Quote Origin: Look for Three Qualities: Integrity, Intelligence and Energy. And If They Don’t Have the First, the Other Two Will Kill You

Warren Buffett? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

Quote Investigator®
4 min readMay 14, 2023
Puzzle piece. Image from AbsolutVision Pixabay

Question for Quote Investigator: Famous U.S. investor Warren Buffett once described the three traits he looked for in new employees. A worker should have integrity, intelligence, and energy. Apparently, Buffett believed that the first trait was crucial because its absence would cause the other two traits to kill a business. Would you please help me to find the phrasing used by Buffett together with a precise citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1993 Warren Buffett spoke to graduate students at the Business School of Columbia University in New York City. Excerpts from his remarks were published in the “Omaha World-Herald” of Nebraska in January 1994. Boldface added to excerpts by QI

Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.

You think about it, it’s true. If you hire somebody without the first, you really want them dumb and lazy. (Laughter)

Pick the kind of person to work for you that you want to marry your son or daughter. You won’t go wrong.

Interestingly, Warren Buffett popularized this saying; however, he disclaimed credit. Thus, the originator remains anonymous.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1994 Robert G. Hagstrom Jr. published “The Warren Buffett Way: Investment Strategies of the World’s Greatest Investor”. The book reprinted the quotation, and the accompanying footnote pointed to the 1994 article in the “Omaha World-Herald”:²

If he were to make a mistake in evaluating a business, Buffett always figured it would result from his misunderstanding of the company’s future economics, not the ethical behavior of management. “In evaluating people,” Buffett said, “you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.”

In 1997 Janet Lowe published the compilation “Warren Buffett Speaks: Wit and Wisdom from the World’s Greatest Investor”. Lowe included the quotation, and the accompanying footnote pointed to “Omaha World-Herald” article.³

In May 1997 Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger spoke at the Annual Meeting of Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett described the three traits he looked for when deciding whether he wished to work with a person. He employed a partial match for the saying under examination:⁴

WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah. We look for brains and energy and integrity in people that we work with. And if you get that combination and you’re in a decent business, you know, you can own the world.

In April 2005 Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger spoke at the Annual Meeting of Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett once again described the qualities he was looking for in a successful business person:⁵

WARREN BUFFETT: I tell students that what we’re looking for when we hire somebody, beyond this passion, we’re looking for intelligence. We’re looking for energy. And we’re looking for integrity.

And we tell them, if they don’t have the last, the first two will kill you.

Because if you hire somebody without integrity, you really want them to be dumb and lazy, don’t you? I mean, the last thing in the world you want is that they are smart energetic.

In 2006 Mary Buffett and David Clark published the compilation “The Tao of Warren Buffett: Warren Buffett’s Words of Wisdom” which included the following entry:⁶

“In looking for someone to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. But the most important is integrity, because if they don’t have that, the other two qualities, intelligence and energy, are going to kill you.”

In conclusion, Warren Buffett employed this saying while conversing with Columbia University students in 1993; however, he disclaimed credit by using the phrase “somebody once said”. Thus, Buffet deserves credit for popularizing the remark, but the creator remains anonymous.

Image Notes: Illustration of a puzzle piece that fits nicely into a slot from AbsolutVision at Pixabay.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Jane Bella who encountered a tweet containing a similar remark using the word honesty instead of integrity. Bella began exploring the provenance of the statement, and she found the remark ascribed to Warren Buffett. Next, she contacted QI to learn more about the saying.

[1] 1994 January 2, Omaha World-Herald, Section: Business, Billionaire Talks Strategy With Students Columbia University Group Hears From Famous Alumnus Berkshire Hathaway by Jim Rasmussen (Herald Staff Writer), Quote Page 17S, Omaha, Nebraska. (NewsBank Access World News)

[2] 1994, The Warren Buffett Way: Investment Strategies of the World’s Greatest Investor by Robert G. Hagstrom Jr., Chapter 6: Fixed-Income Marketable Securities, Quote Page 172 and 173, John Wiley & Sons, New York. (Verified with scans)

[3] 1997, Warren Buffett Speaks: Wit and Wisdom from the World’s Greatest Investor, Compiled by Janet Lowe, Topic: Work With Good People, Quote Page 68 and 69, John Wiley & Sons, New York. (Verified with scans)

[4] Website: Warren Buffett Archive at CNBC, Video title: 1997 Annual Meeting Highlight Reel, Date on website: May 5, 1997, Video description: Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger answer questions during afternoon session of 1997 meeting, Segment 23: Berkshire’s intellectual capital is its managers, Website description: Archive of statements made by Warren Buffett posted by the news company CNBC. (Accessed buffett.cnbc.com on May 13, 2023) video link transcript link

[5] Website: Warren Buffett Archive at CNBC, Video title: 2005 Annual Meeting Highlight Reel, Date on website: April 30, 2005, Video description: Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger answer questions during morning session of 2005 meeting, Segment 8: What Buffett looks for in managers, Website description: Archive of statements made by Warren Buffett posted by the news company CNBC. (Accessed buffett.cnbc.com on May 13, 2023) video link transcript link

[6] 2006, The Tao of Warren Buffett: Warren Buffett’s Words of Wisdom by Mary Buffett and David Clark, Chapter: The Workplace, Number 47, Quote Page 58, Scribner, New York. (Verified with scans)

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Quote Investigator®

Garson O'Toole specializes in tracing quotations. He operates the QuoteInvestigator.com website which receives more than 4 million visitors per year