The Fall of Theranos: The Gap Between Innovating and Optimizing

The troubles at blood-testing company Theranos continue to mount as CEO Elizabeth Holmes waits to hear if the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will propose sanctions that could ban her from the diagnostics business and stop her start-up from receiving payments from Medicare. With its vision of providing comprehensive health screenings with only a few drops of blood, this former biotech darling was once valued at close to $9 billion. The promise of Theranos, of being able to streamline preventive medical care in ways previously unimaginable, seemed world changing. But after failed inspections and the threat of government sanctions, it’s looking like the dream of Theranos was just that, a dream. The evidence is mounting that the closely guarded process by which Theranos claims to be able to run a myriad of tests from a few drops of blood amounts to a fairly scattershot approach to preventive care.  

In my earlier posts chronicling the downward spiral of HR software start-up Zenefits into the ash heap of former Silicon Valley sweethearts, I discussed how the lack of an exhaustive vision can be a death knell for young start-ups, particularly when their growth goes into hyperdrive. So what’s going on here? Has Silicon Valley just become Vegas for every young wannabe entrepreneur with a half-good idea?

As a recent New York Times op-ed piece explored, the downfall of Theranos can’t only be chalked up to the foolhardiness of youth. When Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos in 2003, she was a nineteen-year-old Stanford engineering dropout with dreams of revolutionizing health care, but since then, she has curated a board of directors whose faces could make up a veritable Mount Rushmore of business, international politics, and strategy legends. Among them are such heavyweights as Bill Frist, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn. With this combination of experience (although little of it based in medicine), it got me wondering: If the young CEO had the gravitas to put together this board of directors, men who negotiated detailed international treaties and complex legislation decades before she was born, then why did they not push for more attention to detail regarding the scientific accuracy and reliability of their tests? Theranos should have obsessed over these details, when in reality it seems they were sorely neglected.

For decades, big companies thrived and survived by building formidable “castles” to protect their positions. Competitors were thwarted by incumbents exploiting competitive advantages, erecting steep barriers to entry, and building powerful organizations with scope, scale, quality, and efficiencies that could resist disruption. But these castles were not built for today’s rapid and seismic market evolution, and as a result, many have seen their walls breached.

It was in the world of massive, seemingly impenetrable, bureaucratic medical laboratories that Ms. Holmes saw the weakness she could exploit. Small start-up businesses like Theranos thrive and survive by creating discontinuous innovations—sidestepping barriers to entry by creating new markets, wresting customers away from established organizations by offering them compelling new value propositions (like pain-free blood testing). But companies like Theranos have their own Achilles’ heel. They are organized for innovation, but not for efficiency and attention to detail.

While these companies have the ability to pivot more quickly than their larger, more established peers, they struggle with—or sometimes completely avoid—developing the ability to optimize operations by becoming as efficient as possible as quickly as possible once a disruptive innovation has proven successful. The problem here is with Theranos’ “success.” In offering a radically new approach to medical testing that positively transforms the patient experience, Theranos succeeded. But that success matters little if the test results for life-threatening illnesses are unreliable.

A decade plus of academic research is illuminating the fact that what organizations must develop to be successful in the long run is the capacity to become ambidextrous: those who cultivate this quality can optimize organizational efficiencies and quality services for their customers and devote resources to riskier endeavors that become the source of new innovations (experiment). Furthermore, companies that can successfully pull this off once can replicate the process for future cycles of innovation/optimization.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth Holmes is not instilling confidence that she can lead the organization through the tensions in these inherently oppositional activities. If she were hyping a compelling new app or game and it just wasn’t ready for prime time, we probably wouldn’t blink an eye. But the consequences of this business reach much further. She has shown that she can innovate (the experimentation side of the equation) but her ability to optimize seems weak, a catastrophic failing if you hold people’s health in your hands.

One hopes Holmes will learn from this humiliating debacle. After all, the wisdom to innovate and optimize—rather than only innovate—is most often forged by years, even decades, of failing and regrouping. Most start-ups now need to do both. It wasn’t until Steve Jobs was ousted and then returned to his company that the vision of Apple truly blossomed. From what past mistakes in the field of biotechnology and life could Holmes draw upon to improve the process? She and her board members should have been paying obsessive attention to not only disrupting a bloated, byzantine health care industry but also following through on the heady promises the company made to those who trusted them: namely that they would take a commitment to their well-being seriously. Optimizing your company’s processes might not land you many headlines, but failing to do so certainly will—just for all the wrong reasons.

The Wisdom Behind GameStop’s Bold Move

“If we have good chemistry, and we have a shared vision, then there’s a good chance we can partner for long-term success.” —Mark Stanley, GameStop VP of Internal Development & Diversification

It’s been a busy few weeks over at GameStop. The video game retailer—owned by Barnes and Noble from 1999 to 2004—has seen a host of financial struggles due to the precipitous drop in the video game retail market in 2015. With the news just last week that the company was being dropped for the S & P 500. shows just how predictive the S&P “topple rate” —the rate at which firms lose leadership standing in the index—can illustrate veracity of market disruptions. And reinvigorating its leadership position is exactly what Mark Stanley hopes GameStop’s new venture, GameTrust, will accomplish.

