Warren Buffett is Weird

Warren Buffett is weird. And the only way to truly appreciate his weirdness is to come out to Omaha for the annual ‘Woodstock of Capitalism’ – the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting.

Last night at the dinner kicking off my CEO workshop one of the CEOs introduced himself by talking about how we first met at Harvard Business School and how he thought I was weird (and still does).

That got me thinking about ‘weird’ and since we are here in Omaha it got me thinking about how Warren Buffett is weird. I may be weird but Buffett is even stranger than I am.

You can read his letter to shareholders, which I recommend. You can read biographies and financial analysis books based on his philosophy, which I also suggest you do.

But to really grok Buffett you gotta come out to Omaha.

Most people misunderstand Buffett. They think of him as an investor, which of course he is. His primary contribution to humanity, however, is not in investing. It’s in the unconventional culture he’s built here at Berkshire Hathaway.

Buffett refers to this weird culture as a ‘web of deserved trust.’

He trusts his leaders and employees. He knows, of course, that with 350,000 the odds that someone will break a law or do something wrong are high. But he’s very careful about the leaders he invests in and then he completely trusts them.

The weirdness of Buffett lives in this unique culture he’s created. And you can’t appreciate that cognitively. You need to come to Omaha to experience it emotionally and directly.

Silicon Valley likes to talk about how ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ The difference is that while Silicon Valley talks about that, Berkshire Hathaway practices it.

Here are some small and large examples of this unusual culture:

  • Berkshiare Hathaway, a company of 350,000+ employees, is run with a headquarters staff of 24. 24! I will be talking about this at length in the CEO workshop today. This one point shows an enormous amount about the different culture and operating system that drives this company (a few hints: with only 24 people, there’s very little central oversight, bureaucracy, etc – so how do they run a company of 350,000 with 24? Culture. Culture. Culture).
  • Tony Nicely, the CEO of GEICO, one of Berkshire Hathaway’s most important and successful businesses, stands in line like everyone else at the annual meeting (in fact, one year when a friend of mine at one of the Berkshire companies offered to bring him to the front of the line, he declined)
  • Sam Taylor, the CEO of Oriental Trading, if you meet him will tell you through tears about what it meant for him and his employees when Berkshire bought their business. He’ll also tell you how Buffett never asks for budgets – nor does he require ‘synergies’ between his divisions. Instead, he supports the heck out of his leaders (Buffett stays within what he calls his ‘circle of competence’ – i.e. what he’s good at and tries not to interfere in the many issues that he’s clueless about).
  • Warren Buffett publicly acknowledges his mistakes and limitations. He tries to stay within his ‘circle of competence’ (even as he’s always widening it) and he shows you that by both what he says and what he does at the annual meeting. You have to come and experience what that feels like to see someone like Buffett show his mistakes and recognize his limitations. It’s refreshing and makes you believe in humanity again. The Uber CEO should come to Omaha every year.

When something – or someone – is truly weird and goes against conventional assumptions, you can’t fully appreciate it through a cognitive act alone. You need to experience it. Berkshire is driven not by a bureaucracy but by this ‘web of deserved trust.’ If you come out here, you’ll start to experience firsthand what this web of trust is really like and get a glimpse of how it operates in a company with 70 very different businesses.

I’m appreciating this more and more and it’s getting me thinking that I might want to organize a larger trek out here to Omaha – not just for a small group of CEOs – but for many leaders at all levels and stages of their careers.

If you think you might want to come out to Omaha next year and experience Buffett’s weirdness firsthand, then leave a comment here or send me an email through LinkedIn.

Weirdly yours –

Phil