To become a great leader, all you gotta do is be smart and lazy

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To become a great leader, all you gotta do is be smart and lazy

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To become a great leader, all you gotta do is be smart and lazy

Ask 10 random people what it takes to be a good leader, and you'll probably get replies like smart, diligent, motivated, creative and maybe even clever. But according to the Germans, the answer is only "smart" and "lazy".

I was reading Farnam Street the other week and stumbled across an article that talks about what makes good leaders, well...good. Despite what most people might think (and myself included before reading that article), leadership isn't about being motivated. Or even diligent.

First, the article distills down the four different types of people who possess a combination of two personality traits at the office: "stupid and hard-working, stupid and lazy, intelligent and hard-working, and intelligent and lazy."

Which of these types of people make the best leaders?

Smart and lazy people are natural leaders

If you asked me this question, I probably would have said diligence and intelligence. Being smart and persistent or highly motivated surely makes for a great leader.

"Erich von Manstein, one of the top strategists in Hitler’s German Military", Farnam Street wrote, "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.*”

Apparently, both of these guys believed something very different than what the majority of us instinctively believe about what makes a good leader:

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.


Here's my take on these types of people:

Clever and Diligent: These are your "git 'er done" type people, perhaps geared toward being in the middle of everything. The day-to-day tasks, almost like a project manager. Basically, they do it all and are not necessarily experts in any one thing. Their diligence casts a wide net over many different areas of business, and these are the guys that you want on the ground.

Stupid and Lazy: More or less, these are your grunt workers. These folks are well-suited for more straight-forward and repetitive tasks. Tasks that they don't have to think a lot about. Data-entry. Answering telephones (though answering the phones might require a little cleverness, too!). These are your lowest level force of workers, grinding it out each and every day.

Stupid and Diligent: Perhaps the worst type of person, those who are persistent and continuously stupid are a drain on your organization. They suck the lifeblood out of your staff and manage to create more work for everybody. Though they might mean well, they don't DO well, and these people may not have a good place in a typical organization.

Clever and Lazy: These people, according to Manstein and Hammerstein-Equord, are your natural-born leaders. They possess the right combination of being smart and clever, but are lazy enough to delegate and not try to accept every single responsibility upon their shoulders, which quickly cripples even the strongest among us.

"These people can be challenging to work with," wrote Farnam. "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."

And, they may not have any interest in upward mobility, which gives these people the freedom to step outside the box and try different things without the fear of pissing off one of their superiors (FU Money, anyone?).

As Farnam said, the "freedom to be different".

Is smart and lazy the way to get ahead?

I know a well-written, insightful article when I read it, and the Farnam piece was just that because it got me thinking about my former career in corporate America, a painful place so underwhelming that it became unbearable to spend another day in.

I've worked for both good managers as well as bad, and it's true. The best managers believed in an important concept of delegating ownership. Unbeknownst to me at the time, but delegating ownership is an ingenious concept that single-handedly improves productivity almost overnight.

Delegating ownership is a way of encouraging buy-in among your staff. When the staff feel like they "own" a project, most staff members will put much more effort into not only completing the task, but doing it right - the first time. Why? Because ownership of the task is a powerful motivator and one that's almost impossible to beat.

Ownership means that when the project goes right, the staff gets credit. The owners of the project reap the benefit, not the manager. Good leaders understand what motivates people the most and design their area of influence around those motivators, whatever they might be.

They are smart enough to understand that although the buck might stop with them, they also aren't the ones actually doing the work. Getting dirty. They aren't on the ground and summoning up the motivation to keep pushing. Keep grinding, day after day.

Ultimately, their staff does that. Motivated workers produce the best work. And, the best work turns good leaders into great ones.

Oh, and we aren't all cut out for management!

One sec - I'd be remiss if I didn't point out something about being "the leader" (or at least in management) that I never realized until I got there.

We aren't all cut out to be managers.

Like most of us who work in a traditional office, my goal coming out of college was to climb the ranks and become the boss. I started as a low-level programmer, then slowly took on more and more responsibilities until I became a technical lead, which means you’re the guy dishing out assignments and making sure that coding practices are followed and that the code being written isn’t just a pile of crap that barely compiles into something meaningful.

Then, I got the opportunity to direct an entire IT department, as I’ve written about before. Management: It’s not for everybody, especially for those who actually get pushed into it, but that wasn’t the case for me. I wanted the job. I wanted to be the boss, and I quickly realized that management isn’t for me. The crap that managers deal with is ten times as frustrating as before. As a regular staff member, you need to impress a couple of people to get promoted. But as a manager, the number of those people tends to increase, and they are in higher positions within the company, demanding more progress, more efficiency, more production.

And not only do senior managers need to be impressed, staff members demand attention. Conflict resolution. Priorities. Missed deadline. Employee A said something that hurt Employee B’s feelings. Employee C didn’t show up for work yesterday, which made Employee D late on her assignment.

In large part, managers are corporate babysitters, dealing with suit-wearing professions on one side and the petty problems of lower-level staff members on the other. If you are cut out for this type of work, bless you – because corporate America needs more good managers. But more times than not, I worked with managers who are only there for the money. They are overly stressed and hate their jobs – and not particularly good at what they do, either. Their heart isn’t in it because they want to be “The Boss“, not accept the responsibilities of management.

Sometimes, it’s better to just DO the work rather than MANAGE it.

What can good leaders do to motivate?

Okay, I think we got it. Good leaders are naturally smart people, but they also know how to delegate and, as a result, motivate. Naturally, those things that motivate people will look different from industry to industry - at least to a degree.

I will leave you with an awesome infographic from Brandeis University about workplace motivation (hint: More and more people at the office are not engaged):

Oh, and P.S.: After publishing this article, it came to my attention that I'm not the only personal finance blogger to have found and mentioned the Farnam Street piece. Mr. Lazy Man cites it in his About page. :)

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Steve Adcock
Steves a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence.