The subprime mess gets nastier by the day. I've seen recent estimates of the fiscal damage alone exceeding $1 trillion. (Not enough pain to reduce Wall Street bonuses, mind you—a record $39 billion in performance-based handouts expected.) W Buffett long ago gave us fair warning when he said that all the higher-mathematical models in the world can't overcome problems with the value in the original transactions. (Bob Herbert's "A Swarm of Swindlers" op-ed in yesterday's NY Times is an appalling tale of the behavior of the hyper-aggressive lenders.) Then a couple of days ago I read that Buffett also got the A-Rod deal with the Yankees sorted out. Turns out A-Rod wanted to stay with the Yanks. His pal Mr Buffett offered him a great suggestion: Call 'em. A-Rod called direct, no agent (all-mighty Scott Boras) involved, and the deal was done. (Well, not quite; as I read it, A-Rod, post-Buffett call, in turn called 2 of his senior Goldman Sachs buddies to see if they thought it would be cool if he called one of the Steinbrenners direct—dear God, as it were, does A-Rod call Pope Benedict and ask if it's okay to cross against a "don't walk" signal? How many agents can be fit on the head of a pin ...)
So Buffett is my "cutting through the fog of war" hero: (1) If lotsa truly crappy loans were made, it'll eventually catch up with us. (2) If you want to play for the Yanks, why don'tcha speed-dial 1-800-Hank Steinbrenner.
In fact, I'm busy Buffett-izing my presentations. The Madrid Keynote posted a couple of days ago is the best example to date. I'm turning my back on "sophisticated formulations" and "tightly argued," logical presentations. I'm focusing instead on "common sense stuff" (a Buffeteria of ideas?) that I've picked up over the years—and presenting it in as straightforward a way as I can. (I have recently begun my public remarks with, "I am here under false pretenses. I have nothing interesting to say. I have flown 5,000 miles for the sole purpose of reminding you of things you've known for years or decades—which, alas, get lost in the shuffle of daily affairs.") I believe to my marrow that we fail to achieve excellence by failing to obsess on the basics—not because we couldn't decide precisely where in the blue ocean we wanted to drop our anchor.
Thinking about subprime mortgage mathematically derived packaging instruments and sports agents with sophisticated spin-driven negotiating tactics, doubtless based on "game theory" math, led me to a pair of quotes from an 18th century leader, N Bonaparte: "The art of war does not require complicated maneuvers; the simplest are the best, and common sense is fundamental. From which one might wonder how it is generals make blunders; it is because they try to be clever." "A military leader must possess as much character as intellect. Men who have a great deal of intelligence and little character are the least suited. It is preferable to have much character and little intellect." (Source: Jerry Manas, Napoleon on Project Management. Manas claims that Napoleon's "six winning principles" were: exactitude—sweat the details, speed, flexibility, simplicity, character, moral force. This makes sense to me, especially since Manas' sextet matches perfectly the approach of the two military figures I most respect, Horatio Nelson and Ulysses Grant.)
There's one other quote that comes to mind, from Picasso: "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist." So, if we (Napoleon's generals or commanding officers of 4-person training departments) can somehow manage to hold dear those beloved basics of childlike artistry, we will be well served, regardless of our chosen field of practice.