Leadership_Icon copyBerkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting in Omaha, USA, was televised live for the first time this year. You missed it???!

Anyway, billionaire investment guru, Warren Buffett said in his address to Wall Street that:

“If you’re looking for a manager,  find somebody that’s intelligent, energetic and has integrity…if they don’t have the last, be sure they don’t have the first two. If you have somebody who lacks integrity, you want them to be dumb and lazy.”

In my career, I have come across a few energetic, intelligent people who lacked integrity and they are, as Buffet implies, both dangerous and such hard work to be around. And yet many times, their rather glaring ‘foibles’ are accommodated (especially if they are bringing in the numbers). Unless that is, they overstep the mark completely, in which case senior managers finally feel obliged to take action. So this got me thinking; what really takes us so long to act and do the right thing with people who insist on doing the wrong thing?

I am sure we would all say: ‘No integrity, no place on the bus.’ But do we always act the way we know we should or want to when someone around us is behaving badly?

Here, with their permission, are two very different stories from clients who have had to work with such individuals. All names have, of course, been changed.

Martin works for a large industrial equipment company.

“It is going back a few years now but I had just joined the company to head up a large sales and marketing division and I inherited Dominic. He’d come up through the ranks and was now leading the sales team. He’d been a brilliant salesman himself – or at least that was what everyone told me. Dominic was full of energy, irrepressible in fact, and very quick on his feet. He always had an answer, was brilliant at improvising and seemed to find a way around any obstacle. He was not always easy company but he was driven.

One day, one of his best sales people resigned and she came to see me. She made it clear that she was leaving because of Dominic but wasn’t explicit what it was about him that had disturbed her so. She strongly hinted that I should spend a bit more time with the sales team and offered me a couple of names of her colleagues with whom I might like to have a coffee.

I took her advice and over the coffees, it quickly became evident that Dominic’s methods for achieving sales and for managing his team were a fair way short of admirable – in fact, with closer scrutiny, it became evident that he was not only a bully but he was breaking most of the rules in the book.

I thought I’d meet objections to terminating Dominic’s contract. His behaviour and methods had obviously been tolerated for years and during most of them, he’d smashed his targets. However, once I’d put the issues on the table, the executive team didn’t hesitate to back me. I was left wondering why others before me hadn’t taken action – this had clearly been going on for years. Once Dominic had gone however, more tales came out of the woodwork. Apart from his ‘dubious’ sales deals, he’d been brilliant at presenting one face to his managers whilst treating those who worked for him so badly. He’d been very artful and yet despite that fact, many people said they had been aware that things weren’t right and would have liked him gone sooner. I think people were afraid to act because they’d been part of the system for so long and Fred assumed Jo was OK with it and Jo assumed Fred was. I think if you are the new boy, you can challenge sacred cows more readily. But yes, I agree with Buffet. Intelligence alongside a lack of integrity is a dangerous thing.”

Sasha worked in a medium-sized consultancy and talked to me about Patty, a former colleague.

“Patty was very popular for the most part. She never stopped – she seemed to live her life at twice the pace of the rest of us. She was quick-witted, could be very funny, seemed to say things the rest of us daren’t say and was generally well-liked by the senior management group. In fact, they seemed a bit mesmerised by her.

The problem for those of us who worked with Patty, day in and day out, was that we knew she cut unnecessary and sometimes risky corners. She also slid things under the carpet if it suited her and senior managers never got the full story. Most of the time, the way she operated didn’t directly affect me but she was difficult to be around – partly just the constant exuberance and energy levels but also because you had to find reasons not to get too involved with anything she was doing – she was manipulative and actually quite cunning. Also, I didn’t want anyone to think I operated in the same way and I didn’t want to get caught up in the fall out from her short cuts.

We all colluded with it, I guess. She was charming and if she went a bit too far, especially with a client, she’d somehow manage to get us to help to get her out of a hole. She really was a pain in lots of ways. In the end, I left for another job – not directly because of Patty but she was a contributory factor. I think I would add to Buffet’s quote and say that you don’t want to be around anyone who is intelligent, energetic and charming with no integrity – whether they are a leader or not!”

So are there any clues here about our inability to act?

Do we make too many assumptions about what others are thinking instead of finding out? Are we like Charles Handy’s boiling frog and keep putting up with our environment even though we know something isn’t right?

Do we just keep taking the short term path of least resistance but give ourselves long term grief?

Perhaps we just assume it is someone else’s problem?

So on the one hand, we need to make sure that intelligence and energy are coupled strongly with integrity when we are looking for leaders. On the other, when it comes to a lack of integrity, it is down to all of us to lead the way and not leave things until either the company’s reputation is put at risk or the best people resign.