THE BLOG

John C. Whitehead, Wall Street's Finest

02/09/2015 06:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

The first time I encountered John Whitehead was on one of my first days at Goldman Sachs, years ago.

My analyst class came in at a tumultuous time for Wall Street and Goldman in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, the subsequent federal government bailouts and the 2010 settlement with the SEC. In addition, a rogue employee, named Greg Smith, had written an op-ed in The New York Times, grossly and arguably unfairly criticizing his employer for alleged maltreatment of its clients. Goldman Sachs was then at the center of the public eye.

Dismissing any concerns about the integrity of the firm, a well-aged partner came into our training room to talk about what he and many members of the management committee, former and present, deemed to be the most important part of Goldman's culture and the values it upholds. He highlighted as the core of these values the Goldman Sachs Business Principles, a list of 14 rules, the first of which is "Our Clients' Interests Always Come First." In fact, he had authored the original rules in 1979 (the original 12 rules and were later expanded to 14). If there is one thing my years at Goldman taught me about the firm, it was about the veracity of that first business principle, one embodied by its author, John Whitehead.

To get a sense of the character of John Whitehead, one needs only to look at a few lines of his extensive resume, which included commanding a landing craft on Omaha Beach during the World War II D-Day Normandy invasion as well as his countless roles in philanthropy and public service, in particular chairing the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to rebuild downtown Manhattan after 9/11, as well as chairing the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

During his time at Goldman, John began as the only individual to join Goldman Sachs in 1947, nine years later becoming partner in 1956, and eventually becoming the firm's co-chairman in 1976 along with John L. Weinberg. Together, they opened the first Goldman offices in London and Tokyo, setting the foundation for the firm's global presence it has today.

John retired from Goldman in 1984 after 37 years, becoming deputy secretary of State, the number two post at Foggy Bottom, under Secretary of State George Shultz in the Reagan administration. Among his various roles in public service and philanthropy after his time in government, he was chairman of the boards of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the United Nations Association, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Harvard Board of Overseers. In addition, he served as Chairman Emeritus of The Brookings Institution and as a director of the New York Stock Exchange.

John always highlighted what he called 'quiet leadership'. He recently said in an interview with Tom Brokaw that, "When you're talking, you're only saying things that you know... If you don't listen a lot, you will never find a solution that's satisfactory... If you operate as a team you're all in the boat together," making an allegory to his experience as a landing craft commander on D-Day. He further emphasized that leaders should "Let the team participate in the decision and don't make the decision until you can persuade each member to join the majority... it takes a little longer but it's better in the end."

John personified the best of what people in finance can be, whose work should serve as a strong counterexample to those who have doubts about the integrity of financial services practitioners. Last Saturday, he passed at the age of 92.