top of page

Executive Case Study: A Brilliant Lack of Character

Elizabeth Holmes went from billionaire to a net worth of zero in 12 months.

She dropped out of Stanford. Raised millions of dollars from wealthy investors. Became a billionaire before age 30. And promised to change healthcare with her company’s technology. Elizabeth Holmes was the new hero of the technology and healthcare industry. Her face was on the cover of all the big business magazines like Fortune and Forbes. Yet, everything about her business, Theranos, was a lie. Her claims to be able to run hundreds of blood tests with just a drop of blood were false. And investors, doctors and patients were all victims.

Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty, as was her COO and lover, of multiple counts of fraud. Nobody doubts her brains, but now we all know her true self. You can watch the Hulu series called The Dropout or listen to the podcast by the same name to get further details. But the deception was epic, and she fooled a lot of very smart people.

You can speculate about her motives from the start. Did her determination to be a success overcome her sense of right and wrong? Did she always know her technology didn’t work? Or did she truly believe in it, and over time sacrificed her Integrity in larger and larger ways until she felt there was no way out except to keep lying?

We may never know exactly how she became the poster child for brilliance combined with a lack of character. But we can learn some lessons from what we know. Her wild rise and the incredible fall from grace is an example for all of us. Competence, talent, or intelligence do not guarantee someone will be a good leader. Character does.

We define Integrity as, “doing what is good, right, and proper - even at personal cost.”

What would choosing the good, right, and proper thing have cost Elizabeth Holmes?

  • Slowing of her rise to stardom.

  • Admitting bad assumptions and mistakes.

  • Back tracking on her initial promises.

  • Disappointing investors.

I am an optimist, and can put myself in bad situations when I overpromise and then fall short. Our own personal costs could be similar to Elizabeth Holmes’ when we overpromise and underdeliver. Though it may not be on the same scale of billions of dollars with millions of people watching, how we handle those moments is a window into our character and how much we value our own Integrity.

Choosing Integrity would look like:

  • Humbling ourselves and admitting the bad assumptions and mistakes.

  • Owning our failure to deliver on promises.

  • Accepting the loss of money or a slow down in our own progress towards our goals in order to do the right thing.

  • Transparency with the people we have disappointed.

Many of us may believe we have a line in the sand that we would never cross. The story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos illustrates how the pursuit of prestige, acceptance, and wealth can cause brilliant people to sacrifice who they are called to be because they chase the wrong things. That pursuit may cause smart people to continuously cross the line, or move that line in order to get what they are chasing. It should cause us all to pause and ask ourselves:

What am I chasing? And would I be willing to give it up to do the good, right, and proper thing?

Dig Deep Questions:

  • What are you willing to give up to protect your Integrity?

  • Where have you sacrificed your Integrity in the past?

  • Would you change where your “line in the sand” is today?


Here is a quick assessment that will take you 5 minutes to figure it out. Nobody will ever see your results but you.

Warning: If you are not going to be honest with yourself this is a worthless assessment.

To take the assessment use the QR code above or go to

53 views0 comments


bottom of page