THOUGHTS ON LEADERSHIP: GATES, WINDOWS AND A BILL FOR THE FUTURE

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me in Boston, attending alignment sessions for our Real Living Real Estate and Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices brands. Tonight, I’ll be at the AREAA National Convention Welcome Reception, connecting with colleagues and learning new ways to positively impact the future of homeownership for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities across the U.S.

The idea of collaborating today for the creation of a better tomorrow has been on my mind all week, especially as I watched and re-listened to “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates,” a three-part Netflix documentary directed by Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim. The documentary highlights Bill Gates’ incredible intellect, personal story from virtuoso teen to tech titan and his post-Microsoft life changing the world through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Bill Fehrman, president and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, suggested we watch “Inside Bill’s Brain” on a recent Berkshire Hathaway Energy Presidents’ Meeting Call. I happened to be on a late flight from Michigan that night and wasn’t landing until 9:30 p.m. Pacific. “Inside Bill’s Brain” was the perfect way to relax in the air. Learning has always been my favorite way to recharge. There’s something about acquiring new knowledge that revitalizes the mind.

Anyway, in the quiet of the westbound airplane, I was able to focus completely on the documentary, which begins with an empty desert road near Albuquerque, NM. It’s nighttime and we see someone navigating the meandering highway in the darkness. The driver, of course, is meant to be Bill Gates, on the road to relax his own mind, a mind that is one of the finest and most knowledgeable in the world.

As the first part of the documentary unfolds, Guggenheim asks Gates a series of questions, among them, an inquiry about his worst fear. “I don’t want my brain to stop working,” Gates responds.

And in the spirit of world-changing technological innovation, neither do we.

When Gates stepped down from Microsoft in 2008, he was worth more than $58 billion, and “built that fortune thinking about computer software, operating systems, spreadsheets and the internet,” Guggenheim explains. Today, he runs one of the largest foundations on Earth; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spends about $5 billion a year on charitable projects, which includes billions in stock donations from Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

In the documentary, Mr. Buffett explained that with his decision to donate much of his fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Berkshire Hathaway and the Gates’ charitable work are inextricably intertwined.

Putting money behind Bill Gates, as you’d expect, is a fantastic investment. Gates’ work ethic is textbook leadership excellence: He’s on time “to the minute every single meeting without fail,” explains his colleague Lauren Jiloty, director of executive administration at Gates Ventures. He reads an incredible number of books and is committed to the idea of perpetual improvement. Even while on vacation, Gates will finish about 14 books. The idea of balance also plays prominently into his leadership philosophy; famously, he embarks on an annual “think week,” a seven-day span of solitary time where he reads, thinks and absorbs stacks of books and technical papers.

“Some things I just say to myself, ‘OK, I just need to think,” he explains.

The third part of the documentary details just what Gates is thinking about, and these days, his brain is focused on energy. Here are five of my favorite energy-related takeaways from the documentary:

Questions around energy must be met with deep knowledge. In the third part of the documentary, Gates references the work of Václav Smil, a scientist and policy analyst who is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Smil has devoted his life to building a framework for the competent study of energy by examining the complexities involved in every little aspect of energy consumption and emission. Gates has committed to reading nearly every one of his books. (The prolific Smil, who has published 40 books and nearly 500 papers, even jokes that Gates might be the only person who has. “He likes to be informed and to understand complexities,” Smil says in the documentary.)

Energy is central to the modern lifestyle. Part of Gates’ study of energy includes the large-scale ways energy is consumed – manufacturing, agriculture, construction, transportation – butit also includes the minutiae of our modern lifestyle, examining, for instance, the finite details of a person’s dietary habits or fertilizer usage and the small ways we consume energy that when compounded, have a big impact. “Energy is this miracle and that’s core to the modern lifestyle,” Gates explains.

The solution is innovation. Gates says to combat the environmental detriments of mass energy consumption, we must innovate across all sectors of omission, reducing the greenhouse gasses released into the air from burning primary energy generation sources like coal, natural gas and liquid gasoline. “It’s pretty important we deploy a clean solution and deploy it unnaturally fast,” he says.

For Gates, “unnaturally fast” means funding scientific startups to accelerate the development of technology solutions. The mission of these startups includes developing porous materials that can remove CO2 from the air, soaking up the gas like a sponge; converting CO2 into chemicals to make recyclable plastics and other products; using highly efficient 3D printing to create materials for energy consumption that produce far less CO2; producing longer-range, more cost-effective batteries for electric vehicles; and more.

Nuclear energy could present an answer. As explained in the documentary, the modernization of nuclear power plants could prove critical to assuaging global energy consumption and its effects. Most modern nuclear plants in existence today represent 1960s designs and 1970s implementation. With the funds Gates can provide, plants can be upgraded and innovated to match – or more likely supersede – the best technology in existence today.

So, what’s the message? At the end of the documentary, we’re given Gates’ life mantra. When confronted with something really difficult, he always provides the same answer – “work harder.” It might be the key to unlocking what makes Bill’s brain so remarkable. Yes, he possesses an incredible amount of intelligence coupled with the unique ability to retain complex information, but he also has an inexorable thirst for newer and more complete knowledge. It’s this unstoppable mindset that makes the inside of Bill’s brain compelling, unique and a gateway to a better future for us all.

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