NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- If we can define a leader as an individual with the ability to influence others, then there is no other leader in U.S. business such as Warren Buffett. In fact, Buffett may be the most trusted leader in the corporate world today. The Wall Street Journal reported that Buffett, along with pal Bill Gates, spoke at Columbia University last week telling the students that there was no better place to invest than the United States. Of course, there are a lot of business gurus telling the world that the U.S. is the best, but Buffett speaks with a credibility that few enjoy. While most of us are not in a position to spend billions of dollars on anything (I just got back from Walt Disney World ( DIS) and struggled with $5 sodas!), there are some lessons of leadership that can be learned from the Oracle concerning how leaders establish the kind of credibility that he is known for. As usual, it is not so much the "what" that he does as it is the "how" that he does it. Transparency: Just a little while ago, Buffett offered to buy the remaining shares of Burlington Northern Santa Fe ( BNI) that Berkshire ( BRK.A) did not already own. When asked why he invests the way he does, Buffett is usually not shy in explaining his thinking, even if it is contrary to the public view. At a time when many investors are trying to figure out new technology sectors that are hard to understand and even harder to predict, Buffett explains his investment in Burlington in a straightforward way.
Railroads are efficient, they are proven and he believes they will become even more valuable as factories look for the best transportation deals. That's it. You can agree or not, but that's a pretty straightforward perspective. Consistency: Of course not everybody loves Warren Buffett. He is not only known as the Sage of Omaha, but also as an icon for capitalism. He describes his investment philosophy as "Never lose money," which is why he also causes such consternation in the finance world when he makes counterintuitive moves like his most recent ones. In fact, Buffett can almost be defined by his consistency. Justin McHenry, in his multi-part "How to Think Like Warren Buffett" blog series points out that Buffett's letter to shareholders in 1977 describes an investment strategy that could be the same letter he would send today (if you update the sectors). Buffett doesn't chase after the latest and greatest but uses a consistent formula for making his decisions. Integrity: Another reason we don't suspect Buffett of lots of ulterior motives is that he has proven his integrity over the decades. Combined with the transparency and consistency mentioned above, it boils down to the fact that we trust him. He acts the same way he speaks. He does what he says he is going to do. And perhaps even more important, he holds others to the same high standards. This is why he has been so outspoken about the need for greater sacrifice on the part of CEOs of bailed-out companies like Bank of America ( BAC)and Citigroup ( C).
"There should be more downside to the head of any institution that has to go to the federal government to be saved for reasons of the greater society," he said last week at Columbia University. He managed the risk at Berkshire in a way that avoided any need for government bailout, which gives him a bit of moral high ground for such an assessment. I am not suggesting that we can all invest like Warren Buffett. If nothing else, none of us would be able to get the same terms he gets with the massive amount of leverage that he brings. Nor is he perfect. As Buffett himself stated in his March letter to shareholders, "(In 2008,) I did some dumb things in investments." But it is that sort of candor that makes Buffett a unique and respected leader. When he screws up, he says so. When he wins, he says so as well, and he wins the same way over and over again. This is the leadership lesson of Warren Buffett. Have patience, have integrity and be willing to admit your weaknesses. You don't have to have a $150 billion company to manage that. -- Written by Todd Thomas in Southfield, Mich.