I still don't know what to think about last week's revelation that David Sokol, a former Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A ) (NYSE: BRK-B ) manager and heir apparent to Warren Buffett, resigned after disclosing he made $3 million by buying shares of Lubrizol (NYSE: LZ ) weeks before convincing Buffett that Berkshire should buy the company.
Is it insider trading? Doubtful, but that's for the Securities and Exchange Commission to decide. If not, it still smells really bad. Sokol made a mistake. He'd probably agree. That's why he resigned.
Either way, Sokol may have avoided this whole snafu by following the advice of a 2007 book written by ... David Sokol.
Sokol's book, Pleased but Not Satisfied, is filled with bits of advice on business ethics and integrity. It's worth pointing out a few of these quotes not to smear it in his face, but to learn from them. That, too, he'd probably agree with.
"Good judgment comes from bad experiences. But you don't need to have all those experiences yourself. Watch and observe others' mistakes, so you do not repeat them."
Never before have the consequences of insider trading been more visible than over the past year, as hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam faces a massive insider trading trial and the SEC cracks down on so-called expert networking firms. There's never been a better time to watch and observe the insider trading mistakes of others.
"There is no excuse for a lack of ethics or integrity. You must hold yourself and your team to the highest standards of ethics and integrity all the time. If you are uncertain about an issue, it's useful to ask yourself, 'Would I be absolutely comfortable for my action to be disclosed on the front page of my hometown newspaper in an article written by a knowledgeable and thorough reporter and read by my family, friends, and co-workers?'"
Had Sokol asked himself this question before the Lubrizol ordeal, I can't help but think the answer would have been a resounding, emphatic "no." He pointed in this direction on CNBC last week, saying, "knowing today what I know, what I would do differently is I just would never have mentioned [Lubrizol] to Warren, and just made my own investment and left it alone."
"We are very tolerant of mistakes resulting from a judgmental error at the planning stage, when despite our team's best efforts, the market zigged and we zagged. It happens. We recognize the error, adjust from it and learn from it. We are not tolerant, however, of mistakes made from a lack of planning or diligence or from plain laziness. Tolerating such situations ultimately makes the organization very good at them."
Sokol may have actually nailed this one. Likely realizing that his actions resulted from a lack of planning and misguided foresight -- not an unfortunate, random event -- he quickly admitted everything and resigned, rather than staying on and creating excuses, which would have sent a signal to his employees and other business leaders that this kind of behavior is normal and tolerable. Making a mistake and living up to it is almost as admirable as never making one at all.
"Making a decision that delivers a less than desired outcome is part of business life. Failing to take the time to understand your mistakes and learn from them is totally unacceptable."
Sokol seems like a tremendously talented businessman. He was an asset to Berkshire. Hopefully, he'll learn from this experience and find a calling where his talents are just as useful. Hopefully others will learn from the experience, too.
Fool contributor Morgan Housel owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation and a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.