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Hero Or Villain? In Greg Smith's Case, It Doesn't Matter

Many words have been written about Greg Smith’s resignation letter from Goldman Sachs that was published in the NY Times last week. Many story lines emerged from it but the one that intrigued me the most was the debate of whether he held the moral high ground or if he is just a publicity hound, happy to throw his co-workers under the bus on his way out?

Several things should be noted.

First, not too many people can just walk off the job and napalm the bridge on their way out. Smith made good money and even a reasonable amount of savings over the course of those dozen years could support some modest living for awhile. There’s no career lesson here: people with money can do this.

Second, there’s more to this story than just this. Call me cynical but in all my years in HR, it is never one thing and it is never the one thing we talk about. Maybe Goldman Sachs screwed him? Maybe he hit a road block in his career? It doesn’t matter, as long as you don’t see this as one man’s fight against the machine.

Third, there are plenty of ways to get attention on your way out. Running your side of the story in the NYT is probably interesting fodder for Goldman employees, shareholders, and for people who love good gossip (which, okay, is everyone). People also think he did a number on their stock but a week later, it is up $2 over it’s March 13th close.

In consideration of all of this, how should we remember Smith? As a person who fought against a culture sliding the wrong way and the people at the top who perpetuated it? A mid-level person isolated from its highest branches, throwing caution and common sense to the wind to bash an easy target? Or as a conflicted character being pulled in multiple directions, the epitome of the human condition?

How about none of the above? The reality is that Greg Smith won’t be remembered six months from now. Why? Because he has media notoriety, not actual notoriety.

If this came five or six years ago in true whistleblower fashion, it would be a different story. Instead, it is simply airing some dirty laundry on the pages of a very popular newspaper. Dirty laundry that probably won’t result in anyone being fired, won’t likely change any minds about Goldman and will likely follow him around much longer than it will any of the people he chose to call out.

It’s the difference between, “Hey, you’re the guy who resigned in the Times,” versus, “Hey, you’re the guy that blew the lid off all the crappy stuff that Goldman Sachs was doing.” All of these career lessons, social media lessons, ethics lessons and every other angle courtesy of the resignation will disappear. When I read older stories like that in my archives where I reference a particular situation (usually sports) that seemed to be big at the time but truly aren’t, there’s always that feeling of confusion until I read back about it or remember.

I can appreciate how tough it must have been to do it. I can understand the frustration of his former company. Mostly though, I hope that the next pseudo-scandal will be one that brings significant change or exposure to an important issue while it can still be moved, not a post-mortem on a once great institution.

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