Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

A sad story about Theranos and it’s leadership, in large part Elisabeth Holmes, a tragic hero with a fatal flaw: unbridled ambition.

The rest follows: unreasonably high confidence, sweeping major problems under the rug, and cargo cult worship dedicated to successful leaders. Which includes setting super high expectations for employees, fostering internal competition, demanding absolute loyalty and punishing any whiffs of dissent.

What was most surprising to me were the many ethical breaches exhibited by Holmes herself: mixing business and romance, hiring exclusively political celebrities to your board, and showing almost no empathy for employees, while pursuing ruthless legal tactics in personal vendettas.

It’s hard to say how fringe the Theranos story is. I’ve seen some parts in other Silicon Valley contexts, especially Steve Jobs worship, unreasonable levels of confidence in executives. And incredible secrecy for questionable reasons.

But some parts of the Theranos story seem more unique, especially given their specialized domain of health care where I think many startups tread lightly because of the regulatory environment. Uber may be a good analogy and counterpoint here, playing hard and fast with regulation and actually succeeding. The stakes in health care are understandably higher and its probably a good thing Theranos was ultimately stopped.

The Theranos story may in part be a cautionary tale of digital culture colliding with physical culture. But it is not helped by a morally compromised leader who believes that the ends justify the means.