Why we might idolize poor leaders
At the age of 19 Elizabeth Holmes established a startup called Theranos. This company located in Silicon Valley where a certain Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg once started their path to success. The vision for Theranos was to become the next Facebook of healthcare; with just a few drops of blood from the fingertip the whole blood testing practice, as we know it, could be replaced.
Theranos branded itself from the very beginning as more human, more pleasant and more cost-efficient company. A great example of this was how they compared blood testing to torturing. With this they made an already well working service seem very poorly constructed. Elisabeth also strongly believed that stories stick to people much more than data. With such tactics this startup seemed like the best option not only to its clients and end-users but also its investors. Another factor effecting the liability of the company was the image Elizabeth had built herself.
From a very young age Elizabeth had devoured books concerning leadership and built her elegance based on this. According to her, a great leader does what ever it takes to make the company successful. Elizabeth had a degree in engineering, but she used her grandfather’s fame in the medical realm as an association towards her educational image. Elizabeth herself had only certain types of clothing in her wardrobe, so no time would be wasted on wondering what to wear in the morning. Her refrigerator was stacked with water bottles and she slept 4 hours a night. This minimized the waste of any extra time used in “nonsense” that could be invested in the company. Not only was Elizabeth totally dedicated to the company, but she was also seen as a humble and real person. Her determination made her easy to idolize and as she was always ready to answer any question, her 700 employees alongside everyone else was blinded by her leadership skills and vision. What made this whole startup dangerous, was Elizabeth’s “fake it until you make it”-principal.
From the start to the very end Theranos somehow managed to get funding and investments to the point that they were legally working and had patients relying their health data on them. Their operation focused on a black box called Edison. Edison was said to knowledge over 200 blood samples. The truth was, that less than half were somewhat reliable. Edison was planned to be installed to pharmacies around the world and thus would make current laboratories useless. It is quite amazing, how Theranos managed to convince different facets that Edison worked. They took it to a point, where spectators were shown that Edison worked as said. What they actually did, was bluff the whole scene and test the blood in their testing laboratories.
This whole case has some very similar features to Fyre festival. The brain behind the scam is idolized and not even questioned no matter do employees know what they are doing or what is happening inside the company. Even when grievance starts emerging the leader holds a strong credit. Elizabeth and the man behind Fyre both had a vision, in which they believed blindly. The project was their life mission and with only their charismatic outcome they managed to raise tens of millions in investments. Without any actual proof, data or anything to backup their stories. Both also claimed they never wanted to hurt anyone and really wanted to create something valuable to the end-user, but can we buy it? Why was it so important for these two to brand themselves in such a pontifical manner? Also, with such talent you’d think a better groundwork would have been implemented.
It is quite unbelievable what a person’s mindset and mood alone can do inside a team. A team, that leads together itself towards its vision is easily steered by even one team members exceptional mood. Its like a hurricane, that grabs everyone it touches along. Yet, I don’t believe that a member could steer a whole team based on their strong vision without actual content and validation. This makes me wonder, do such unreliable, strong leaders hire mainly employees, whom they trust not to show any signs of doubt or resistance? How can it be, say in Theranos’ case, that from over 700 employees, only the ones who were fired opened their mouths to the outside world of what a hoax the whole business was? It was known for a long time that they were literally playing with human lives. Or is the mentality in America’s industry so, that if you question or discuss in a negative manner about your company, you’re good to go?
It is well known, that a leader needs not only real talent in their field of work, but also charisma to attract people. One of the major reasons why people follow a visionary (be their affair truly significant or utter bulls**t) is the fear of missing out if not followed. Another, quite a surprising factor, is a person’s unconscious motivation, transference. This psychoanalytical behavior was discovered by Sigmund Freud. He found many of his male and female patients falling in love with him, as they associated him to an important person (such as a parent) from their past. Now depending how a leader is met, it might actually have nothing to do with the leader’s personal qualities, but actually how much they resemble someone important to the subject. A child worships their parents no matter how poor a job they are doing in raising and caring for the them, so the same might be happening with a leader and their followers.
Until now, I have witnessed how members in a team work and act differently in various occasions depending on their upbringing, but I had no clue that emotional association affects so strongly in an individual’s judgement (or the lack of it).
Gibney, A. 2019. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. HBO.
Maccoby, M. 2004. Why people follow the leader: the power of transference. Harvard Business Review. Luettu 12.5.2019