By Christine Merser, Circle Leadership's Inner Circle
Simmer down, feminists. I’m a feminist too, but I am also capable of critiquing the way some women lure men into their weblike climb to the top, not based on competence or creative ingenuity, but rather on how they make the powerful men around them feel. It’s real, and it’s worth exploring. Like a man who gets in your space and uses his physicality and tone of voice to intimidate you, Elizabeth Holmes used her vulnerability: “I think you are special, and I’m uncomfortable around all people except you. I just want your help to release my inhibitions so I can do something spectacular.”
I once wrote about a family member that her coy, vulnerable persona was the perfect ruse. Elizabeth used the same tools. And her prey were also vulnerable. Bear with me here.
After Elizabeth told a professor of hers at Stanford about her idea of using a patch to scan patients for infections and release antibiotics as appropriate, the professor, Dr. Phyllis Gardner, challenged her on it. Even more importantly, she determined that Elizabeth was not to be trusted. “I don’t trust her,” she candidly responded to someone considering investing in Elizabeth’s company. “I don’t know what she’s up to.” I would point out that Dr. Gardner, like me, is a woman, and I believe we have radar for women like Elizabeth.
I have a friend who is married to a mover/shaker man from the 1980s. He’s now in his nineties and a Stanford supporter, a big one, who met Elizabeth through friends and, I believe, Elizabeth’s father. My friend’s husband has the same profile as many of Elizabeth’s patsies, including Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, James Mattis, former U.S. Navy Admiral Gary Roughead, former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, former U.S. senator and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn, and former CEO of Wells Fargo Bank Richard Kovacevich, along with five or so others of impressive professional lineage.
Notice anything missing? There’s not a single woman among them, but I believe that was by design.
Other than their gender, what do these individuals have in common? They are all old — some of them, really old. They are all extremely powerful. And they are all certain of every move they make. They all love to conquer.
Elizabeth is very attractive, with huge enticing eyes. Her credentials revealed that she was terrifically smart. She spent time working on her voice to lower it, to make it so soft men had to strain to hear her. And these men bought it hook, line, and sinker. You see, they believed she was smart, really smart, and she’d chosen them to help her. That’s better than a sexual conquest for men like that; it’s a corporate conquest.
Back to my friend’s husband. He was smitten, professionally smitten, but my friend and I kept asking him about the paperwork. After he had invested tons of cash, shouldn’t he be receiving reports from her? “She never returned your call?” we’d say, “WTF?! You would not tolerate that behavior from anyone else!”
“That’s just the way she is,” he’d tell us. “She doesn’t handle people well. She’s a scientist.”
“Puh-lease,” we would reply, “you are such an ass!”
We were appalled but not surprised when it all came tumbling down. Between the breadth of investor CV appeal and the coy, “I just need to be protected” armor she wore, the men who hoisted her to smoke-and-mirrors greatness were like male praying mantises, who we all know get their heads eaten by the females of the species after sex. They had no idea — and I suspect they still don’t — as to what happened to them.
Fast-forward to all these years later, and what surprises me is the lack of acknowledgement from these titans of business and military of how they were taken so easily. Have they asked themselves why it was so easy for her to dupe them?
Dr. Gardner’s answer to the whole debacle? “I just want her convicted. All I want is to see her in an orange jumpsuit with a black turtleneck accent.” Me too.
Christine Merser, Circle Leadership's Inner Circle