03/20/2012 06:51 pm ET Updated May 20, 2012

Can Goldman Sachs Find Its Purpose?

A teacher at a prominent business school takes her students through a simple exercise each semester. Every student must register a new company, which means paying a $60 fee and describing the new enterprise's purpose on a form. The professor's teachable moment in this: Purpose is the starting point, and as the principal of the business, you get to decide.

Although Goldman Sachs may have stated a purpose at its 1869 founding, executive Greg Smith's recent resignation letter, and the stir it has caused, offers the chance to hit the pause button and ask, once again, "What is the Purpose of Goldman Sachs?"

It's an important question for all businesses to ponder, because purpose is the organizing question for everything that comes after that -- vision, strategy, business plan, metrics. One executive I know thinks in terms of inputs and outputs. The purpose and vision and strategy are the inputs. Attracting and aligning talent to fulfill the vision and strategy is key to your success. If you succeed at building a culture that is aligned with the purpose, including giving careful thought to the hallmarks of success and metrics of progress -- then the outputs are the goods and services rendered, and profits, and other forms of measurable value. Purpose is an input. Profits are an output. When profits get confused with purpose, that's when the problems begin.

I don't know how Goldman Sachs will answer its own purpose question. I think it is clear that "Wall Street" as an industry has become too focused on success on its own terms, rather than in service to Main Street and the long term health of the economy and society. The implications of this are significant and have been playing out for over a decade. Further, the news from Washington suggests we will fail at righting the ship through the give and take of the political process and regulation.

What can be done?

In the closing chapter of The Big Short, author Michael Lewis makes the case that the turning point for the industry was when the storied partnerships of yore went public -- replacing the culture of "My Partner's Money Is At Risk" with one that plays with Other People's Money. Paul Volker made the same case after the Goldman resignation letter went viral.

But that genie is out of the bottle.

Could Goldman lead the way and get us back on track? I can't think of a better place to start. Imagine what might be possible if this talent-rich and influential institution put service to clients and society back at the center of the bull's eye and then -- importantly -- modeled for the whole industry the strategy and incentive systems to make it stick.

Goldman has lots of reasons today to take a bold step. Last week, DealBook circulated a story about a softening of interest in Wall Street offers at top business schools and colleges. On the Street, like in any service industry, it's all about the talent. Millennials want more from their jobs. The rest of us need our best talent assigned to the right problems. This is a teachable moment. Goldman has everything it needs to move to the head of the class.