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Watch the Elizabeth Holmes Trial for the Leadership Lessons, Not the Drama

The high-profile criminal trial of former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes will likely last several more months. Maybe, like me, you will follow it with at least a passing interest and at times dive into deeper details depending on the news of the day.

But here’s the question – or maybe think of it as a challenge:

Will you keep up with the trial because it’s interesting theater – a real-life drama with an entertaining mix of flawed characters and more subplots than a J. R. R. Tolkien fantasy novel?

Or will you see it as a case study for improving your personal leadership?

It’s a fascinated case, one that I wrote about in Transfluence because it so powerfully illustrates the dangers of prideful leadership. Regardless of how the jury rules on the criminal charges – two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and 10 counts of wire fraud – there’s ample evidence that the now defunct blood testing company developed a toxic culture. And it’s equally clear that the culture reflected the toxic leadership of Holmes and Ramesh Balwani, who was second in command and who also faces criminal charges.

Then you have some of the plot twists and high-profile secondary characters. For instance, Henry Kissinger, a member of the company’s board, and Rupert Murdoch, an investor, both could testify. And what about the romantic relationship between Holmes and Balwani? Was he the “breeze in (her) desert,” as she put it in one of her text messages professing her love for him? Or an abusive boyfriend, as it seems her defense team might claim? And what to make of all the evidence that she and Balwani put pressure on employees to fake test results and that they were brutal in retribution whenever anyone went against them or deviated from the company line?

Yes, it definitely should make for good theater.

But it might seem so over-the-top that “normal” leaders won’t relate to it well enough to see and learn from the root causes that lead to the company’s downfall and landed Holmes and Balwani in court. For me, however, it’s just a matter of scale. So I invite you to join me in scaling down everything you read and hear about this trial so that it applies to you, your teams, and your organization.

What do I mean by that?

Well, take the romance issue. Perhaps you aren’t having a romance with a senior leader on your team, but you can evaluate when you’ve allowed your emotions, positive or negative, toward someone else on your team to cause you to make poor decisions. If that’s happened, and more importantly if it’s happening now, then you can take steps to address it in a proper way.

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Or what about threats to your authority as a leader? When it became clear someone on the Theranos team leaked discrediting information to the media, Holmes and Balwani began hunting them down with a vengeance that might seem foreign to you. But when have you taken criticism personally and focused on defending your pride rather than addressing the real problem – like perhaps that you made a bad decision or were unfair to someone?

And while you might never tout yourself as the “best business person of the year,” could you concede that there might be times when your ego gets the best of you and you take more credit than you deserve or fail to acknowledge the contributions of others?

I’ve known (and in some cases worked for) leaders who were every bit as narcissistic as it appears Holmes was during her tenure with Theranos, but I also believe most leaders don’t intentionally take that path or go that far down it.

All leaders, however, are human. We have fears. We have unhealthy pride. And if we can humble ourselves enough to admit that we could make the same mistakes as those that will likely emerge in the Holmes trial – even if our mistakes are on a smaller scale – then we can learn some things that will help us course correct sooner or prevent the types of behaviors that would ruin our companies.

There’s nothing wrong with great theater. But the best theater, like the best novels, aren’t just entertainment. They teach us something about ourselves, about others, about life. And this months-long drama figures to be chock-full of lessons.


  1. Steven Meyer

    did you know that Steve Finberg was a major investor in Theranos?

    Reply to Steven Meyer

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