Elizabeth Holmes was recently found guilty of four federal charges of fraud. I’m not one to kick one when they’re down, but could Elizabeth Holmes teach us a leadership lesson?
Holmes founded Theranos in 2003 as a 19-year-old Stanford dropout. The company promised to revolutionize the blood-testing industry and at one point achieved a market valuation exceeding $9 billion. There was one problem. Theranos’s technology didn’t work, and it likely never would have.
A Puppy Saves the Day?
As the end drew near, Holmes made a bizarre leadership move. It was reported she bought a puppy and named it Balto. The new puppy was meant to symbolize the triumph of saving Theranos from the darkest hour in the same way Balto saved Nome, Alaska in 1925.
Confront the Brutal Facts
In an excerpt from Good to Great, Jim Collins tells a story of Winston Churchill that at first glance doesn’t sound much different from Holmes. In what seemed like an impossible position, Churchill spoke with boldness declaring they would ultimately prevail. However, there was at least one significant difference between Holmes and Churchhill. Churchill knew he could not achieve success through communicating his bold vision alone. Churchhill knew success hinged on his ability to confront the brutal facts.
As the once-promising Theranos spiraled towards its demise, I wonder how many employees thought: “Elizabeth, we didn’t need a puppy. We needed to confront the brutal facts.”
The Theranos demise or defeating the Nazi regime might be extreme examples of maintaining a compelling future vision while confronting the facts. Even so, it’s wise to keep this balance in mind as we lead. Collins refers to this balance as the “Stockdale Paradox“, named after legendary POW survivor Admiral Jim Stockdale.
Find Out What They Really Need
While it’s easy to criticize the leadership decisions that led to the demise of Theranos, we may have more in common with Holmes than we think. When we get too far away from the pulse of those doing the hands-on work, we run the risk of distracting our teams from solving problems.
I love our dogs, but the reality is, puppies are a lot of work. There is certainly a time and place to add a puppy to the mix, but it’s rarely a great idea when life is spiraling out of control. When Holmes allowed an unhousebroken puppy into the workplace, Balto literally made messes for her staff! Cleaning these messes created an unnecessary distraction at a time of intense crisis.
Balto might be a bizarre example, but how often do we bring changes to our teams that cause more harm than good? Several years ago I found myself in a similar position. I had implemented a change to our shift schedules without fully understanding the impacts of the change. What seemed like a beneficial change ended up causing my team unnecessary work that distracted them from the actual mission. Had I taken the time to understand the actual needs of my team I could have saved them significant frustration.
An Elizabeth Holmes Leadership Lesson?
Could Elizabeth Holmes teach us a leadership lesson? Her story certainly seems to provide at least one lesson: As leaders, we add value to those we lead when we replace distractions with confronting the brutal facts.
Balto was likely not the solution for Elizabeth Holmes to save Theranos. It may have been wiser for her to learn some servant leadership lessons from a dog named Tuesday.