Elizabethan Chicanery

If you think Elizabeth Holmes is done, she never met anyone she couldn’t fool.

Elizabeth Holmes was a brilliant engineer who dabbled in Mandarin for fun. As a freshman, she dropped out of Stanford in 2003 to found Theranos. Soon after she discovered a look that resembled Steve Jobs, and in one of life’s great ironies, she has the same name as his first girlfriend. Shortly his image became her calling card.

To complement the ensemble, Holmes adopted a James Earl Jones voice that registered an order of magnitude below normal. People who should have known better were blinded by the light-skinned beauty with the throaty baritone that seemed too good looking to be true yet somehow not too callow to revolutionize blood testing. In a sense she did.

We all fell for the act.

The board, big data experts, high rolling investors, the media, and most of her employees bowed to the new messiah of medical devices. She seemed the perfect actor for the part. That was when she went off-script, fatally replacing lukewarm test results with a sham process that eventually placed her credibility rather than her lab specimens under the microscope. Sadly, with sufficient experimentation, her hunches might have been proven right.

A super manipulator such as Holmes often experiences great success in youth, rarely comes from the wrong side of the tracks or the school of hard knocks. For as long as they can remember, they were stars, momma’s hero or daddy’s daughter. Their self-confidence inspires everyone. That is why their villainy is so well camouflaged.

So where did Holmes begin to go wrong and why did we miss the ‘tells’?

The culprit is not greed, at least not in the conventional sense, and that is part of the problem. Like many human disasters, she began with a genuine and sincere desire to do something good, not commit fraud. To paraphrase Warren Buffett, stealing while investors give you billions is akin to marrying for money when you’re already rich. It is illogical. What lies beneath the surface of the good intention is an unhealthy obsession with image and the belief you can defy the law of averages. Until you can’t and that is when the abracadabra begins.

I’ll illustrate with a less dramatic example.

In the 1967 film, A Guide For The Married Man, Joey Bishop’s wife discovers him in bed with a young woman. He has been taught by his pals to deny, deny, deny. As his wife screams at him, he responds, “What bed? Which female?” After a few minutes, his wife begins to doubt her own sanity while Bishop whisks the girl out of the room. He settles in to read as she asks, “How about dinner?”

Super manipulators are adept at overcoming any evidence that stands in the way, including the protests of relatives, friends, coworkers, whistleblowers, and regulators. Society is to blame. All of us are desperate to believe there are real heroes in the world. So we enable them, encourage them, invest in them, sometimes marry them. Their story is amplified through social media, which excels at promoting narcissists but is hopeless at revealing the truth. Due to their inherent amorality, the manipulator lies so convincingly she remains credible in the face of overwhelming evidence. What’s for dinner is not a far stretch from “despite the results, she assures me the blood test is working!”

We believe what they want to deceive.

Attribute the problem to our hyper-performance culture. As we grow into adulthood, many of us find we are no longer the high school quarterback, prom queen, or valedictorian. Now the competition is on a broad, even global playing field. Students from India and China compete with tens of millions to place into colleges. When they arrive on the Stanford campus, it is hard to imagine how shocking it must be to someone who only worried about the girl from Pasadena until now. Some deal with it. Others start wheeling and dealing.

When we realize our talents are no longer first string, we fear becoming also-rans. To manipulators like Elizabeth Holmes, that is not acceptable. Despite being repeatedly told that her concept was not feasible it only intensified her desires. So she chose concealment and subterfuge. The majority of us recalculate the odds of a losing score and restart or pivot. Following a period of self-examination, we start up the mountain again. However, super manipulators are not like the rest of us. To borrow a line from Fitzgerald, they are different.

To be extraordinarily ambitious is one thing. To be a criminal, quite another. Because they lack the fortitude to persevere in the face of failure, things start to go wrong quickly, and their deception grows every step of the way. It does not matter if the culprit is Elizabeth Holmes, Adolf Hitler, or Napoleon. When reach exceeds grasp, manipulators turn to trickery because the ego demands success, even if fabricated.

Before the world discovers they are imposters, the gambit gets draped in so many layers of lies, falsification, and half-truths no one knows where to begin to untangle the mess. Like the Wizard of Oz, Bernie Madoff sat in an undisclosed office, concealing a Ponzi scheme from regulators and family. He referred to it as his “secret hedge model.” This is always indicative. Too good to be true is too good to reveal.

Elizabeth Holmes gamed the ‘ref’ by replacing her device with one that actually worked. She hid her machinations in the basement with a locked door behind a do not enter sign. This is super manipulator 101. They ultimately find a true calling is concealing misdeeds because real power is in making the public think you are powerful. It is a talent they have been practicing since childhood because they’ve been concealing an inferiority complex all their lives.

The challenge is that the same attributes can also be true of leaders who aren’t super manipulators. For example, Abraham Lincoln was as cagey as they come, or Nelson Mandela’s posturing violence encouraged South African President de Klerk to join forces. But there is a perceptible difference between manipulators and the chess moves of true leaders. One cares only about self-glorification. Even a Warren Buffett can be ruthless when necessary, but never for the sake of the score. Leaders like Buffett focus on building something that changes outcomes — they care about what they leave behind, not just who they conquer.

The problem is telling them apart. Because the perps share skills with genuine stars (up to a point), the average employee falls prey to a baffling concoction of bravado and threats. No one wants to be caught in an accusation that takes down a great company. The manipulators rely on this. It creates an air of skepticism towards the accuser. Someone as capable as Theranos board member and former Secretary of State George Schultz rebuked his grandson for doubting Holmes — at a time the grandson worked in the lab! If you don’t believe your grandson, we can assume it isn’t a simple thing to doubt a super manipulator.

The belief that innovation always breeds success (99% of the time, it produces failure) sets up the con. Even when they fail, society encourages entrepreneurs to keep at it. Unfortunately, the effect on super manipulators is to convince them that a solution is a little further out on the risk curve. One more lie for Holmes is all it takes. The other problem is that we ascribe godlike qualities to rock stars. It means anything goes. Would-be manipulators reveal signs of vain ambition early on, “tells” that should be observed to see if they are harmless habits of immaturity. It is up to responsible people inside the organization to make the call, like respected peers or the board with a CEO. When Holmes began dressing like Steve Jobs, her board failed to ask why. What does that mean? Do you think you are Jobs? By the time they got around to it, she had demonized anyone who had the temerity to doubt her.

The way to flush out a super manipulator is to assign them to a small team that can observe them on the way up and see how they manage. Or if they are the CEO as Holmes was, send them on a six-week retreat with members of the team and coaches and advisors who can give insight into what is really driving the person. A super manipulator can’t conceal self-importance. When discovered, as Jack Welch would say, you can either fix it or kill it.