Bad Blood at the Top



Story: I’m just completing the Institute of Corporate Directors education program and certification, in the spirit of becoming a more effective Board member. It is a very important initiative, and the content vital for any aspiring or current Board participant. And now, more than ever, Directors need to be actively involved regarding setting the right tone at the very top of the company. In parallel, while convalescing from knee replacement surgery, I’ve been doing a lot of watching and reading of material that underlines the importance of active board members promoting total organization integrity. It is startling to be reminded how corrosive and dangerous it is when ethical standards dissolve.

On the Netflix side, I’ve been watching Dirty Money, with the first episode detailing Volkswagen’s corporate deceit. It profiles the alliance between governments and automakers that allowed the company to risk tens of thousands of lives – for the sake of a $500 dollar part. Watching it and understanding how unethical, corrupt and totally misguided corporate executives in collusion with “blind eye” government officials, willingly putting peoples’ well-being and the environment at risk for greed and profit, made me mad. The phrase “defeat device” is now cynically built into our vocabulary. Shame on Volkswagen and others.

From a reading perspective, I’ve been soaking in John Carreyrou’s “Bad Blood, Secret and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup.” It’s about the blowout of one of the valley’s hottest startups, Theranos, and their Steve Jobs CEO wannabe, Elizabeth Holmes. Per the New York Times, “Carreyrou tells… A chilling, third-person narrative of how Holmes came up with a fantastic idea that made her, for a while, the most successful woman entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. She cast a hypnotic spell on even seasoned investors, honing an irresistible pitch about a little girl who was afraid of needles and who now wanted to improve the world by providing faster, better blood tests.” The company was a fraud and the products just did not work, risking the lives of thousands of patients and screwing hundreds of investors. It is almost unimaginable that the company, based on essentially old fashioned bait and switch, ascended to 800 employees with a paper valuation over $9 Billion at their peak.

Key Point: In both cases, the Boards and top management were fully responsible for serious harm to people, and massive loss of shareholder value. Great companies genuinely look to advance humankind. Companies, at their very worst, get lost in avarice and greed, while consciously or unconsciously putting humankind at risk for profit and growth. In hindsight, the signals are always there, and shocking to see how the the tone at the top becomes a matter of deteriorating continuous delusion, lying, deceit, and worse. It is a slippery slope when ethical standards become eroded.

Personal Leadership Moves:

  1. Doing the right thing and knowing exactly what behavior that implies, is a vital value set for ALL people in the company. The top of the house needs to model and teach this. Regardless of what level or position, it is critical to continuously discuss and clarify what this value means. There can only be one standard for doing the right thing.
  2. I continuously endorse a psychologically safe environment, where people can “talk back.” (Read Bad Blood to get a picture of the opposite).
  3. Make sure there is a robust, working “whistle blowing” system, just in case. The reputation of the brand and well-being of people involved with the organization must come first. The tone is always set at the top.
  4. Watch for a breakdown in small matters of integrity. This is often a precursor to much worse.

No Bad Blood in Personal Leadership,


One Millennial View: Sometimes I roll my eyes at the basic and buzz-word splattered mission statements/values of some organizations. They can look like someone just Googled “What Makes Good Company Sound Gooder,” copied and pasted it. While that bland effort can lack flavor, creativity, and a uniquely inspiring, attractive perspective for a workplace… Heck! It’s a whole lot better than anywhere that has misplaced or lost core values and integrity. Knowing right versus wrong is most important. 

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis