In the July 26th issue of New York Magazine, Joe Hagan raised the question: is Goldman Sachs (GS) just extremely good at what it does or evil? This followed a July 2nd article in Rolling Stone by Matt Taibbi entitled “Inside the Great American Bubble Machine.” Taibbi clearly came down on the evil side and tied Goldman Sachs to creating and then exploiting bubbles like the Internet bubble and the housing bubble. This one was written with a genuinely conspiratorial tone. Then on August 9th, an article written by Gretchen Morgenson and Don Van Natta Jr. in the New York Times raised the issue of how many times former Treasury Secretary and Goldman CEO Hank Paulson spoke to his successor, Lloyd Blankfein, during the fall credit crisis. Let us not forget that our global financial system was headed toward the abyss after the Lehman bankruptcy and the ensuing credit crisis. Both the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration and their respective treasury secretaries, Paulson and Timothy Geithner, were in unchartered waters, and as we recover they should receive more credit than criticism.
Now I have a slightly different take than the authors of these articles and others. I do not buy into the conspiracy theories. (I do not currently own any GS stock.) I believe that Goldman’s partners have a definite swagger and this is reflected in how they do business. Merriam-Webster online gives the definition of swagger: “…to walk with an air of overbearing self-confidence.”
Let’s look at swagger in this context. The New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, whom I write about frequently, have a certain swagger. Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers have a swagger. The Patriots under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have it. Jamie Dimon and his team at JPMorgan Chase (JPM) have it, particularly after paying back the TARP funds. (Goldman Sachs has paid back the TARP funds as well.) Morgan Stanley (MS) under John Mack has not regained its swagger.
In the end, individuals and companies that outperform their peers do acquire a certain style or swagger that some will find arrogant. Those that don’t will find reasons to doubt how good they really are. Great-performing companies and individuals do have self-confidence, but we should applaud their outstanding performance and excellence while we strive to have our own organizations become better at elevating our game.
It is also important to note that swagger can serve us when we hit the inevitable bumps in the road. Tiger Woods just lost the PGA Championship to Y.E. Yang, of South Korea. Yang becomes the first Asian golfer to win a major championship, with an incredible second shot on the final hole. I congratulate him, but I know that Tiger’s swagger will not abandon him as we move to the FedExCup.