We're often drawn to people we share common values with. When you have leaders of the accomplishment level and stature of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, you have to pay particular attention to what makes them friends, because therein lies elements of a leadership blueprint.

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are consistently asked whenever they appear together (which is fairly frequently) about their friendship. Their answer is quite consistent, I believe expressed most brilliantly in a 2017 town hall Q&A they gave at Columbia University.

During the interview, both Buffett and Gate were asked the reason behind their friendship. While their answers were complex, they essentially came down to a few key characteristics the two have in common, and they turn out to be absolutely critical for any truly successful leader.

1. Curiosity and a Deep Desire to Learn

Of this shared trait Buffett said, "We both share a curiosity about the world, and we come from two different but related worlds." Curiosity to say the least. Both men are known to be voracious readers. Buffett said he reads five hours a day and Gates is known for regularly sharing a recommended reading list.

Learning is the thing that's always the easiest to put off for some other priority. But when we see ourselves as learning and growing it's a tremendous source of meaning because we're moving towards our fullest potential. In fact, if you think back to a time in your life when you were the least happy and fulfilled, there's a darn good chance it was a time when you weren't learning and growing, when you found yourself pondering, "Am I wasting my time here?" 

Set aside personal learning and growth for a moment. The truth is, in some industries the rate of change is so great that the only sustainable competitive advantage that's left is the ability for the constituents in that category to learn, grow, change, and adapt. I was at a conference last year when I heard one futurist saying that in as many as 40 percent of industries, the knowledge obtained in college is already 80 percent obsolete. The point is, curiosity is the new (old) competitive advantage. Put yours to work professionally and personally.

2. Focus

Buffett also took the lead in pointing out this shared trait, saying: "Both of us got to where we are in a big way because of focus."

The most ineffective leaders I ever worked for all had one thing in common--the inability to focus. And I mean this in two ways, in channeling and choosing.

First, some weren't able to channel their time, attention, and energy into one thing at a time. They were overly convinced of their adeptness at multi-tasking or simply thought it was OK to not focus on any one thing in front of them at a time. Meeting with them was an adventure in lack of productivity because you'd never leave felling like you concentrated on any one thing long enough to have made real progress.

The other focus foible is in choosing, or rather, not making enough choices. I've worked for and with enough aggressive, well-intended leaders that had a strategy of placing as many bets as they could across a far flung variety of activities. But choosing everything is the easy thing. A strategy is a choice. Chasing everything burns everyone out and accomplishes far less than just focusing on a few things. Buffett has often said, in fact, that the biggest key to success in life is being really good at saying "no."

3. Humility

Gates pointed out this commonality with his buddy, saying of Buffett: "His humility (and sense of humor) really stands out, even when I ask questions that are probably pretty naive and that he's probably been asked 50 times before he's very nice about it: 'Well Bill it took me a long to figure this out but this is how it works.'"

It's hard not to root for a humble leader--especially one who actually has plenty to be humble about (which is certainly the case with Gates and Buffett). When you hear either of the two talk, there's a definite "aw-shucksness" to their commentary. They have a way of putting even their world-beating feats into proper perspective, they're quick to point out their mistakes along the way, and they're both quick to give credit to everyone else but themselves.

Humility draws people to you because there's an underlying genuineness, kindness, and hard-earned wisdom to it. You want to be around those who are humble and it's a major reason why Buffett and Gates remain friends.

What Gates and Buffett see in each other is something you should strive to see in yourself. Do so, and you'll be in pretty good company.

Published on: Oct 21, 2019
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