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The Path to the Dark Side
January 27, 2019
Over the holidays I read Bad Blood and found it to be riveting. In my opinion, anyone in the startup world would find value in a book that takes such a deep dive into the rise and fall of a once highflying unicorn. For me, the key lesson revolves around culture. Theranos had the righteous purpose of enabling early detection of disease by expanding access to blood tests. Our purpose at GT Medical Technologies, to improve the lives of patients with brain tumors, is righteous as well. However, in the case of Theranos, leadership confused a righteous purpose with the righteousness of the company itself. As the book illustrates, corporate self-righteousness leads to all kinds of malfeasance. The “cause” was used to justify all kinds of bad behavior and ultimately outright fraud. This self-righteousness persisted inside of Theranos, because the founder surrounded herself with sycophants who aligned to the culture that she established. The resulting echo chamber meant that the company was beyond reproach, and those who dared to question any aspect of the company were either ignored or actively pushed aside. In turn, a culture of paranoia ensued, further amplifying the echo effect.
In this narrative, I found parallels to a previous startup culture I experienced in my own career. The company had a righteous purpose and an “omniscience” founder CEO. Although the CEO said all the right things about culture and “best idea wins,” his leadership style and hiring practices ensured that he was never truly questioned. Like Elizabeth Holmes, he hired a browbeating number two, who managed up by always saying yes, and managed down by belittling others and setting outrageous targets to supplicate the CEO. The righteousness of purpose became a culture of righteousness and engendering an attitude of invincibility, even in the face of data that said the product did not do what it was espoused to do. All of this would have been relatively harmless, were it not for the fact that the product being provided had the potential to be harmful to human health due to known quality issues. Anyone who questioned the product quality issues and potential for harm to end users was cast as a non-believer who didn’t belong. The amplification of righteousness in the echo chamber drowned out reason, and I ultimately left because I was not a fit for this culture.
The lesson for me in this personal experience, as well as in the reading of Bad Blood, is that purity of purpose should never pervade the culture of a company. I hold this reminder at the fore of all that we do at GT Medical Technologies.
In Episode 5, Darth Vader implored Luke to, “join me, and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict, and bring order to the galaxy!” This is a prime example of how a righteous intention (ending destructive conflict) can be used to justify immoral behavior (joining the Dark Side). Thanks to George and Steven for another fine lesson in business.
Time to check the Falcon for mynocks chewing on the power cables. May the force be with you…always.