By Michael Shank
When Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman stepped up this year to defend Goldman Sachs – a company that was reeling from former employee Greg Smith’s New York Times op-ed decrying the change in culture at the company (and is now reeling from a sex-trafficking website scandal) – Gorman intimated the need for compassion by noting “there but for the grace of God go us.”
This got my attention immediately. Not because Gorman, in the lead up to the “grace of God” intimation, asked that Smith’s commentary not be emailed around by Morgan Stanley staff. Not because Gorman suggested that the New York Times was out of line for printing public opinion.
No, Gorman got my attention because while it was out of line for Morgan Stanley’s CEO to suggest grace in considering Wall Street culture, that phrase has been a mantra of mine ever since my youth. A serious car accident at age 16, two heart procedures in college and the death of my dad when I was 9 years old impressed upon me the precariousness of life and that every step, every minute, and every new day was a gift. These events left me with a knowing that I am here on this planet for a reason and that I should utilize each moment to realize and manifest that reason. It also taught me this: there but for the grace of God go I.
The timing of Gorman’s “grace of God” comment is interesting because it coincides with an invite I recently received to give the commencement address at a Pennsylvania high school – a Christian Mennonite one that my mother attended.
The scripture that these Mennonite high school seniors selected as their 2012 commencement theme was Psalms 143:8. Like most verses in the Bible, there are various versions and interpretations. The summary I like the best goes something like this: “Let me hear about your mercy in the morning, for I trust in you. Make the way known to me, wherein I should walk, for I lift up my soul to you.”
This scripture from Psalms and Gorman’s “there but for the grace of God go us” are of the same ilk in my mind. They both encourage humility and recognition of service to a higher cause or purpose. If everyone lived by this creed and adopted this mentality, we would undoubtedly see a very different culture on the streets of Washington, D.C. (my home) and Wall Street (Gorman’s home).
But how does any of this translate to a commencement address? At a time of persistent financial insecurity in our country, with poverty rates at historic highs and unemployment rates still untenably above 8 percent, a high school senior is graduating with more economic uncertainty than their parents or grandparents did. For the first time in U.S. industrialized history, there is a strong likelihood that most millennials will do worse than their parents. Couple this with the fact that socioeconomic mobility and educational standards in the U.S. are worsening and outperformed by other nations. In short, there is plenty for these high schoolers to be anxious about.
This is why the Psalms passage is poignant and powerful. It suggests that amidst the myriad reasons to be anxious in the morning, we recognize that we are alive for a reason – thanks to mercy and grace – and that the path we are to walk each day is one that serves a higher purpose.
It is like the sign on the inside of one of my friend’s front doors at home that reads “Servants’ Entrance” – implying that as you leave for work in the morning you are going out to serve humanity.
The Christopher Dock Mennonite High School seniors in Lansdale, Pa., understand this already, as it is part and parcel of the Amish and Mennonite ethos to serve, as Jesus served, and to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly. Having grown up in this community, the principle behind serving those in need – whether in Cleveland or the Congo – was not only consistent with Jesus’ teachings and actions but was constantly impressed upon me by my parents.
It was a way of life – and one that undergirds what I do today.
What an insightful guide, then, is Psalms 143:8, whether for James Gorman at Morgan Stanley or for Pennsylvanian high school seniors about to graduate. We could use a little humility and grace in Gorman’s Wall Street world – and an ethos of service to those in real need given the growing rates of poverty and inequality in America. That could radically change Wall Street.
But if Gorman passes on this pitch, maybe these seniors will take up the task instead. I trust they are up for it.
Michael Shank is the Vice President for U.S. Operations at the Institute for Economics and Peace.