Archive - Mar 14, 2012

Toxic Cynicism and Believers

I remember when Liar's Poker came out. It was right about the time that I followed a friend from Lehman Brothers to Smith Barney. I was providing technical support to the mortgage traders and they were passing around the book. Several of them were in the book and every so often you would hear someone say something like, "Hey Steve, did you see what they said about you on page 298 of Liar's Poker?"

I never played Liar's Poker, but I had friends that did and I knew the rules and listened to many stories of great bond traders in the past.

Most of the folks I knew were good people. They worked hard, trying to use their wits to make a quick buck, but it always seemed like they knew right from wrong and at least had a rationalization of why what they were doing was a good thing. They were creating liquidity, making the markets more efficient, ultimately, making it easier for people to borrow and lend money at fair rates. I trusted most of them, and still believe that in most cases, that trust was well founded. Yet there were some that you just couldn't trust. They'd sell their sister if they could get an extra basis point or two.

All of this came back to me as I read the OpEd in the New York Times this morning by Greg Smith on why he was leaving Goldman Sachs. It rang true to me. It sounded like Greg was one of those believers, a very bright guy, who worked hard, made a lot of money, but became disgusted with what was going on around him. I can only imagine what was going on at Goldman Sachs today.

When my friend left Lehman Brothers, I was a consultant. I was called into one of the managing directors' offices with a couple of the big name players; names that came back to haunt many of us as the mortgage crisis unfolded. They wanted me to hear their side of the story, to understand that they were the good people, and for me to stay at Lehman. Then, my friend's name came across the newswire. A trader rushed into the office to inform them, and I heard a vile spew of vindictiveness that did little to convince me of their virtue.

I can easily imagine some vile streams at Goldman today. I can easily imagine the discussions in the corridors about the OpEd. And I can imagine what it must have been like in the communications department.

The first rule of crisis communications that I've heard repeated over and over again is when you find yourself in a crisis, stop digging and return to your mission statement. The problem for Goldman is that Greg Smith's OpEd hit directly at that mission statement. Investment banks, the story goes, should be making money by helping their clients, not by trying to take advantage of them.

I also have to wonder what went on before Mr. Smith wrote his OpEd. What brought about this aha moment? Was it something on the road to Damascus, or perhaps Zuccotti Park? Did he get a smaller bonus than he thought he deserved? Was he slighted in some other way? Did he try to negotiate, to let his former employers know that things might not turn out that well if they didn't accommodate him?

Yet, I also have to wonder, is this really about Goldman Sachs? Or is it about something bigger? Has cynicism become so rampant that people are beginning to say, "Enough!" and throw their TVs out the window? Are the battle lines of the culture wars beginning to shift from abortion and gay marriage, to love of money versus living for some higher ideal?

Yes, Mitt Romney is supposed to be a good Mormon, but his whole campaign reeks of a love of money that stinks with the toxicity of Goldman Sachs, Bain Capital, and so many other firms that have lost their sense of mission. While my values are very different than Rick Santorum's, I can see why people might be fleeing from Romney to Santorum.

Working in social media for non-profits, I get into a lot of interesting discussions, and this disillusionment with organizations losing sight of their mission isn't reserved for just large corporations. I've heard people lay that criticism at the Komen Foundation, willing to sacrifice their mission of fighting breast cancer to appease one set or another of potential donors. I've heard people talk about other organizations getting too caught up in themselves to remember their mission.

I continue to think about the history of Great Awakenings in America. Are we on a verge of another great awakening, where people return to focusing on making the world around them a better place, instead of simply making a quick buck?

A couple quotes come to mind as I think about this. First is Mufasa's ghost in the Lion King, "You have forgotten who you are and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the Circle of Life."

The other is from Woodstock,

And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

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