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The Tragedy of a Pathological Leader

By Patrick Lencioni - August 2018


I recently read the book, Bad Blood, by The Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou, and couldn’t put it down.  It is the fascinating and frightening story of Theranos and its pathologically ambitious founder.  For those that don’t know about Theranos, here is a summary.

A young woman drops out of college to start a company with the promise of a transformational breakthrough in medical diagnostics.  With extraordinary levels of confidence and hubris, she convinces high-level board members, investors, industry partners and employees to join her movement, and builds a company that is valued at almost ten billion dollars.  While she is receiving accolades from luminaries in politics, industry and media, her partners and employees are raising red flags about the viability of the company’s technology and the dangers that it poses.  The founder and another leader keep the company together by firing anyone who speaks up, and/or threatening them with legal action until it all unravels.

Beneath the intrigue of financial fraud, medical malpractice and personal ambition, lies the sordid tale of real human suffering among the employees who endured the callousness and lies of the leader.  While more than a few of those employees will need counseling to get over the serious trauma that was inflicted on them, one of them went so far as to take his own life.

Does the Theranos story have any lessons for leaders and employees in less remarkably bizarre companies?  I think so. 

First, as crazy as Theranos was, it is not quite as rare as most of us would like to think it is.  Over the past twenty years, I’ve seen more pathological leaders than I’d like to admit, and their behavior has always led to suffering. If you’re a leader and see this kind of behavior among subordinates in your organization, take them out of leadership positions and get them into counseling. And if they’re not open to that, get them out of your organization altogether, with dignity and compassion. 

Second, if you’re an employee and your leader is pathological—regularly lies, never admits he or she is wrong, actually believes that real problems can be ignored—run.  That’s right.  No matter how tempted you may be to ride the charismatic coattails of an ambitious pathological leader, don’t do it.  It usually doesn’t pay off financially, and even if it did, the psychological and reputational stains don’t wash out easily.

Finally, and most importantly, if you’re a well-intentioned, non-pathological leader—the vast majority of leaders are—don’t discount this story and the reality of human suffering in the workplace.  Do everything you can to make your organization healthy.  This will not only make it more effective and successful from an operational and financial standpoint, but will give your employees a very real sense of dignity and fulfillment, which will impact their families, friends and neighbors in tangible ways.

So, as you read Bad Blood, take a moment to consider how much employees and their loved ones suffered as a result of working for a dysfunctional leader in an unhealthy organization. Perhaps the chilling story of Theranos will provide leaders with a reminder about the impact that words and actions have on people who work for them, and on everyone else in their lives.