Elizabeth Holmes – Embodiment of Modern Corporate Leadership

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Photo: Standford Graduate School of Business

Elizabeth Holmes is having a moment in the media landscape right now – although it’s not the type of moment most of us would see as triumphant. Over the last several years she’s gone from the darling of Silicon Valley to a pariah. And with the release of HBO’s new documentary on her rise and fall called The Inventor, Holmes has been crowned the con of Silicon Valley.

While Americans sit collectively in judgment of Holmes, who allegedly “conned” the elite 1% to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into her tech startup, Theranos, we fail to see that Holmes is exactly what we’ve been asking for. As a collective society, we’re begging for Elizabeth Holmes-esque bots to grace the halls of Corporate America.

In the HBO documentary, The Inventor, we see brief glimpses of Holmes as a young girl growing up in an affluent family and then eventually attending the Ivy-League Stanford. As the well-known story goes (which at one point was stuff of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg-esque legend) Holmes dropped out of Stanford at 19 to found the tech startup, Theranos.

Theranos had a lofty mission that promised to revolutionize the healthcare industry. The company and Holmes pledged to create a technology that would allow consumers to take their health out of the hands of overpaid doctors and monopolized pathology labs, by using a drop of blood to diagnose hundreds of ailments at a fraction of the price of traditional labs. The pitch seemed outlandish to many in the medical field but pressed a hot-button issue that politicians and big-money investors were rabid to be a part of: lowering the cost of healthcare while creating access to anyone in the U.S. with or without health insurance.

Despite cries of foul from the medical and scientific community, Holmes was able to persuade a group of extremely high-powered, rich, men to invest in Theranos and sit on her board of directors. Do you know what a feat that alone is? Even for an affluent woman with some of the best connections in the world, this accomplishment itself is one of legend.

And when things began to go south for Holmes and Theranos (none of us knows exactly when she became aware that the company’s promise wasn’t possible) what did she do? Did she admit defeat or apologize to her investors? Pivot and create a new strategy? No, she did not. She pushed forward, doubling down on Theranos’ mission statement and her goal to win at all costs. She chose to embody what are largely considered “masculine” traits Corporate America demands leaders (both male and female) exhibit in order to succeed: fearless, driven, unflappable, relentless, genius, manipulative, visionary, self confident, and unfeeling.

In the hallowed halls of Corporate America, these traits are presented in stark contrast to the more “feminine” traits female leaders typically embody: intelligent, problem-solvers, empathetic, compassionate, humanitarians, long-term strategists, passionate, loyal, and able to create a safe workspace.

It’s the stereotypical masculine vs. the feminine in the Corporate American cultural landscape with the more “masculine” traits almost always coming out on top. Holmes hijacked the algorithm and embodied the traditionally “masculine” in the face of failure. She publicly defended her (now we know) extremely delicate and unstable product with a blind fury reserved for the playing orchestra on the sinking Titanic.

And despite her downfall, I don’t believe Holmes is done. In an interview on CNBCs’ Mad Money in 2015, after a scathing Wall Street Journal article exposed the misdeeds of her tech startup, Theranos, she paraphrased a quote often incorrectly attributed to Ghandi and other famed leaders: “This is what happens when you work to change things,” Holmes said. “First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, then you change the world.”

The message is clear when you’re in a leadership position – toughen up, thicken your skin, stop worrying about your direct reports, stop being emotional, drive forward at all costs, and on and on. And until we can reckon with that reality, we will continue as a society to champion the worst aspects of Corporate America and the unrealistic leadership it demands.


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