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

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder? Erich von Manstein? Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord? Douglas MacArthur? Frederick the Great? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: In self-help books I have repeatedly seen a two-by-two matrix used to evaluate individuals. The four elements in the matrix were labeled: Brilliant & Lazy, Brilliant & Energetic, Dumb & Lazy, and Dumb & Energetic. Curiously, the brilliant and lazy were extolled above all others.

Sometimes a different vocabulary was employed. Brilliant was replaced by smart, bright, clever, or intelligent. Energetic was replaced by industrious or diligent. Dumb was replaced by stupid.

This four-class categorization has been ascribed to several German generals, e.g., Helmuth von Moltke, Erich von Manstein, Carl von Clausewitz, and Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord. Would you please explore the origins of this matrix?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in January 1933 in a periodical called “Army, Navy & Air Force Gazette” based in Great Britain. A passage attributed to German General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord described the placing of officers into four classes.

The text was reprinted under the title “Selecting Officers” in the “United States Naval Institute Proceedings” in March 1933[ref] 1933 March, United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Professional Notes: January 1 to January 31, Section: Germany: Selecting Officers, Start Page 437, Quote Page 448, The Institute, Annapolis, Maryland. (This document states that the material from “Army, Navy & Air Force Gazette” was published January 19) (Verified on microfilm)[/ref] and in the “Review of Military Literature: The Command and General Staff School Quarterly” in September 1933. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1933 September, Review of Military Literature: The Command and General Staff School Quarterly, Volume 13, Number 50, Section 1: Abstracts of Foreign-Language Articles, Selection of German Officers, (Excerpt from “Army, Navy & Air Force Gazette” of UK; dated January 18, 1933), Quote Page 23 and 24, Published Quarterly by The Command and General Staff School Library, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. (Special note: QI has not yet seen the issue of “Army, Navy & Air Force Gazette” containing the excerpt; this data is from “Review of Military Literature”) (Verified with scans from Combined Arms Research Library Digital Library)[/ref]

General Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord, the present chief of the German Army, has a method of selecting officers which strikes us as being highly original and peculiarly un-­Prussian. According to Exchange, a Berlin newspaper has printed the following as his answer to a query as to how he judged his officers: “I divide my officers into four classes as follows: The clever, the industrious, the lazy, and the stupid. Each officer always possesses two of these qualities.

Those who are clever and industrious I appoint to the General Staff. Use can under certain circumstances be made of those who are stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy qualifies for the highest leadership posts. He has the requisite nerves and the mental clarity for difficult decisions. But whoever is stupid and industrious must be got rid of, for he is too dangerous.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1942 Viscount Swinton (Philip Lloyd-Greame) spoke in the House of Lords in London, and he described the four classes of officers and credited an unnamed German General:[ref] 1942 February 24, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Lords Sitting, “War Situation”, Speaking: Viscount Swinton (Philip Lloyd-Greame), volume 122, cc1-60. (Accessed on February 26, 2014) link [/ref]

I do not know whether your Lordships are familiar with the saying of a German General that there are four types of officer but I think that it is relevant to what we are discussing. He said that there are four types of officer: the clever and lazy, the clever and industrious, the stupid and lazy, and the stupid and industrious.

The clever and lazy you make Chief of Staff, because he will not try to do everybody else’s work, and will always have time to think. The clever and industrious you make his deputy. The stupid and lazy you put into a line battalion, and kick him into doing a job of work. The stupid and industrious you must get rid of at once, because he is a national danger.

A compact instance of the saying appeared in the World War II diary of General Henry H. ‘Hap’ Arnold. An entry dated November 16, 1943 presented the lacerating words that General Douglas MacArthur used to comment about a subordinate:[ref] 2004, American Airpower Comes of Age: General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold’s World War II Diaries (Volume 2) by General Henry H. Arnold, Edited by Major General John W. Huston, (Diary entry dated November 16, 1943; location Atlantic Ocean), Quote Page 78, (Footnote 38: Page 113 and 114), (Reprinted from 1998 edition), University Press of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Google Books Preview)[/ref]

“You can use the brilliant but lazy man as a strategist, a brilliant but energetic man as a Chief of Staff, but God help you with a dumb but energetic man”: MacArthur’s estimate of GB [George Brett] one of the most charming damn fools I have had the pleasure of meeting.

Lieutenant General George Brett was reassigned to the less important Caribbean Defense Command during World War II primarily because of MacArthur’s negative opinion.

