Emotional Intelligence Gone Bad: How Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes Became the Darth Vader of Leadership
I was one of Elizabeth Holmes’ biggest fans. I didn’t consider her the techni-Christ, but I championed the grit and gravitas of her global mission to help people. I, too, wanted her to revolutionize an entire healthcare industry by “fixing the stick” of blood testing, and democratizing access to personal health diagnostics and therapies.
Instead, what she prescribed was a cautionary tale in emotional intelligence. Sadly, Holmes’ most important learnings have little to do with innovation or business, rather they point to the dark side of seeking success with no emotional bounds.
1. The Charm Offensive
Deconstructing her path to becoming the Darth Vader of extraordinary leaders isn’t that difficult. Her loud-and-proud tour of board rooms and stages worldwide preyed upon the hopeful and vulnerable.
Holmes’ malignant charisma infiltrated the biggest brains in the world — even her own employees — with mind-bending, persuasive untruths. Taking a page straight out of the Art of War, she imposed her will on others to deceive them.
But to fully understand her charm offensive, we must first dance around the role gender dynamics played in the Theranos fiasco. And if we’re going to dance, we might as well tango.
The first person to tell Holmes her vision did not meet the realities of science and logic was a woman — a highly accomplished physician and Stanford professor. Many other influential women have been accused of dismissing her outright. Others were, quite simply, inconsequential to her vision and, therefore, not worth her time.
I am her audience in the sense that I would eventually adopt the brand and services at retail. But I’m not her real audience. I do not have the three qualities Holmes sought to conquer:
I am not influential. I am not wealthy. And I am not a man.
The people Holmes emotionally manipulated for money and influence and access, and who she persuaded to deny the very basics of science and logic and business ethics…were men.
Specifically, men who had millions of dollars. Who could promise her access to corporations and battlefields. Who wanted to bolster their legacy in the annals of world change makers or line their coffers before they die. And, perhaps most simply, aged men vulnerable to the intoxicating effects of feeling important to and desired by a young, doe-eyed girl genius.
It’s not that these men were above the laws of nature. It’s that they fell for her charm in a way the women in her path didn’t, either emotionally or by the statistical unlikelihood that a woman would be wealthy or influential enough to bask in her attention in the first place.
The starkest difference between Holmes and Vader is she didn’t face the ultimate act of humility by sacrificing herself in the end. She’s still kicking and screaming and raising money for her next hollow idea.
2. Leaning Out
By all accounts, Holmes didn’t “lean in” to her ambitions to achieve her goals. She leaned far outside of herself and onto someone else.
It takes an extraordinary amount of self-regard, self-actualization, and emotional self-awareness to essentially divorce from the most basic self.
To pull off her con, she had to embody someone effective, so she re-invented herself by highjacking the persona of the one and only Steve Jobs.
She embodied his voice by lowering hers a few octaves. She adopted his fear-mongering and dismissive and volatile management style, his simple and stress-busting black turtleneck uniform. She poached his people. She ripped his brand strategy. She lifted his idolatry of design.
She would have been better served living Jobs’ entire ethos instead of becoming his facsimile. Where they differed was in their approach to failure and a respect for others’ contributions.
Jobs understood how to practically and responsibly quit. Despite his world-famous ego, he knew the value in learning from his mistakes and knowing “when to say when.” And, while his management style wasn’t for everyone, he fiercely protected the other brilliant minds responsible for bringing his ideas to life.
Holmes was exactly the opposite. This was the external indicator of the narcissistic war within her. Of the tension between her grand delusions of self and her deepest fears — those we can extract from her own narrative.
Like Holmes, those who accomplish this parasitic strategy of self-invention all struggle with a shared reality:
All evidence of intellect and all the money in the world will never cure their basest fear, that they are, quite simply, like everyone else — that they are ordinary. And a fear of being anything less than extraordinary is the root of all misguided, out-leaning determination.
3. Social & Intellectual Irresponsibility
It is easy- and unethical, frankly — to vilify Holmes by calling her a sociopath. I’ll let others do that. But when all empirical evidence of one’s intellect and character point in the same direction, it’s unlikely to prove otherwise.
If we further deconstruct the framework of emotional intelligence — beyond self- awareness and actualization — and then hold it up to Holmes, what we see is a very clear and present danger that rests in all of us, but one that few of us actually unleash:
The ability for our desires to separate us from ourselves to such an extent that we lose all social responsibility to the world and people around us.
This ability drove some of the biggest monsters in history. Their ambition over self allowed them to manipulate interpersonal relationships and circles of influence. A galvanizing gift for vision and oratory rallied populations against the opposing force of criticism. A radical empathy — the kind that goes beyond “walking in someone else’s shoes” and instead places them in the decision maker’s POV — hot-wired trust at every greeting. And a maniacal myopia for achievement at all costs fueled the entire effort.
But perhaps more dangerous than any delusion — self or otherwise — embodied by Holmes?
Her blind optimism that the impossible could actually be done, as evidenced by notable inventors in history. That her new biotechnologies could defy the science she didn’t fundamentally understand in the first place.
The da Vinci’s and Edisons and Fords and Teslas and Musks pushed the boundaries of what existed, but they used the laws of science and nature to their advantage. Holmes denied them.
Like Christopher Duntsch, the killer neurosergeon in the Dr. Death true crime podcast, who repeatedly screwed hardware into soft tissue convinced that it was bone, Holmes’ fatal combination of self delusion, lack of expertise, and a dogged optimism brought her down.
But not before her depressive emotional intelligence ruined others in a global calamity.
Meghan E. Butler is on a mission to create a more emotionally intelligent world by helping people make real-time connections that matter. She counsels the C-suite and other organizational leaders on internalizing the emotional intelligence framework and deploying it across their teams. She wrote a column at Inc. Magazine, and writes for Fast Company, Thrive Global, The Muse, and Rhapsody Magazine for United Airlines, among others. She is a co-founder and partner at Frame+Function, a communications consultancy, and is an emotional intelligence development coach, certified by MHS Systems to administer and coach to the EQ-i 2.0 and EQ-i 360 psychometric assessments.