Women and Leadership – the Case of Elizabeth Holmes

On Monday the trial of Elizabeth Holmes – founder and CEO of Theranos – on various counts of fraud finally concluded. For those who felt strongly that she was guilty, and for those who felt strongly that she was not, the end was unsatisfying. Turned out that on the various counts against her on some she was found guilty, on others not, and on still others the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Notwithstanding these distinctions, the headlines screamed “guilty!” And notwithstanding these distinctions, the likelihood is that Holmes will spend a substantial amount of time in jail.

For a white-collar crime this case has received an inordinate amount of attention, which raises the question of why. What was about Theranos – its rise and fall – that made it so compelling? After all, in most ways the trajectory of this company resembled that of many other companies. Just another Silicon Valley startup whose star briefly shone brightly and then flamed out. Moreover, in many ways Holmes was just another Silicone Valley leader – she was obsessed with her work, with her company, with her dream of making it big, and with changing the world – in this instance by changing the mammoth business of testing blood. Still, Theranos stood out from the crowd, from other tech startups that in many ways were similar.

Many people have said the reason it stood out was it was led by woman. A woman in the sea of men that dominate the tech industry generally and Silicon Valley specifically. But what no one has said – at least not out loud – is that it was led not just by a woman but by a very particular kind of woman. One who was uncommonly skilled at attracting rich people to invest, at attracting powerful people to be on the board, and at attracting members of the media to stamp her as a star. Let’s be clear. Elizabeth Holmes was briefly among the most famous and fabulous of our corporate leaders not because of her experience or expertise, but because of her feminine wiles.

Her large, lovely eyes; her pretty, blond hair; her tall, slender figure; her ramrod straight posture; her low, sexy voice; her classy black garb; her fetching face; her way with words; and her pitch-perfect sales-pitch. Holmes was, she is, a very attractive woman who had no compunctions whatsoever at using every tool in her toolbox, every one of her feminine attributes, to pull in people, especially older men.

I say this not in judgement. Women like men should use what they got to get them what they want. I’m simply saying out loud that which these days is thought politically incorrect or even inappropriate. That some women leaders are no different from some women everywhere. From the many women who use their personal attractions to further their professional interests. Trouble with Elizabeth Holmes was not that she drew on what women have drawn on since time immemorial. But rather that she had not much else to back her up, not much else to distinguish her from everyone else. In the end her penchant for exaggeration to the point of fabrication collided with her ignorance and inexperience – which is why before long her house came crashing down.