In 1953 LIFE magazine printed a condensed version of the analysis and ascribed the words to Hammerstein:[ref] 1953 June 1, LIFE, Volume 34, Number 22, Al Gruenther: The Thinking Machine Who Bosses NATO by Robert Coughlan, Start Page 78, Quote Page 79, Time Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, head of the German army from 1930 to 1933, defined the difference this way: “Officers who are clever and industrious I appoint to the General Staff . . . the man who is clever and lazy qualifies for the highest leadership posts [Command]. He has the requisite nerves and the mental clarity for difficult decisions.”

In 1966 the “Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations” compiled by Robert Debs Heinl included an instance of the quotation:[ref] 1966, Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations, Edited by Robert Debs Heinl, Category: Officers, Page 223, Column 1 and 2, United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

I divide officers into four classes—the clever, the lazy, the stupid, and the industrious. Each officer possesses at least two of these qualities. Those who are clever and industrious are fitted for the high staff appointments. Use can be made of those who are stupid and lazy.

The man who is clever and lazy is fit for the very highest command. He has the temperament and the requisite nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious must be removed immediately.

Attributed to General Kurt von
Hammerstein, c. 1933

By 2004 the scheme for sorting officers was being ascribed to General Erich von Manstein in a book called “Living the 80/20 Way: Work Less, Worry Less, Succeed More, Enjoy More”:[ref] 2004, “Living the 80/20 Way: Work Less, Worry Less, Succeed More, Enjoy More” by Richard Koch, Quote Page 72, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London, England and Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Preview)[/ref]

German military chief General von Manstein said:
“There are only four types of officers.

First, there are the lazy, stupid ones. Leave them alone, they do no harm.

Second, there are the hard-working intelligent ones. They make excellent staff officers, ensuring that every detail is properly considered.

Third, there are the hard-working, stupid ones. These people are a menace, and must be fired at once. They create irrelevant work for everybody.

Finally, there are the intelligent lazy ones. They are suited for the highest office.”

By 2005 the categorization method was being credited to Helmuth von Moltke. There was some ambiguity because there were two German Generals: Helmuth von Moltke the Elder and the Younger. Here is an example from a website post in 2005:[ref] Website: Sacred Cow Dung, Article title: “What is a ‘Scalable’ Business?”, Date on website: June 18, 2005, Website description: “Mythocracy in Venture Capital, Technology, Healthcare, Media, Internet, et al (Chief Dung Analyst: Christian Mayaud)”, (Accessed on February 4, 2014) link [/ref]

Legend has it that Prussian General von Moltke had a very simple, but elegant, conceptual framework which underlied his approach to leadership and management. He classified all individuals on only two dimensions — intelligence and drive — which he considered key independent variables. According to General von Moltke, people are either smart or stupid and they are either active or lazy.

What often surprises observers is the relative value General von Moltke assigned to these four categories of people. Although most people would reflexively assume that the “Smart Actives” would be the most prized — it was actually the “Smart Lazies” that are the most valuable.

A 2011 book about military strategy attributed an instance of the four-fold classification system to Frederick the Great:[ref] 2011, Military Adaptation in War: With Fear of Change by Williamson Murray, Section: Introduction, Quote Page 29, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. (The word “topology was changed to “typology” which is used in adjacent text)(Google Books Preview)[/ref]

Frederick the Great’s typology of officers provides a hint of how one might best think about the issue of military competence. The Prussian king suggested that there were four types of officers. First were the brilliant but lazy. He suggested such officers had the attributes to function at the highest levels of command.

Second were the brilliant, but diligent. They made the best staff officers. Third were the less intelligent but lazy. They made good battalion officers. Finally, there were the less intelligent and the diligent. They were the most dangerous to the proper functioning of any military organization, in both peace and war, because of their penchant for confusing process and work for product.

In conclusion, this was a difficult expression to trace because it was complex, and it could be articulated in myriad ways. Currently, the earliest example located by QI appeared in English in 1933 and was credited to Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord.

If the 1933 citation was accurate then the expression appeared in German in a Berlin newspaper in 1932 or 1933. QI has not yet located this instance.

Image Notes: The table graphic was created by QI.

Update History: On March 31, 2014 the March 1933 citation was added to this article.

(Special thanks to Dave Hause who noted the existence of this saying attributed to Helmuth von Moltke the Elder during a discussion of the “lazy man” quotation attributed to Bill Gates. Great thanks to Dan Goncharoff who noted the ascription to Erich von Manstein. Also, thanks to the other ADS discussants: John Baker, Fred Shapiro, Jonathan Lighter, and Victor Steinbok.)

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