Op-Ed Contributor (From The New York Times, The Opinion Pages)
Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs
By GREG SMITH
Published: March 14, 2012
"TODAY is my last day at Goldman Sachs. After almost 12 years at the firm — first as a summer intern while at Stanford, then in New York for 10 years, and now in London — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it."
Enough said? Oh, no. He's just getting warmed up. Hoo-ah. Actually Greg Smith's letter goes on for another page or so, and in my opinion, fairly well written. Which of course is not the same as well said: too early to tell at this stage. But you know what else would have been worth a couple billion dollars? If someone at Goldman's had had the opportunity to video record, even with an iPhone, the expression on the faces of Lloyd Blankfein (CEO) and Gary Cohn (COO) as they read the letter for the first time. I know, that would have been priceless.
Leadership, like capitalism, is a moving target. That may sound like heresy to a lot of people. But here's why I believe that: as long as societal values shift at least once every generation, so will leadership. Some may insist the fundamental aspects of leadership never have and never will change: a leader always was and always will have a clear vision, excellent communication skills, intelligence, decisiveness, and generally concerned about the well-being of his followers. Oh, and highly ethical. And there's your missing link. The "Mad Men" leaders of fifty years ago may have not really cared that much about conflicting interests between themselves and their clients, and all else being equal there would have never been a Greg Smith grenade thrown at them.
I would be willing to bet that you, like me, don't lose much sleep at night over the values of leaders fifty years ago. But throw Mr. Smith into the mix, and as a business leader, you really should feel something tugging at you. The question might be, where do we stand on our generation's change pressures? Every generation has at least one ethical grenade thrown at them, we can't escape that. Is this something I should try to search my soul about, before I find myself staring at a pin-less grenade at my feet? Sounds advisable, except for one thing: soul searching is a good start, but unfortunately not good enough.
The story of Greg Smith v. Goldman Sachs is indeed just getting warmed up. But from a leadership perspective, I find it a perfect opportunity for those of us who are driven by matters of business leadership and personal growth. I see two clear paths that we can take in search of a valuable lesson here: we can fall into the "pundit" temptation, that is, stand on the sidelines and watch the moving target race unfold in slow motion; or we can place ourselves in the race.
The old saying goes that the way to Carnegie Hall, one of the performing art Meccas of the world, is "practice, practice, practice". So, regardless of who the good guys or the bad guys turn out to be in the final script of Smith v. Goldman Sachs: for those of us hungry to become the best leaders we can be, how do we get to Carnegie Hall? Practice? Maybe, but we must really beware of practicing ourselves into a comfortable numbness on the sidelines. To borrow from the script of Chariots of Fire: in the words of the great Olympic runner Harold Abrahams, speaking to his trainer Sam Mussabini, "If I can't win, I won't run!" To which Mussabini replied, "If you don't run, you can't win."