Why Clever and Lazy People Make Great Leaders

“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?

* * *

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.

* * *

This actually makes quite a bit of sense to me.

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 judgement 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.

Maybe von Hammerstein-Equord was onto something.

Considering the framework above, it’s interesting to contemplate the consequences of mis-matching types and jobs.

What do you think?
Leave a note in the comments.

(inspiration via @planmaestro; sources include: *straighttogo)

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  1. Dragos says

    But what you do if you are Intelligent and Lazy and you are in the wrong place?

  2. Celine says

    I agree, though I think the problem is differentiating people who are ‘intelligent and lazy’ with people who ‘think they’re intelligent and are also lazy’, especially if the costs of hiring someone unintelligent and lazy is great.

    You’ve mentioned that integrity is important, and I think this helps differentiate them. Someone who is always truthful will accurately represent their abilities, whereas someone who is not truthful will not.

    So, from a probabilistic point of view, you should always hire those who are truthful who also claim to be ‘intelligent and lazy’, but never hire those who are untruthful.

    Do you have any other rules of thumb you would recommend?

  3. SB says

    “Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.”
    – Robert Heinlein

    • Jeff Pang says

      Over-simplification of the world. Going to space is not easier for anything or anyone but that is progress…

  4. Venky says

    Wow..so very true. I would modify the last set as Intelligent and perceived to be lazy ones (just because they are not running around like the rest of judging crowd).

  5. fonat says

    This may apply to bureaucratic or strictly hierarchical organizations like military because what energetic people mostly do in that kind of environment creates clutters. I don’t think anyone who hires for a lean operation (like Buffet or Paul Graham) would use lazy people no matter how much clever they are. The main downside of having them is they demotivate others.

  6. Camilo Buitrago says

    If you want to create your own thing, first be clever and diligent until you get enough momentum and then put all the systems in place to be clever and lazy.

    You need an understanding of the systems you are part of (the clever part) and being in the position of influencing them, in this way you can be clever and lazy.

  7. h says

    I agree with SB. Lazy people make for inventiveness because they’re always trying to make the job easier by coming up with innovative ways to get something done. And they’re intelligent enough to do so efficiently and effectively. They’re also able to determine which team members can add most value with the least supervision and put them in management positions.

  8. Frank Ploegman says

    I wonder whether the description for the intelligent & lazy person above, would also hold for an intelligent & ambitious person. A lazy person wants to get necessary stuff done with the least amount of time and energy. An ambitious person wants to get as much useful effect as possible from a limited amount of time and energy. Whether they want to minimize time/energy or maximize effect, both want to maximize return-on-investment.

    Ambitious people can be different just like lazy people. Ambitious people may have no desire to ‘move up’ in an organization in the conventional sense, because they have their own sense of which direction is ‘up': they define success in their own way.

  9. ldv says

    I’d come across this idea in Richard Koch’s book – The 80/20 Principle. If you’ve not read it, you should probably take a look at it … especially the chapter titled – intelligent and lazy.

  10. cre8tivone says

    Lazy doesn’t seem to get to the heart of it—it assumes this person has drive and can set goals. I don’t think truly lazy people give a damn. Maybe the trait lazy really implies the attributes calm, focused or deliberate.

  11. says

    I would say there is a fifth category, visionary, that is so rare among the human population overall, and so unlikely to appear in the military specifically, there is no surprise it is excluded. Visionary + Diligent wields great force, as opposed to settling within another’s structured force. Under the wrong leadership v+d is also better hidden than worn openly (the Julius Caesar dilemma as explored by Brutus via the bard).

  12. says

    Junk for the most part. Confuses two very different personality traits, emotional stability (composure) and conscientiousness (hard working). You are better than this. Here are the best scientific reviews, both of which are available for free online:

    Judge, T. A., Bono, J. E., Ilies, R., & Gerhardt, M. W. (2002). Personality and leadership: a qualitative and quantitative review. Journal of applied psychology, 87(4), 765.

    Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2005). What we know about leadership. Review of general psychology, 9(2), 169.

  13. Jamo says

    I think I’m definitely the intelligent and lazy type. My whole life I was praised for my potential and my intelligence, but never for my hard work. And I don’t think it’s that I wasn’t working hard, because initially I was, I think it’s that the emphasis wasn’t placed on the hard work, but on my intelligence. Because of my laziness I’ve always been an underachiever, and it was only when I got into the working world that I started to understand what hard work is. Now I’m determined to teach my children the value of hard work, irrespective of their intelligence. Will I be a business leader one day? I highly doubt it, I don’t have the ambition to get there. Besides, I’m a freelancer now, couldn’t stick to that 9 to 5 job with someone telling me what to do all day…

  14. Jyothi Kumar says

    Call me naive but I fail to see how people can be intelligent and lack integrity…if one is so, he/she needs to be bracketed as stupid ;-)

    otherwise agree with the views

  15. Tenzin says

    Laziness as almost an emotion, it’s comforting, warm and the by product is it creates efficiencies around you. Intelligence-I agree with Steve Jobs’ observation that we are all pretty close to each other in intelligence, it’s just a few who I consider lucky to realize the potential within themselves.

  16. Ron Storm says

    As I read through the article and the posts we can take the term “Lazy” very literally. But in the context it says that “Lazy” people don’t like meeting, paperwork, etc. I categorize that into what Stephen Covey in the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” called time wasters. So the effective people who put the time waster activities in the fourth quadrant of not important/not time critical would in many organization be considered lazy.

    Secondly I read a post from Richard Branson on entrepreneurs and it was all about knowing where you add value and focusing your attention on those efforts.

    After reading the article I am proud to say I am an Intelligent Lazy but more or less it is really that I don’t have time for unproductive activities. I always ask is this motion or commotion? If it is a commotion activity I generally throw that to the bottom of my list.

  17. Little Meatball says

    Celine hits exactly the problem on the head. Who is going to admit, even to themselves, that they are stupid? Everyone wants to believe he is smart and lazy and therefore inventive. Can the person hiring employees for the organization even tell smart from stupid?