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Why clever and lazy people make great leaders
Avoiding unproductive things has its advantages
A little laziness never hurt anyone. In fact, it might even make you more successful.
A little laziness never hurt anyone. In fact, it might even make you more successful. (Todd Warnock/Getty Images)

"You're looking for three things, generally, in a person," says Warren Buffett. "Intelligence, energy, and integrity. And if they don't have the last one, don't even bother with the first two."

Ideally you want all three, but people don't always cooperate. These qualities tend to be difficult to judge in hiring someone.

So we end up with all sorts of combinations and permutations in organizations.

A lot of people feel that stupid people are the "worst" problem. (I'd argue that intelligent people without integrity are even worse. They know the system, play politics well, and often end up in grey areas. With or without integrity, it's easier to get rid of an unintelligent person than an intelligent one.)

Simplifying greatly (and removing integrity from the equation), we end up with four combinations: stupid and hard-working, stupid and lazy, intelligent and hard-working, and intelligent and lazy.

So what happens with smart, lazy people?

Consider an apt (if admittedly unsettling) example from history: Erich von Manstein, one of the top strategists in Hitler's German Military, described Kurt Gebhard Adolf Philipp Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord, the former commander-in-chief of the Reichswehr as "… probably one of the cleverest people I ever met."

Both men, according to Ben Breen, are widely credited with the following quote that gets to the heart of the matter.

I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent — their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy — they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent — he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.

Let's break it down a bit more.

Stupid and lazy

You can accommodate unintelligent and lazy people by separating work into chunks. We do this all the time by breaking jobs down into routine tasks, creating policies and procedures that remove any need of judgment.

(My guess is this happens eventually in every organization because at some point the response to consistently poor judgment calls is to create a bureaucratic process/policy that (attempts to) remove that error.) It's all a very McDonald's like and these people tend to be easily replaceable.

Stupid and energetic

Von Hammerstein-Equord recognized these people cause "nothing but mischief." To him, they should be fired immediately. I tend to agree. Despite good intentions, they often create more work for others.

Intelligent and energetic

You want these people around. I'm guessing that von Hammerstein-Equord thought they'd be fit for middle management. Which makes sense. I imagine he saw them as company men: Safe, reliable, rule-following.

He likely saw them as people that didn't challenge authority or speak up. I think this is a bit of a leap; I know plenty of hard working smart people who, occasionally, challenge authority. I think this happens for a few reasons. Perhaps they've grown too frustrated with what they see as absurdity. Or perhaps, and this is more likely, they put away ambitions of climbing the corporate ladder. (Depending on your organization, smart and unquestioning can be the easiest way to a promotion).

Intelligent and lazy

An under-appreciated aspect of today's workforce that von Hammerstein-Equord thought fit to lead "because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions."

These people can be challenging to work with. They delegate and trust people to do their jobs. They don't micromanage; they question. They avoid unproductive things (think meetings, paper shuffling, busy work). They don't seek consensus because often that means more work, not less. They focus on a few key priorities. They don't run around with solutions looking for problems.

Often they have no desire to 'move up' in an organization. This gives them the freedom to be different.

It may be uncomfortable to say considering the government he worked for, but maybe von Hammerstein-Equord was onto something.

Considering the framework above, it's interesting to contemplate the consequences of mismatching types and jobs.

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