In the book ‘Bad Blood’ by John Carreyou, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood testing significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Oracle’s Larry Ellison and the bitcoin bull and capital investor, Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at more than $9 billion. Holmes achieved her life’s ambition of becoming a billionaire, with her worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. A major problem led to the largest corporate fraud since Enron: The technology didn’t work.
I read the book as a data professional, horrified by the lackadaisical approach to data governance, testing, and repeatable, testable science. Data was almost irrelevant, and it is clear from reading the book that the authorities, such as the FDA, hammered Theranos for their failure to put safeguards around their testing and data processes. So where does empathy come in?
Empathy is the art of remembering when others have helped make you feel heard, and empowered, and then paying that feeling forward to others.
On a deeper leadership level, it was clear that there was little emotional intelligence or empathy. It showed in a few things, such as a clear inability to empathise with the patients who relied on blood testing for their lives, as well as the military personnel who were one of the target audiences for this faulty machine.
One of my favourite quotes is Maya Angelou’s insightful comment:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
As a leader, becoming empathetic is one of the most complex skills to master. From my reading of the Theranos situation in Bad Blood, it became clear that there was no atmosphere of empathetic leadership; in fact, quite the opposite. The people with the skills and data seemed afraid to speak to the Theranos leaders, and the book describes their feeling of terror when speaking with the leaders. It sounds like a hostile, sick place of work. If only they’d listened, perhaps Theranos might have had some of the successes that it was posited to have.
Earlier in my career, I used to have a complex reaction when people gave me unwarranted advice, or advice that I didn’t ask for. Sometimes I thought that they thought I was an idiot, or I didn’t know what I was talking about.
Now, as a leader, I realize that people felt that they could provide me with feedback; they weren’t afraid to talk to me. Now, I realize what a gift I’ve been given, and I appreciate it now. Thank you to everyone who shared their advice and wisdom with me. Possibly, I was not grateful at the time, but I see now that you felt you could talk to me.
Reading Bad Blood was a source of reflection for me, since it made me think about myself, and my responses to other people. If I had worked at Theranos, I would have been afraid to speak out, and I’d have probably just left.
What Holmes and Balwani missed out on was the gift of advice and thoughtful, constructive criticism for other people. People didn’t seem to be able to talk to them, so Holmes and Balwani never received their insights and help.
On reflection, sometimes I find myself in the situation where I could speak to someone with some insights, or even to warn them. But I can’t, because that person is simply too difficult to deal with, and I have to make a judgement call between making an effort to go through the pain of having to deal with them, and deal with the response of their lizard brain when they default to type, and don’t listen. So I leave it, step back, and leave them on their merry way to make mistakes. After a while, it’s just not worth my time and effort if I’ve bothered to try to engage.
I also realized that I cannot stomach a ‘make it until you fake it’ approach. I am not a dilettante, dabbling and making things sound good. I could see the dilettante, ‘fake it unti you make it’ approach resonate throughout the book and I realized how much it switches me off, and pushes me away. I am not looking for the good in people, I am looking for the real.
So I learned a lot from the book, about lack of empathy and emotional intelligence, but also about my response to people like that. I have been actively trying to grow my emotional intelligence and empathy, and here are some suggested reads. Click on the book for a link:
Enjoy! If you have any other recommendations, please leave them in the comments.