What to Learn From Former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes—Advocacy Matters | Opinion

We can all learn from the trial of the enigmatic ex-Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes; a modern fable about persuasion, deception and the superficiality of Silicon Valley. For all Holmes' alleged crimes and flaws, she was a master of self-advocacy. Anyone with a business or idea should take notes from her rise, and consequent fall.

Holmes was (and I assume is) a world class advocate. She was tipped by Inc. magazine to be the next Steve Jobs. She wooed investors such as Henry Kissinger and Rupert Murdoch, and grew her company to a $9 billion valuation.

The reality is that Theranos only received one FDA approval for a herpes treatment. Where did the other $9 billion come from?

It was Holmes' advocacy—a skill we don't teach in schools, but should—that allowed her to convince the public, investors, employees, secretary of state and media moguls that she was the real deal. She used those skills in a very particular and (some would say immoral) way; but they are skills we all need.

Even though it seems that her company was built on a foundation of lies, misrepresentations and distortions, Holmes was able to believe herself. The author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Dan Ariely pointed to a study where individuals told lies over and over again; after a while, they became desensitized to the lies.

I believe Holmes not only became desensitized but psychologically supported by her own mistruths. That much is clear to me when watching any clip of her speaking about her mission to save humanity.

If you want to advocate for yourself in a personal or professional setting, you need to believe in the person you're advocating for—yourself. In Holmes' case, the confirmation bias kicked in; her own lies supported her version of the truth.

Holmes' skill didn't just lie in believing herself, it was in getting others to believe in her too. She was able to get whole audiences, journalists and investors to believe her because of her mastery of body language. A study by the Royal Society Open Science Journal found that we are more convincing when we mimic the body language of the person we're trying to convince. When we analyze Elizabeth Holmes, she is able to maintain body-language mimicry when speaking.

She also uses her hands, which is known to improve trust in the person on the other end of that body language. This level of non-verbal nuance is the epitome of self-advocating.

Verbal nuance matters too; tone of voice is an underused tool of an advocate. Studies show you can tell more about a person's emotion from their tone of voice than their body language and facial expressions combined. Holmes is infamous for the way she manipulated her tone of voice when she advocated for Theranos.

 Former Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes
Former Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes arrives at the Robert F. Peckham U.S. Federal Court on June 28, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The old adage goes that "facts tell, stories sell." But there are often competing stories, and that is certainly the case in Silicon Valley. Someone else also wants that investment. That's when the adage becomes, "Facts tell. Stories sell. Advocates win." Elizabeth went beyond storytelling and used many of the tools of an advocate in TED Talks and investment pitches.

Holmes was able to hypnotize crowds with an unflinching stare, a deep authoritative voice and Steve Jobs-esque roller neck. But above all, it was her heart-wrenching tales of how her uncle had died of cancer, and how she believed that "less people [will] have to say goodbye too soon" that ultimately won the crowds, and investors, over.

While we may call Elizabeth Holmes' character into question, we cannot doubt her capacity for sheer hard work. John Carreyrou's famous book Bad Blood documented how Holmes would frequently pull all-nighters at the office, and expected her employees to do the same. This was a skill she crafted at school; she was able to get accepted to Stanford University by becoming an aggressively conscientious worker.

But Holmes lacked one thing, which was her downfall: ethics and guiding principles.

We have seen this countless times before; from the most famous British conman Mark Acklom to the British newspaper mogul Conrad Black. Extreme charm, perceptiveness and story-telling will only get you so far; you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time. And when you don't fool them, sometimes they call the SEC or the FBI.

Holmes was able to manipulate seemingly without conscience. She made countless, demonstrably false claims, about the efficacy of her product to investors and patients. She bullied colleagues and reportedly showed no empathy for the family of the Theranos employee who died by suicide.

This is what happens when you advocate without morals. In fact, without morality, there is nothing truly worth advocating for.

As well as learning from Holmes' failure, we should be unapologetic about learning from her success.

After 20 years as a trial attorney and television legal analyst, Heather Hansen now gives leaders the tools to advocate for their ideas, their team and their business. She's the author of the best seller The Elegant Warrior and host of The Elegant Warrior podcast. Her most recent book is Advocate to Win.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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