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Leadership advice from investing legend Charlie Munger: ‘Knowing what you don’t know is more useful than being brilliant’

Bloomberg / Contributor—Getty Images

Charlie Munger, a legendary investor and Warren Buffett’s right-hand man, died on Tuesday at the age of 99.

Munger had a decades-long career at the Omaha-based holding company Berkshire Hathaway, and his business relationship with Buffett helped turn it into a powerhouse worth hundreds of billions. Buffett even credited Munger with creating the company’s investment blueprint.

“Altering my behavior is not an easy task (ask my family). I had enjoyed reasonable success without Charlie’s input, so why should I listen to a lawyer who had never spent a day in business school (when—ahem—I had attended three),” Buffett wrote in the company’s 2015 letter to shareholders. “But Charlie never tired of repeating his maxims about business and investing to me, and his logic was irrefutable. Consequently, Berkshire has been built to Charlie’s blueprint.”

The two were also close friends, and Munger was a fixture at the company’s annual shareholder meeting, where he famously traded quips with Buffett, and offered up his thoughts on everything from AI to cryptocurrency.

Here are some of Munger’s top leadership lessons that can apply to almost any career, from keeping it simple to knowing your limits.   

Always keep learning. The other big secret is that we’re good at lifelong learning. Warren is better in his 70s and 80s, in many ways, than he was when he was younger. If you keep learning all the time, you have a wonderful advantage.” — Fortune

There are three rules for a career: “1) Don’t sell anything you wouldn’t buy yourself. 2) Don’t work for anyone you don’t respect and admire. 3) Work only with people you enjoy.” — The Tao of Charlie Munger, via CNBC

Keep it simple. “It’s so simple to spend less than you earn, and invest shrewdly, and avoid toxic people and toxic activities, and try and keep learning all your life, and do a lot of deferred gratification. If you do all those things, you are almost certain to succeed. If you don’t, you’re going to need a lot of luck.” — Charlie Munger at the 2023 Berkshire Hathaway meeting, via Business Insider

Take less money when you get to the top. “I would argue that when you rise high enough in American business, you've got a moral duty to be underpaid—not to get all that you can, but to actually be underpaid.” — as quoted in the paper Corporate Governance According to Charles T. Munger

Incentives are key. “Perhaps the most important rule in management is ‘Get the incentives right.’” — from Munger’s work The Psychology of Human Misjudgment 

Avoid red tape: “It isn’t just the cost reduction. It’s the efficiency gained if you eliminate bureaucracy. I think bureaucracy is like a cancer. So we’re very anti-bureaucracy.” — Fortune

Self-awareness is everything. “Knowing what you don’t know is more useful than being brilliant.” — The Wall Street Journal

Know your limits. “We’re not so smart, but we kind of know where the edge of our smartness is...That is a very important part of practical intelligence...If you know the edge of your own ability pretty well, you should ignore most of the notions of our experts about what I call ‘deworsification’ of portfolios.” — Berkshire Hathaway’s 2023 annual shareholder meeting, via CNBC

Envy is the enemy. “There’s an old saying, ‘What good is envy? It’s the one sin you can’t have any fun at.’ It’s 100% destructive. Resentment is crazy. Revenge is crazy. Envy is crazy. If you get those things out of your life early, life works a lot better.” — Fortune

Make the most of other people’s mistakes: “What gives you opportunities is other people doing dumb things…In the 58 years we’ve been running Berkshire, I would say there’s been a great increase in the number people doing dumb things, and they do big, dumb things.” — Berkshire Hathaway’s 2023 annual shareholder meeting, via CNBC.

But make sure you admit your own mistakes. “I like people admitting they were complete stupid horses’ asses. I know I’ll perform better if I rub my nose in my mistakes. This is a wonderful trick to learn.” — Berkshire Hathaway’s 2017 annual shareholder meeting, via Motley Fool

Do a little bit every day. “Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Step by step you get ahead, but not necessarily in fast spurts. But you build discipline by preparing for fast spurts.” Munger’s book Poor Charlie’s Almanack via Fortune

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