Women and Leadership – Elizabeth Holmes and Elizabeth Cheney

By chance they’re both named Elizabeth – Elizabeth Holmes and Elizabeth Cheney. Holmes is, of course, the now thoroughly disgraced founder and CEO of Theranos, who was recently found guilty on four counts of fraud. (On other charges she was found not guilty, and on still others the jury was unable to reach a verdict.) Cheney, who is called Liz, is, of course, the congresswoman from Wyoming who is one of two Republicans on the House committee investigating the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.

To have followed Holmes’s career and, recently, her trial, is to be amazed by how she was able to do what she did. She started her company as a college dropout with no experience and no expertise. Still, she managed to persuade people that she could and would revolutionize the Big Business of testing blood.

How did she do it? How did she get rich and powerful people to give her buckets of money initially to fill, and then to replenish the coffers of her startup? How did she get members of the media to make her a superstar? How did she convince otherwise clever mentors, customers, and workers that she really was onto something, that she really would deliver what she promised?  

Holmes used her feminine wiles to sell her wares. Is it politically correct these days to talk about such attributes, especially in a leader? Probably not. But let’s get real. Despite her lack of experience and expertise, Holmes was able to raise almost a billion dollars for Theranos. Which must raise the question of how she did it. She did it on the strength of her public persona which was uncommonly appealing, attractive, especially to older men who early on supported her startup with large sums of money and gave her credence by lending her their names. (Nearly from the get-go her board, for example, was peopled by luminaries, again, mostly older men, who, it should be added, knew nothing about blood-testing.)

Holmes was alluring in the traditional sense. She was tall and blond; young and pretty; classy and composed; articulate and energetic; well-dressed and well put together; and she famously had large, unblinking eyes plus a voice that was uncommonly deep. When Holmes entered a room people noticed. When Holmes spoke people listened. When Holmes was on the cover of Fortune, people paid attention. And when Holmes promised, repeatedly, without much if any hard evidence, that she would change the world, people believed her. They bought what she sold because they wanted to hitch their wagon to her train.

The other Elizabeth, Liz Cheney, is altogether different. She seems to do what she can to distract from her femininity. This is not to say that she is plain, not at all. Rather it is to say that she never ever draws on what I earlier referred to as feminine wiles. Cheney dresses simply and straightforwardly, and wears little or no makeup. She speaks in a flat voice, with no emphasis or modulation. She virtually never smiles or pulls people in by any other part of her public persona. She is the opposite of obviously ingratiating, the contrary of obviously charismatic. It is, however, precisely this absence of any other sort of appeal that compels us to listen to what she has to say.

Cheney has other assets. Not only her illustrious father, Dick Cheney, the former vice president who, until recently, was a powerhouse in the Republican Party. But, additionally, her formidable mother, Lynne Cheney, about whom I wrote last year. (https://barbarakellerman.com/leader-mother-lynne-cheney/ ) Moreover, unlike Holmes, Cheney has experience and expertise. A graduate of the University of Chicago School of Law, she is personally and professionally exceedingly well equipped to play the part she has chosen for herself – Republican renegade.

Of course, Holmes crashed not on account of her style, but on account of her substance, her lack of it. Her house it turned out was a fantasy, a fiction. It was made of cards.

Cheney in contrast has long relied entirely on substance – on the whole truth and nothing but as she has seen it. For years this meant she toiled in relative obscurity, a conservative Republican from a rural state with no special claim to fame, certainly not on the national stage. Now though things are different. Because she is one of only a handful of Republicans not only to separate herself from former president Donald Trump, but forcefully to condemn him, repeatedly, she is front and center of our national politics.

Liz Cheney is matter of fact in her manner. And she is matter of fact in her facts. At this moment she is the most interesting woman leader in America. At this moment she is the most interesting leader in America.    

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