Buffett Woodman

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett and GoPro CEO Nick Woodman. Image source: The Motley Fool, WikiMedia Commons

On the surface, GoPro's (NASDAQ:GPRO) Nick Woodman and Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE:BRK-B)(NYSE:BRK-A) Warren Buffett seem to have little in common. Putting aside the fact they're both billionaires and the CEO of their respective companies, Woodman and Buffett earned their fortunes in two very different ways.

Woodman, for his part, was a self-professed surf bum and serial entrepreneur who grew up in Silicon Valley. His love for the former helped him recognize the need for a wearable camera that could withstand the punishment of the ocean, which ultimately led to his founding of GoPro in 2002 at the age of 27. 

By contrast, now arguably the greatest investor in the world, Buffett grew up in Omaha, Neb., and purchased his first stock in June 1942, at the age of 11. He later honed his skills under the tutelage of renowned value investor Benjamin Graham, and went on to build Berkshire Hathaway into one of the most successful financial holding companies in history.

Of course, those are wildly condensed versions of their stories. But it's evident Buffett and Woodman have traveled largely disparate paths to riches.

One trait to rule them all
However, Buffett and Woodman do share at least one trait I think is crucial to understanding their incredible success: humility. More specifically, both men possess the ability to humbly recognize they're not always the smartest people in the room.

When asked in a recent Reddit AMA ("ask me anything") session what he would personally have done different along the way, Woodman responded:

I would have sought out professional help earlier on. It took me 8 years to realize that I didn't need to 'make it up as I went' and that there are other people out there with experience that could help me. Duh...but I didn't know where to look.

I was struck by this humble admission, knowing that even the founding CEO of a company now valued at nearly $5 billion -- and someone who would seem to have every right to do a little chest thumping -- realizes he should have sought help earlier on from professionals who knew better than he did.

As it turns out, that's a lesson Woodman could have learned from Buffett at the 2004 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting.

During the Q&A session that year, a 14-year-old-boy asked Buffett's advice for young people on how to be successful. Buffett responded, "It's better to hang out with people better than you. Pick out associates whose behavior is better than yours and you'll drift in that direction."

Sitting next to Buffett that day, Berkshire Hathaway Vice-Chairman Charlie Munger also agreed, then touched on the humility required by telling the young boy, "If this gives you a little temporary unpopularity with your peer group, the hell with 'em."

Take a (pre-emptive) step in the right direction
To be fair, the maxim of "surrounding yourself with smart people" is hardly new. But it also requires a unique combination of humility and confidence to exercise the idea as a leader in business. And all too often like Woodman, only in retrospect do we recognize the benefits of doing so.

Luckily for GoPro investors, Woodman is still young and has plenty of time to put this lesson to work in shaping GoPro's future. Following GoPro's successful IPO just over a year ago, that future includes ambitious plans to transform GoPro from primarily an action camera maker to a diversified media company, as well as a leader in the virtual reality and consumer drone markets.

As for our investing audience, I think a conscious effort to embrace this special brand of humility could go a long way toward not only improving our own professional endeavors but also identifying effective management in the businesses we study.

Steve Symington has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Berkshire Hathaway and GoPro. 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.