By Sunny Bonnell
I’ve found it hard to look away from the sordid story of blood test bust Theranos and its CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. Wasn’t it just a year ago that the startup, which claimed it could do a complete blood panel from a few drops of blood, was the toast of Silicon Valley, raising $700 million in capital?
Then word started to leak that Theranos’ technology wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. When it turned out that the tech didn’t work at all, that leak became a flood. Holmes and her president were charged with massive fraud, fined and banned from serving in the C-suite or on a corporate board for a decade. The company’s still limping along, but it’s doomed.
There’s a razor-thin line between the failure of Theranos and the success of a genuine disruptor like Uber. Both promised to shatter boundaries and defy entrenched powers–an approach that demands not only confidence but hubris. But what separates fraud from category-defining success is knowing how to embrace hubris without it changing who you are.
Hubris is extreme pride so great it often brings about one’s downfall. It’s the kind of self-belief we see often in our greatest entrepreneurs: You’re capable of things other people aren’t, the normal rules don’t apply to you, and if other people don’t like your ideas, it’s because they’re too stupid to see them.
It can make you an egotistical, imperious, impossible person. Or, it can make you feel so exceptional that you can get away anything, even in defiance of logic and legality. It propels some of our greatest CEOs and innovators so do insane things that change the world. Would Elon Musk be talking about colonizing Mars if he wasn’t riddled with hubris?
What’s the difference between the hubristic leader who challenges the gods and wins and the one who goes down in ego-fueled disgrace? The ones who achieve greatness follow these three rules:
1. Accept that some rules do apply to you.
Holmes’ hubris brought Theranos down because she thought the basic rules of business–have a product that works, don’t lie to your investors–didn’t apply to her. Sure, being an on-the-edge entrepreneur means ignoring some rules, especially the ones that insist something can’t be done.
But there are some rules even the most audacious CEO can’t break. Treat people with respect. Act with integrity. Put your customers first. Follow those rules and you can bend a lot of others.
2. Find a cause that’s not your own ego.
We’ve all seen those companies that seem to exist mainly to glorify the CEO, and we know the signs: the lavish hotel suites, the private jet, the entourage. And how do those stories usually end? Not well, generally.
Make your business about servicing your ego and you take your eye off the ball. You know, that ball where leading means making your people better and creating a brand that your customers fall in love with.
Find a bigger cause to serve, whether it’s helping your employees be their best or transforming a part of the economy. Ego plus service equals miracles.
3. Do what makes you humble.
Hubristic people often have giant egos for a reason: they’ve crushed every part of life they’ve come into contact with. That’s dangerous, because you can start to think you’re entitled to succeed.
Go do something you know you suck at: two-on-two basketball, sax lessons, painting. Learn how us mere mortals feel when we stink. That will keep you humble, which will keep you grounded and mindful, which will keep you from becoming a jerk.
A little hubris goes a long way. When you win, don’t do your end zone dance. Win with class. Remember, today’s unicorn is tomorrow’s Chapter 13 filing.
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