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Greg Smith to Goldman Sachs: A new era in Wall Street ethics

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What Smith himself holds sacred is abundantly clear from his own unequivocal language. “The interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money,” he wrote. He identified the “decline in the moral fiber” at Goldman Sachs as an existential threat to the company, endangering the client relationship and creating a work environment that is “toxic and destructive.”

In other words, the bottom line, not the spirit of service, became the driving force at Goldman Sachs, according to Smith. That was unacceptable to this young professional who clearly held to the ethos of service above all else – or “servant leadership” in the parlance of business leader and visionary Robert K. Greenleaf.

In 1971 Greenleaf wrote, “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then, conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”

Think it sounds disingenuous or preposterous for an investment banker to be a servant-first leader? You’re probably not alone. The public perception of Goldman’s complicity in the moral downfall of Wall Street and the US economy, culminating in CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s April 2010 congressional dress-down, has left many feeling a range of emotions toward bankers, particularly those at Goldman, but empathy is not one of them.

And yet, one doesn’t have to be a social worker to care about serving others – and surely, Wall Street firms include many such workers of all ages. But for employees in the younger generations, whether they be the children of Baby Boomers, known as Gen X, as Smith is, or the newest Millennials, service comes ahead of profit.

Smith is actually unusual for his generation, having stayed with one firm for eleven long years. His articulation of what he holds sacred, however, is closely in line with generational expectation.

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