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Lessons From Goldman Sachs: How Should You Say -- or Shouldn't You Say -- "I Quit!"

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Smith's first name is Greg. He spent 12 years at Goldman Sachs, where he says he "had the privilege of advising two of the largest hedge funds on the planet, five of the largest asset managers in the United States, and three of the most prominent sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East and Asia." He was a big deal. And on Wednesday he quit Goldman, the way lots of us have wanted to quit one job or another, with a blazing op-ed in the New York Times that said his firm environment was "as toxic and destructive" as he had ever seen it. Smith lashed out at Goldman's obsession with its own profits which he says were habitually becoming more important than their clients' interests (clients some Goldman advisers referred to derisively as "Muppets").

The Times used the article to launch eight mini-op-eds the next day (including two by my colleagues at Berkeley) on the topic "does morality have a place on Wall Street?" Volleys and counter-volleys have been flying for five days in every imaginable media outlet. The deep substantive questions about Wall Street and Goldman are beyond the humble scope of my weekly blog, Reading for Leading.

But what about tossing the bomb on the way out the door? Is Smith a courageous hero crying out for core values to sustain good business and a moral life? And/or is he disgruntled (because he hadn't risen higher)? And/or is he just plain arrogant? (In an op-ed about his company he mentions his Rhodes Scholarship (just) once, and his MBA from Stanford twice.)

I guess I've tipped my hand. I've got my doubts about Smith's approach. Maybe my law school buddy's dad was right when he told his four sons, "sometimes you just gotta bop a guy." Maybe Goldman just got their comeuppance. The guy clearly spoke some truth to power.

What bothered me was what Smith didn't say: Not a single mention of a time when he saw bad business practice and did something about it. Was there no partner with whom he shared his moral indignation? No incident he'd like to recount where he stood for the Goldman values that he now tells us are in decline? No counsel he gave the young interns so that they could be proud as he once was? No sense of how things might change from within?

Our world has some bad guys and some institutions that have soured and spoiled. Yup. But there are also good people and good values in almost all those institutions. I know I'd like to "toss some bombs" at the Catholic hierarchy, the Republicans and my beloved Democrats, too. I've wanted to scream at Chase Bank (I kept my voice calm and finally moved my money to the credit union) and Comerica Bank when they left the Detroit to which they owed their existence. But these big complex institutions have mixed motives -- as they try to survive and to thrive, to do well and figure out what it means to do good.

I'm just not sure where bomb-throwing gets us. Our country has some really hard decisions in front of us. It's hard to police the world, cut the deficit, protect social security and cut taxes - all at once. I'm in favor of courage -- and Greg Smith certainly took some risks with his moral vendetta -- but I'm also in favor of the courage of engagement -- everyday, every day leadership.

What do you think? And more importantly, what do you do? Tell us about your bomb-throwing and/or your daily wrestling with the big guys. How's it working for you to lead with your best self?

Cross-posted at the Everyday Leadership blog.