A lot can be said about Elizabeth Holmes's personality as a leader and a scammer. The founder of Theranos, the disgraced biotech blood testing company, currently faces charges for fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and she could spend a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. But before her string of lies came to light, Holmes was a merciless boss who demanded a lot from her employees, worshipped Steve Jobs, really wanted to become a billionaire, and believed she was building an empire.
At the end of Bad Blood, John Carreyrou's book about Theranos, he raises the question about whether or not Holmes could be considered a sociopath, defined as someone who has an absence of empathy. "I’ll leave it to the psychologists to decide whether Holmes fits the clinical profile, but there’s no question that her moral compass was badly askew," Carreyrou writes. In a 2018 interview with Vanity Fair, he added that he thinks "she absolutely has sociopathic tendencies."
Besides, you know, lying to everyone, Holmes fired people ruthlessly and hastily. After terminating one of the lead engineers at Theranos, Ed Ku, Carreyrou writes that Holmes said: "I don’t care. We can change people in and out. The company is all that matters." In another instance described in Bad Blood, Holmes told the company, "The miniLab [a Theranos product] is the most important thing humanity has ever built. If you don’t believe this is the case, you should leave now." To outsiders, Holmes was charming, and she soaked up praise from press and investors. But behind closed doors, she was a toxic boss who exhibited narcissistic behavior.
People who have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) tend to act with grandiosity and self-importance, with a fixation on unlimited success, control, brilliance, or beauty, among many other things, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the manual used to diagnose mental disorders. In the workplace, this can include being verbally abusive, placing roadblocks on employees’ career paths, and downplaying employees’ work in front of others, explains Marie-Line Germain, PhD, associate professor of human resources and leadership at Western Carolina University, a campus of the University of North Carolina, and author of Narcissism at Work: Personality Disorders of Corporate Leaders. "[Narcissists] literally trap their victims," she says. "Once they get what they want from [employees] or if they call on them for their bad behaviors, they will discard them."
[Narcissists] can only be understood by, or should connect with, other extraordinary people who support their ‘brilliant’ ideas. Those who don’t support them and their ideas have no place in their lives.
Marie-Line Germain, PhD
Holmes’s high standards, dichotomous thinking, and ability to jettison employees could be considered narcissistic traits. "[Narcissists] can only be understood by, or should connect with, other extraordinary people who support their ‘brilliant’ ideas," Dr. Germain says. "Those who don’t support them and their ideas have no place in their lives. If you’re not a supporter, you are a threat and an enemy, and enemies must be discarded." When Holmes was upset with an employee, she would often give them the silent treatment, which is a defense mechanism narcissists use to punish people. Others can include avoiding conflict, smudging the truth, burying themselves in work, blaming other for mistakes, pretending they're martyrs, building alliances, and threatening lawsuits, she says.
Interestingly, as narcissists rise in organizations and gain power, it just intensifies their narcissistic traits, Dr. Germain says. "That is, power, influence, wealth, and fame — and beauty when it’s the case — reinforce their perception that they are exceptional individuals with exceptional talent and qualities and therefore, they deserve the best of everything," she says. In fact, she adds that narcissists often look attractive in a workplace setting, because they tend to be workaholics, clever, charming, and charismatic. They also excel at managing crises and at developing a brand, two responsibilities that Holmes toggled between at Theranos.
Unfortunately, the employees are the ones who end up losing when a narcissistic boss succeeds. "Most people who are not intrinsically involved with NPD leaders will only see their larger-than-life persona, their smooth demeanor, and their self-confidence rather than their devastating narcissistic tendencies," Dr. Germain says. People who work with a narcissistic boss often report feeling drained, annoyed, fearful, and burned out, she says. "These behaviors can have a devastating effect on those who work with them, emotionally and physically," she says. "When a boss constantly beats you down emotionally, it can impact your self-confidence, regardless of your status, title, or wealth."
So, was Holmes a narcissist? Without knowing her personally, it’s impossible to say. If she were, Dr. Germain says she’d be a minority when it comes to extreme narcissism, because narcissistic personality disorder is often more prominent in men. "Also, she’s been compared to Steve Jobs," she says. "Ironically, Steve Jobs was also a classic case of NPD leader."