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Was Theranos a failure of leadership or a victim of circumstance?

Spencer Nam, 9/13/2016

The latest article in the October issue of Vanity Fair features a compelling personal sketch of Elizabeth Holmes, the beleaguered CEO of Theranos. The article paints a detailed picture of how the culture of secrecy inculcated by the eccentric CEO, imitating Steve Jobs even down to his fashion, attracted $400 million in investments and $9 billion in valuation, before the story got too big to handle, even for a master marketer and story teller in Holmes.

In many of the failure stories we read about once admired companies, leaders and their decisions are blamed for bad outcomes. Theranos is no exception. Unfortunately, while blaming the leaders is the easy thing to do, it often fails to identify the real reasons why good companies fail and promising potentials turn out to be just empty promises. In my blog about lessons learned from Theranos’ fall, I point out ways for companies and their leaders to avoid untenable circumstances that force leaders to make wrong decisions. Circumstances dictate good decision making, not the other way around.

Although Holmes cannot be fully exonerated from what has happened to the company, a $9 billion company cannot be poured down into a sink overnight, just because an eccentric CEO had been running the company like a spy organization. Over the course of Theranos’ rise to fame, hundreds of opportunities probably had been presented to right the ship, but almost none of those decisions seems to have materialized. Such a phenomenon simply cannot be attributed to a mere failure in leadership. Rather, a more accurate description might be untenable circumstances wresting freedom of good decision making away from the leaders and investors. It is noteworthy that even with unethical and potentially criminal implications, no major lawsuit or criminal charge has been brought to Theranos to date. Meanwhile Holmes gets to address thousands of people at the world’s most prestigious annual diagnostics meeting.

If we take a closer look at the technology touted by Theranos, the situation seems even further from being black and white. Theranos can generate test results from finger-prick blood samples, but they do not seem to be accurate. Questioning the testing capability versus test accuracy are two very different issues. On the other hand, there are some circumstantial dilemmas that might have forced management, the Board of Directors, investors, and collaborators to let the company slide down the slippery slope. Therano’s astronomical valuation and invested capital, rapid expansion of its business model, and too many conflicting recommendations from advisers all likely have created an environment where addressing the shortcomings in the product without changing the tune of the overall message might have been considered the best option. Unfortunately, it has turned out to be the worst decision possible. The real lesson from Theranos is not about how to be an ethical and honest leader, but being a leader who can avoid circumstances that leave a company with no good choice.