“Vision” Isn’t License to Dismiss Reality (Part I)

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

Alright, so there’s a lot to talk about with this one. I’ve so far started three different versions of this post, each based on a different lesson. That’s a good thing! There’s plenty in Carreyrou’s book, and more broadly the Theranos story, that provides great fodder for any leader’s learning and reflection. But, if you’ve read my work in the past or found my thoughts on vision, you know I’m likely to grab hold of that lesson above the others–so today, we’re talking about vision and how it does not give you license to simply ignore everything else. Maybe this sounds simple, straightforward. But as someone who’s fallen into this trap, I can tell you the lesson’s harder to learn than it seems.

In my first five years as a missile operator, I was lucky to work with a few great leaders and supervisors and take on several opportunities to explore the job and develop my own technical skills. Yet many of us were convinced the way we trained and developed our people–or rather, how little we cared to–left too much potential on the table. At the expense of building leaders who could think for themselves, we judged our Airmen on inflated test scores and how well they hid mistakes. Nearly everyone in the community knew it. We had a problem.

In Bad Blood, John Carreyrou chronicles the meteoric rise and precipitous fall of Elizabeth Holmes and her startup, Theranos. Holmes entered Stanford’s undergrad chemical engineering program in 2002, only to leave after two years inspired by a laboratory internship and the pull of tech entrepreneurship. After filing her first patent, she founded Theranos on a vision of providing advanced, efficient diagnostics using a piece of hardware about the size of a toaster oven and a miniscule blood sample.

For a host of reasons, including her own family’s own medical experiences, Holmes’ drive was admirable. Nursing a serious fear of needles, she was adamant that blood samples be taken without the large needs and vials most are accustomed to with laboratory samples. But the contemporary technology available didn’t allow for too many diagnostics on a single drop of blood, there would simply not be enough left after the first few tests to ensure an accurate read. Holmes’ vision was to revolutionize blood testing, but reality hadn’t caught up with her.

As Theranos gains momentum, and investors, Holmes courts large corporations and even the military as buyers. Imagine the applications of such a compact device, capable of detecting hundreds of conditions, in the middle of a warzone. She was signing contracts and committing millions in resources and research, all while her top scientists were struggling to fit expensive electronics and complicated machinery into such a small space. Dozens of tests resulted in failure, yet aggressive timelines only ramped up. Turnover was extreme as employees burned themselves out working seven days per week, from dawn to dusk and beyond, all pushed to the brink by Holmes and her animated right-hand, and boyfriend, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani. For me, the lesson comes to a head when as the mechanics of Holmes’ approach become clear. To mask series of failed product tests, she enlists her senior team to replace true video and samples with a version of the diagnostic machine that produces a false result and simulated screen images; everything ‘looks’ good as observers can only see the superficial indications and are never permitted a look ‘under the hood.’ And so we see the beginning of the end, for both Theranos and Holmes.

Like I said, the vision was admirable. Design and field a new diagnostic platform that could detect hundreds of ailments, all with little more than a drop of blood. Such a device would revolutionize how we diagnose, increase the time available for treatment, and theoretically prolong millions of lives otherwise caught on unsustainable paths for lack of early detection. But there were too many obstacles that became apparent early, and Holmes’ devotion to the cause proved to rigid for even her own expert hires to break through. She recruited the best of Silicon Valley and beyond, looking for researchers already at the cutting edge of engineering, chemistry, biology, and bioinformatics, and brought them under Theranos’ roof to build something heretofore unheard of. Those recruits all knew how long research and development usually takes. For something like this device, going from concept to implementation would likely take years … if not a decade or more. Consider how long the healthcare community has been working on cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and HIV to name a few. Long-term investments of energy and money are a prerequisite to solving the world’s toughest medical challenges. Building this machine would have been no different. Yet Holmes wouldn’t accept any of the warnings as she pushed her staff beyond the realm of the normal to fabricate hardware, results, and hide whole parts of the company’s building and lab space when entertaining visitors from state regulatory agencies. It sounds ridiculous, and I had the same thoughts as I read Carreyrou’s telling. But he brings a journalist’s discipline to the documentation of the story, and manages to share a book that reads more like a thriller than business exposé.

We had a problem in missile operations. That much was clear, at least to those of us at the bottom of the hierarchy. As 2013 gave way to 2014, life moved along normally and I prepared to attend a truncated version of the Air Force’s Weapons School course to learn how to lead instructors and teach the ins and outs of the missile system. Then all hell broke loose. Almost overnight, the inertia powering the missile operations career field came to a halt; our senior leaders could no longer ignore the “world’s worst culture” after more than 100 people saw their careers derailed or terminated after a cheating scandal that uncovered how abusive (not to mention counterproductive) our testing regime had become. When I reported to my new assignment later that summer, I was tasked explicitly: build a new training team, and a training program, that advances knowledge and keeps us ready to fight 24/7. I decided on the initial cadre, received nearly 100% authority on how to structure the program, and most critically–had to paint a clear vision of what success for my team and our unit would look like. This was our golden opportunity to prove how great a community missile operations could be. This is the chance I’d always wanted … right?

