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Innovation Hero Worship: FTX, Theranos, and the Media

Just because we consider someone an “expert” or an “innovator” doesn’t mean we should automatically believe everything they say. We should be willing to challenge the idea.

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
6 min read
Innovation Hero Worship: FTX, Theranos, and the Media
Hero Worship of innovators can be a slippery slop that causes many to overlook what we don't want to see. 

It is hard to miss the headlines where some innovator has raised significant money, been on the cover of major publications, lauded for their success by leading journalists, and celebrated as a genius. All to have it come crumbling down because everyone got pulled into the hype, and no one bothered to think critically about the business.

For example, yesterday's (11/11/2022) headline in the Wall Street Journal is the bankruptcy of crypto exchange FTX, the resignation of their CEO, and the scrambling to find the funds they were holding on behalf of their clients. Turns out that no one was watching the store. The market excitement of anything and everything crypto, the endorsement from actors and athletes, high-profile venture capitalists' backing, and the CEO's hero worship led to people blindly trusting FTX.

This isn't an isolated event. History is littered with tales of innovation hero worship, and the downfall that all too commonly follows. We love stories where someone overcomes great odds to achieve something special. We're especially passionate about stories where the protagonist creates an innovation that others say will change the world.

Innovators often play up to this hero worship. They want to be seen as special and different because that is how they will get attention and funding. If they can convince people they are changing the world; they are more likely to get the support they need.

The problem is that this innovation hero worship can blind us to the reality of the situation. We become so caught up in the story that we forget to question whether or not the innovation is actually viable or even a benefit to society. We fail to see the warning signs that should make us pause and think twice.

What has fed this phenomenon?

First, there is the increasing importance of technology and innovation in our economy. As the economy has become more globalized and more knowledge-based, the role of innovators and entrepreneurs has become increasingly important.

Second, there is a growing belief that these figures represent a new breed of leader who is more visionary and more risk-taking than traditional leaders. This is appealing to a generation that is coming of age in a time of great uncertainty and change.

Third, there is the fact that these heroes are often seen as self-made men or women who have achieved success through their own hard work and determination. This is in contrast to traditional leaders who are often seen as being born into privilege or as being handed their success on a silver platter.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, there is a simple fact that these figures are often successful and wealthy. In a world where materialism is increasingly valued, it is not surprising that the media would be drawn to those who have achieved great wealth and success.

What about the media?

I would argue that the media is complicit in this hero worship. They are drawn to write stories of innovation and success and are often quick to anoint those who achieve it with the title of “genius.”

Somewhere along the way, journalists have lost objectivity and skepticism of those seen as innovators. They are more likely to promote their work without hesitation.

The thing is when objectivity goes out the window, so does accuracy. And when accuracy goes out the window, so does the public’s trust.

Some recent examples of this lack of accuracy include the hagiographies (biography of saints) of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk. All three men have been praised to the point of worship in the popular media.

Jobs has been hailed as a visionary and a genius, while Gates has been lauded as a brilliant thinker and a master strategist. Musk, meanwhile, has been held up as an example of what can be achieved through hard work and determination.

The reality, of course, is that all three of these men are flawed human beings. Jobs was notoriously difficult to work with and was responsible for some significant screw-ups during his time at Apple. Gates has been criticized for his business practices and his role in the antitrust case against Microsoft. And Musk has been accused of being a tough boss and of making some questionable business decisions.

The problem is not that these men are flawed. The problem is that the media presents them as perfect human beings who can do no wrong. This is not only misleading, but it’s also dangerous.

It’s dangerous because it creates false idols. It’s dangerous because it encourages people to worship these figures instead of thinking critically about them. And it’s dangerous because it gives these figures a level of power and influence that is disproportionate to their actual merits.

The solution is not to stop writing about successful innovators altogether. The solution is to be more accurate and objective in our coverage of them. We need to remember that these figures are human beings, not gods. And we need to be careful not to put them on a pedestal they can never live up to.

An example? Theranos.

One example of the dangers of hero worship is the story of Theranos. Theranos was a startup that claimed to have developed a new way of blood testing that was cheaper, faster, and more accurate than existing methods. Elizabeth Holmes, who was hailed as a genius and a visionary, founded the company after dropping out of Stanford University.

In the summer of 2014, Fortune and Forbes put Elizabeth on the front cover of their magazines. This was her media coming out party.

Following those cover stories, all the other media companies jumped on the bandwagon and wrote articles about Holmes and her “revolutionary” technology. She was interviewed on television and featured on the cover of even more magazines. They held her up as an example of what young entrepreneurs could and should achieve.

Yet none of the media showed any trait of objectivity or skepticism. Hero worship comes from momentum and that is what happened here. No one wanted to be the first to say that maybe, just maybe, this technology wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Journalists exhibited groupthink once the original cover articles were published. This led to a cascade of articles that were all based on the same flawed premise: that Theranos’ technology was revolutionary and amazing, with no evidence to support those claims.

It turns out that the technology didn’t work.

Blame the media?

Some would argue that the pressure put on Elizabeth by the media, fed through their innovation hero worship of her, created the environment for a first-time CEO to take actions that ultimately led to the failure of Theranos.

Should the media shoulder some of the blame? I leave that to you to decide. However, I do not think the media is innocent, and the media's lack of objectivity and skepticism harmed investors and patients.

Are there brave journalists?

With Theranos, it took a few whistleblowers willing to talk and one reporter from the Wall Street Journal to stand up and challenge the Theranos narrative.

The article written by John Carreyrou (10/16/2015) about the problems with Theranos took months of investigation to write. It showed that the technology didn’t work and that the company had been lying to investors and patients.

This article was not well received by Elizabeth Holmes or her supporters. She tried to silence Carreyrou and threatened to sue the Wall Street Journal. Many in the media came to Elizabeth’s defense and accused Carreyrou of not understanding the technology.

Despite the threats and pushback, Carreyrou continued his investigation and published more articles that showed Theranos was a fraud. His work ultimately led to the downfall of the company and criminal charges against its founder.

Carreyrou is a perfect example of what journalists should aspire to be: objective, skeptical and fearless. He didn’t let the hero worship of Elizabeth Holmes impede his reporting. And as a result, he helped expose fraud and protect potential investors and patients from harm.

So what’s the answer?

How can we encourage a more critical and objective view of innovators and their ideas?

One way is to support media outlets and innovation-focused journalists that will take a more critical look at the innovations and people behind them. There are several online and print publications that are doing just that.

Another way is to encourage more open and honest dialogue about these figures. We need to have a more nuanced and realistic view of who they are and what they’ve accomplished.

We also need to take a skeptical and critical view of their innovations. Just because someone is considered an “expert” or an “innovator” doesn’t mean that we should automatically believe everything they say. We should ask hard questions and demand evidence. We should be willing to challenge the idea by fact-checking the claims.

And finally, we need to stop worshiping. They’re just human beings, after all. And like all human beings, they have their flaws and shortcomings.

When we see them as fallible and imperfect, we can see them for who they really are. And that’s when we can have a more objective and critical view of them and the innovations they are bringing to the world.


Phil McKinney Twitter

Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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