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Buffett's Legacy Shows Values Matter

Stocks in this article: BRK.A MSFT WMT

It's been over a year since the financial market crashed and, with it, the reputations of arguably every significant Wall Street business leader. Against the prior backdrop of Enron, WorldCom, et al., the malaise extends beyond the financial services as well, tainting C-suites across multiple industries.

Given the enormity of the crisis and the perceived breach of public trust, the pandemic negativism should not be all that surprising. Much more surprising is that certain reputations have remained uninfected, as if there were something in the DNA of these leaders that inoculates them against blame and allows an indissoluble bond with the mass public.

The name of Warren Buffett ranks highest on this enviable list. It can be argued that Buffett's rather mystical hold on public admiration is belied to some extent by his actions during the crisis. In her updated biography, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, Alice Schroeder points out that, while Buffett acted as "the economy's greatest cheerleader," he was lending at rates that bordered on "usurious." Meanwhile, because of Berkshire Hathaway's (BRK.A) concentration in financial stocks, book value dropped by almost 10%, the largest decrease in its history.

>>Related Commentary: A Buffett ETF Play for 2010

Our concern is not to thrash out such arguments one way or another. If anything, sophisticated criticism of Buffett's business decisions only underscores the personal imponderables that have enabled him to play father figure during the global ordeal. It's likewise significant that those traits are by no means unique to Buffett. The personal styles of business legends like Sam Walton, who founded Wal-Mart (WMT) and Bill Gates, with Microsoft (MSFT) are extremely different from Buffett's, yet there's enough in common to suggest powerful lessons in leadership itself.

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