To be continued …

If you like what you see here so far, please subscribe to Enabled Word for info on our latest content, links to the past week’s articles, and additional tips and offers as the platform expands. Want to do more than read lessons? Implement the latest lessons and methods as a leader yourself, contact me here to talk about tailored training and one-on-one coaching.

Leaders Show, They Don’t Tell

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead & Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

“Show, don’t tell” is a common refrain among writers and writing critics, at least in the spaces I came from. Accomplishing an MFA in creative writing was a purely selfish pursuit on my part, part of a dream that included penning the next great American novel and sharing humanity’s best stories through the perennial medium that is the written word. Yep, I was idealistic and had a good time studying a wide range of fiction and nonfiction, workshopping my projects and getting feedback from writers of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences. As a military person, working alongside 20-somethings fresh out of BFA programs and 60-somethings pivoting post-retirement, I felt liberated to finally express my own ideas without fearing judgment of my professional worth or intellectual discouragement. I received neither, but did hear plenty “show, don’t tell.”

Wait, what?

Show, don’t tell. If you’ve studied writing or had your writing critiqued, you may have heard this once or twice before. Most often, it means you’ve spent too much time describing or explaining a scene … vice writing the dialogue and actions of the scene, and letting that image coalesce in the reader’s mind. It’s a subtle distinction for the uninitiated. Writing is a craft, and there’s art and science to it. Leadership is the same (see what I did there?), there’s an art and science to it. And it’s a craft to be honed. But despite the near-infinite number of ways someone can successfully lead a team, I’ve come to believe there are a subset of principles by which leaders should abide. There are things leaders should never do if they hope to earn and keep the respect of their team members, peers, and senior leaders.

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin are retired naval officers and both members of the SEAL special operations community. SEAL, an acronym that stands for “Sea, Air, and Land,” describes a small but very tight-knit group of men who leave traditional Navy life for one of the world’s most difficult training and development programs. Their preparation includes a heavy emphasis on mental resilience, adaptation, and a visceral hatred of defeat. SEALs (and in fairness, their special operations brothers and sisters across the services) push forward when most other units can’t or won’t. We ask SEALs and their brethren to undertake missions not only with a high-risk of casualty, but a higher-than-average risk of failure and severe political fallout. To grow up in such an environment is to expose yourself to a whole new level of performance pressure. So what type of leader do you think the SEALs are looking for? What type of leader succeeds in this type of team? Perhaps not the type you would think.

Willink is an imposing figure and maintains an image that leads many to believe he’s among the meanest humans to walk the Earth. Yet many who know him quickly debunk this myth as they explain how good of a husband and father he is, how good of a trainer he is, and how emotional he becomes when he talks about the men he’s lost in combat. Listen to almost any episode of the Jocko Podcast and you’ll quickly find a leader who is not afraid to expose vulnerability. Among Jocko’s books, Extreme Ownership stands out as his first and best introduction to a guiding philosophy that I think most leaders shun–and often for the wrong reasons.

Willink and Babin wrote the book after working as leadership consultants and fielding questions about packaging their lessons for wider consumption. What results is a collection of stories from their deployment to Ramadi, Iraq in 2006 mixed with examples from the corporate world and exposition of each principle they present. At the heart of the message is a call to take “extreme ownership” of your role as the leader. Doesn’t matter the environment, task, or mission. Doesn’t matter your level of experience, your team’s level of experience, or the interpersonal drama at play. What matters is your willingness to step forward and take responsibility for what happens, especially if what happens isn’t what should’ve. It’s easy to take ownership for good results; the challenge–and what leaders owe their teams–is taking ownership when the results are bad.

So what does this have to do with show, don’t tell? When a leader steps forward and takes ownership for the team’s failures–their lack of training and preparation, faulty communication and assumptions, loss of trust from senior leaders–their role and position is obvious. Taking “extreme” ownership communicates clearly to every team member: not only is this person ready and willing to take care of the team, but this person is also someone I can trust and respect. Teams built on trust and respect, up and down the hierarchy, face challenges head on and do not spend time on extraneous disputes and territorialism. These teams are better-equipped to adhere to the principle called “Unity of Command,” an idea that implies we all know who’s responsible for the team and each function–and we’ll defer to those individuals at the right time, without argument. Leaders of these teams have shown themselves to be a good leader, a leader worth trust and respect.

By contrast, some ‘leaders’ have to rely on reminding their team members who they are and what authorities they have. Have you ever heard your manager or supervisor tell you that they’re the manager or supervisor? As the leader of this team, it’s my job to … I was lucky to learn this lesson early, while still a military trainee in college. Never tell your team, let alone remind them, that you’re their leader/supervisor/commander. Demonstrate your willingness and capacity to lead by doing, acting on the team’s behalf and leaning forward in making decisions that support what the team needs. If you feel compelled to remind someone of your job title or description, that’s a sign the person doesn’t trust or respect you in that position.

As for the book … Gift It. This one’s a keeper; it’s simple in layout and message, profound in the number of situations to which the lessons apply. I received this book as a gift myself and have since gifted it or distributed it in bulk to students.