31 billion reminders

I don’t know Warren Buffett, but his words and actions this week are worth remembering, and not merely because of his $31 billion gift to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s true that $31 billion is a lot of money, no matter how you cut it. And what’s more Buffett didn’t give the money to a foundation that bares his name (he did make much smaller gifts to various family foundations). His sheer generosity is breathtaking.

But I am also struck by Buffett’s comments in news accounts. Here are just some of his quotes from a Washington Post story on Tuesday:

  • On a sense of obligation: “We (those who have made money) really owe it to society to give back.”
  • On turning to someone else to manage his funds: “If you’re accumulating wealth, it’s very natural to go to someone you know can handle it better than you can.”
  • On other wealthy people following in his footsteps: “I would hope they act now” and that they “might pick up on this model.”

For me, Buffett is doing the exact opposite of what has become the prevailing norm in society. We’ve become accustomed to people stepping up to the podium, making loud pronouncements and promises, and beating their breasts publicly. Ultimately, and unfortunately, their actions fall significantly short of their rhetoric.

But Buffett has seemingly stepped forward with a clear and unmistakable action; even more, his tone reflects a deep respect for his endeavor and his words connote a sense of humility and obligation.

I’ve been writing a lot recently about leaders – or, better put, about all kinds of individuals who are demonstrating leadership. My own sense is that there is a promising, if nascent, trend in society of more and more individuals who are exhibiting a different kind of leadership in public life and politics. They are tired of the finger pointing and needless acrimony and people’s exaggerated sense of self-worth.

For instance, I remember writing awhile ago about Ms. Trina, who showed a brave and humble kind of leadership in her own Atlanta neighborhood, which had fallen on hard times. I also remember that I met her at the local Salvation Army campus, where the motto, “Do the Most Good” could be seen displayed on walls.

For most of us, doing the most good will never entail giving large gifts of money. But for each of us, our words and actions can be rooted in sensibilities that reflect both a greater sense of authenticity in what we say and do and a higher degree of accountability in how we go about our business.

This will require a toughness and clear sense of purpose; there’s no easy path. Moreover, it will require clarity about our own self-worth. In Buffett’s case, it was not merely his $31 billion (thought that’s a lot of money!) but why and how he acted which must be remembered.

Warren Buffett is today’s example; tomorrow someone else will step forward.