that combination — the business acumen wrapped around an ethical core — that is the source of his competitive edge as an investor. When integrity guides your analysis and decision-making, it gives you a different lens, different criteria and a different way to assess risk. It restrains you from impulse. It arrests the emotions of greed and avarice that make you willfully blind. It protects you from being gullible, seduced or enchanted with the prospect of windfall profits based on speculation because the very idea is at odds with the principle of real value creation.

The oracle of Omaha rejects the gimmickry of Wall Street’s disease of quarterly capitalism — the short-term thinking that compels so many leaders to run their businesses on a 90-day cycle. When Warren Buffett makes an investment, he normally finds a mis-priced asset and sticks with it for the long term. Some people have called him a contrarian investor. I get a kick out of that. He’s not contrarian. He’s a fundamentally sound investor.

Isn’t it interesting that this man with a jeweler’s eye for investments shuns the overly complicated tools and models that so many wealth-seekers thirst for. Buffett sides with Leonardo da Vinci, who said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Even though he makes mistakes in choosing some of his leaders and the companies he invests in, he doesn’t make excuses or duck the truth. He admits his mistakes and learns from them.

Warren Buffett is a rare person because he has withstood the awesome forces of wealth, power and status. He hasn't become a rapacious, self-aggrandizing human being. We have learned under his tuition that life is not about feeding the pleasure center of the brain. There’s something more important.

So here he is under the lamp. Rest assured that the avuncular gentleman will bear scrutiny. To understand Warren Buffett is to understand Emerson’s statement that “character is higher than intellect.” This is why we trust Warren Buffett. My question is, where do we find more like him?

Timothy R. Clark, Ph.D., is an author, international management consultant, former two-time CEO, Fulbright Scholar at Oxford University and Academic all-American football player at BYU. His latest two books are "The Leadership Test" and "Epic Change." E-mail: trclark@trclarkpartners.com

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