Warren Buffett is known not only for his prolific investment acumen but also for his wit and wisdom. Having covered Buffett over the years, I’ve seen how often he has given his followers solid advice on matters related to leadership, hiring, and even the importance of self-care.

One helpful tip stood out for me as his best of 2024 to date. It came from his 2024 annual letter to shareholders. In an age of so much corporate wrongdoing, enormous egos, and horrific management decisions, it can be difficult to know whom to trust. Nearing a century of life, Buffett has experienced the perils of human nature first-hand. Here’s what he wrote as a warning for all of us:

In 1863, Hugh McCulloch, the first Comptroller of the United States, sent a letter to all national banks. His instructions included this warning: “Never deal with a rascal under the expectation that you can prevent him from cheating you.” Many bankers who thought they could “manage” the rascal problem have learned the wisdom of Mr. McCulloch’s advice — and I have as well. People are not that easy to read. Sincerity and empathy can easily be faked. That is as true now as it was in 1863.

Beware of rascals

Buffett relies on capable and trustworthy managers to run his Berkshire Hathaway-owned businesses. However, it can be challenging to judge who’s trustworthy and who’s a bonafide “rascal,” since Berkshire has experienced its fair share of disappointments.

In his 1989 annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, the Oracle of Omaha called attention to a valuable personal rule that he credits with much of his success. He said, “After some other mistakes, I learned to go into business only with people whom I like, trust, and admire.” Later, he added, “We’ve never succeeded in making a good deal with a bad person.”

Maybe a potential business partner is willing to make false claims about a competitor’s product, or your accountant wants to get creative with the numbers so you can avoid paying your fair share in taxes. There are always people looking to bend the rules, twist the truth, or manipulate an outcome to their advantage — and ultimately, to their or your demise.

Buffett’s point is that associating with these types of people is risky because, over time, you’ll become more like them. As he puts it, “You want to associate with people who are the kind of person you’d like to be. You’ll move in that direction.”

Who can you trust?

Returning to Buffett’s best take of 2024, we can say that people are hard to read in the digital age. Even empathy, considered to be a success trait desired in most leaders, “can easily be faked.” So, what are the signs of a trustworthy leader? I posit that there are three you should look for as you assess your leadership talent:

1. Selflessness

A leader who manages through self-interest will naturally view others as objects and a means to that end. This mindset is dictated by ego. Selfless leaders, conversely, don’t eliminate the ego; rather, they harness it in healthy and constructive ways to benefit other people. In the words of the Dalai Lama, we must make sure “it is a serving ego and not a deserving ego.”

2. Vulnerability

Vulnerability in the workplace is often vilified as soft and inappropriate. On the contrary, vulnerability is about building trust — the backbone of successful leadership. The best leaders are catching on to the idea that when employees and other stakeholders in the organization feel safe and open to express their ideas and differences of opinion, as well as their failures and even fears, they are emotionally engaged with their work. This is good for both individual and organizational performance.

3. Integrity

Integrity is such a non-negotiable aspect of Buffett’s business practice that he vows to hire only people who possess it. Here’s what he said:

If you’re going to get someone without integrity, you want them lazy and dumb.

Buffett’s assertion that, if the employee lacks integrity, you’d be better off with someone “lazy and dumb” highlights the danger of pairing cunningness with a lack of ethics. Leaders might encounter self-centered individuals who manipulate others for personal gain over being a team player who serves the organization’s mission. Leaders must be vigilant against such behaviors, promoting a culture that values hard work coupled with honesty and loyalty.