Clever and Lazy is the Sweetspot for… Financial Independence Retire Early?

The Person Who is Clever and Lazy Qualifies for the Highest Leadership Posts

– General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, 4th Chief of the German Army Command, Weimar Republic

General von Hammerstein-Equord, 1929. Courtesy

I came across the above quote a few years ago during my path to financial independence.

I thought it was extremely obnoxious, overly simplistic, and yet disturbingly true.

Quick background: General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord was a career officer in the German military in World War I. He vehemently opposed Hitler and was forced to resign his office in 1934 when Hitler became chancellor. (Courtesy Wikipedia). Germany also had one of the best land armies until the end of World War I.

The below 2×2 matrix is often ascribed to Hammerstein-Equord.

The German military used it to determine which officers to promote to higher office. And which to shunt to an area where they can do little damage or be easily gotten rid of.
Hammerstein-Equord’s Officer 2×2 Matrix, credit

The idea is that the military should categorize officers (read: managers) along a continuum of Industrious vs Lazy and Clever vs Stupid.

The Easy, Intuitive Ones: Clever & Industrious/Stupid & Lazy

Clever & Industrious – These are the standard high achievers who studied hard, worked long hours, and followed the rules that institutions set. They have get things done. They are the COOs, CFOs, doctors, lawyers, and accountants. Nearly everyone who is a successful professional would fall into this category, at least in the beginning of their career.

When you have a complex, important problem to solve for which a methodical approach works well, you want someone who is Clever & Industrious on the case!

Stupid & Lazy – These are people who are incompetent and who simply don’t care. They are the ones who barely get by because they can’t do any better. They are often not around very long in organizations.  Likely because a zealous Clever & Industrious person would get rid of them.

Yet despite appearing to be useless, this is not the case. The military would use the Stupid & Lazy as “cannon fodder.” In today’s organizations, whenever a company “throws bodies” at a problem, it’s the same thing. Companies need to poke and prod such “bodies.” But with enough sticks, they do what they are told. And if things go badly, they are easily blamed, punished, or fired.

Non-Intuitive ones: Stupid & Industrious/Clever & Lazy

Stupid & Industrious – These are people who give 100%… but to the wrong things. This is because they’re not clever enough to understand what  management really wants but cannot say. These are the people who really think HR is on the employees’ side.  They believe it when a business unit head says that his (or her)  office door is “always open.”

You would think that they  just need the right role and they would be fine. But their inability to understand the unspoken reality of an organization is an extremely dangerous liability. At best, they are a distraction from the organization’s true goal of making money. At worst, they put the entire organization in jeopardy because of potential lawsuits or other liabilities. This is because not all goals and methods of doing things can be explicitly stated.

And now finally…

Clever & Lazy – The Clever & Lazy should be promoted to the highest leadership positions! This is because they have the ability, but they are sufficiently lazy that they will not waste their time on meaningless tasks. In fact, their laziness will motivate them to use their abilities to create new, more efficient processes in order to preserve their laziness. As such, the Clever & Lazy are the visionary founders and transformational CEOs of companies. They are the leaders who transform an organization.

It may seem odd that the Clever & Industrious would not be just as suited to the highest leadership positions, but it actually makes sense. The Clever & Industrious follow the rules that institutions have set before them to rise through the ranks. They check off all the boxes  and manage their precious resume according to society’s expectations.

But the problems that need solving are exactly the ones for which following the existing rules don’t help.

But What If You Don’t Want to Be CEO?

Looking at my academic and professional career, I was solidly in the Clever & Industrious category. And I eventually came to loathe it.

After my 20 years in the corporate world and then learning about Hammerstein-Equord’s 2×2 matrix, I wanted to be Clever & Lazy.

But I was also so tired of being part of a large organization, that I didn’t want to be promoted to the “highest leadership posts.”

So instead, I want to be Clever & Lazy in order to opt out of the organization and to be financially independent and retire early.

What about you? Do you agree with Hammerstein-Equord’s 2×2 Matrix?

Have any stories of others who chose to be Clever & Lazy in order to do their own thing?

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