Goldman Sachs, Greg Smith, and Leadership

The Greg Smith resignation letter from Goldman Sachs is a big deal. And yes, it has some repercussions about leadership and the way it is taught at MBA programs.

Already I’ve seen comparisons to Jerry Maguire , which I get, and Don Draper regarding quitting his tobacco client, which is a bit of a stretch. Here’s the letter in its entirety.

goldman mugA little coffee with your New York Times op-ed piece?

The internet is abuzz with parodies  and character assassinations.  For me, a focus group of one, and former Goldman Sachs employee, I say right on.  Not because I have any inside information – I don’t, but because the winner is the discussion.

The winner is the discussion because we are able to talk about what a great company is supposed to be.  For years, Goldman Sachs has been considered one of the most admired companies in the world. Ranking #2 in “megabanks” by Fortune, , but more importantly, at least for those in the MBA and Wall Street world, it is ranked #1 in prestige by crowdsourced career site Vault.com.

Greg Smith is not the first one who fired the opening salvo. I happen to be reading Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, and it’s clear to me that Goldman Sachs, like so many other pre-apocalypse Wall Street firms, were selling some weird stuff in their “structured products.” Lewis didn’t come out and say “Goldman is amoral,” but there’s a lot of support in that very book for Greg Smith’s accusations of putting profit before clientsL

Did Goldman Lose its Leadership Vision?
I think what is exciting also about the conversation, is that Smith had been such a champion of Goldman’s culture for the right reasons.  He wrote in his letter,

Culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. … It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization.

And I hope that’s what MBA students around the country start debating. Culture. Profits. Purpose.  What is a great enterprise anyway? How can a leader change organizational culture?

The sheer excitement about this public resignation letter is gets people talking. Sure, there will be some very foolish things said in the unfettered world of internet discourse. But if this letter is one of the many in a series of wake-up calls for the global icon called “Wall Street,”  then have at it.  Smith is no fool. He knew he would be skewered personally, but he opened the door to the conversation.

I will be updating this blog when the folks at Harvard Business Review and their ilk start publishing analyses of the resignation. So watch this space, and let the discourse begin.

By Betsy Massar, Havard Business School graduate and founder of Master Admissions. Master Admissions acts as a campaign manager and champion, setting you up for success in applying to your top-choice business schools. Visit masteradmissions.com for a free consultation with Betsy Massar.

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