With the launch of this new digital platform, GameStop is making a foray into intellectual property development and cross-channel distribution, both growing sectors in the gaming ecosystem. GameTrust is designed for smaller video game developers who don’t have the resources or bandwidth to distribute their games to a broader audience without support. Rather than continuing to bet on the sagging retail market, with GameTrust, GameStop hopes to throw its hat in the ring alongside companies such as Steam, Xbox Live, and PlayStation Network.

For companies in an industry undergoing as much disruption as gaming has, evolving is vital, but transitions and growth can take a big toll on an organization if poorly executed (see the ongoing debacle with Zenefits). Can GameStop dramatically expand its core business offerings while remaining true to its overall vision? Leading this new venture is Stanley, who in a recent interview with Gamespot explained the importance of giving the new developers creative autonomy: “By allowing developers to fully focus on their craft,” he said, “GameTrust can focus on all other aspects of bringing a new IP to market, leveraging our deep expertise and retail channel leadership to support each developer and connect their games with a broader global audience.”

Having a clear and shared vision that gives team members the freedom to create and function within the structure of an organization will be critical during this upcoming period of change and growth for GameStop. I believe Stanley’s public commitment to respect the creative process bodes well for the company’s future. In a move consistent with that of a vision-driven leader, the executive explained that GameStop would not have any form of creative control over the developers they bring on or the games they create. This is a big plus for independent developers, who have traditionally had to use third-party distribution and relinquish a great amount of creative control, not to mention deal with the tension that often develops across teams when an organization is not operating according to a cohesive vision.

In the practical sense, it’s more crucial than ever for top management in quickly changing industries (which includes most industries at this point) to recognize the necessary shifts from a model of top-down control to one in which employees can innovate, be flexible, and adapt quickly over the longer term. This works when leaders embrace the notion of a structure that focuses on teamwork and cooperation. Grouping people based on the core processes they engage in—as GameStop is doing with this new venture—allows employees from diverse disciplines to know and understand one another and ultimately, hopefully, create something greater than the sum of their parts. This approach encourages tighter social relationships, joint decision-making styles, and collaborative work. Together, these serve to melt away the boundaries that result from employees working in silos, which stifle communication and creativity.

GameStop is a good example of the shrinking time frame for visions in some industries. The rule of thumb I use for clients—which is based on research I conducted back in 2000—is that organizational visions need at least a decade to take a firm down the runway. For the discombobulating technology shifts and consumer trends in video games, that life span is shrinking. But visions are still essential.

The business world has become an infinitely more complex, fluid, and unpredictable place, even for long-established organizations. By bridging the divide between brick-and-mortar and digital channels, GameStop is betting that this new venture will carry them into the digital marketplace with enough oomph to convince shareholders to stick with them for the long haul.

We’ll watch to see if they can use this revised vision for a return to market leadership.

What Comes Before a Fall: Lessons from the Growth and Crash of Zenefits

If you have even a passing interest in the tech industry and start-up culture, you’ve certainly heard about the unfolding crisis at formerly golden start-up Zenefits. The company—a producer of web-based software to help small businesses manage their human resources operations—made big news last year when they raised $500 million in one round of funding, at a valuation of $4 billion. The growth of the company over the past couple of years has been astronomical: they went from a total of fifteen employees at the end of 2013 to a reported sixteen hundred late last year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the growth has caused some serious issues, and CEO and founder Parker Conrad was asked to step down two weeks ago amid scandalous reports of employees being encouraged to cheat on their insurance broker licensing exams (even being given software to help them do so), overimbibing during the workday from company-provided kegs, and having sex in the stairwells of the office building.

Conrad’s resignation from the company allegedly brought tears of relief—not sadness—from beleaguered employees, many of whom are wholly unqualified for the work they’ve been asked to do (a reported 80 percent of Zenefits’ Washington transactions were claimed to be unlicensed). Strangely for a technology company, Zenefits seems to have attempted to solve its woes by adding even more employees to fix problems manually, rather than fully debugging systems when breakdowns took place.

Some of the details of Zenefits’ (and Conrad’s) downfall may be shocking—drinking on the job as a company norm, disregard for regulations in a company that handles something as sensitive as health insurance—but to anyone accustomed to working with entrepreneurs, especially those operating in the high-stakes pressure cooker of Silicon Valley, this outcome is anything but a surprise.

Certainly Zenefits’ rise and crash was helped along by the trend of outrageous VC funding for Silicon Valley start-ups, but the heart of their problems is nothing new. This is simply what happens when there is not an effective, embedded vision at the crucial juncture where scaling meets speed. Zenefits began as a Software as a Service company devoted to helping small businesses combat the onerous red tape of HR issues, health coverage in particular. An honorable enough mission. But as they scaled with lightning speed, they began taking on businesses with hundreds of employees, long before they were equipped with the culture necessary for handling them and the organization’s scaling to that level. Growth became the only imperative, at the cost of quality, employee morale, and even lawful practices.

The current climate in Silicon Valley prizes the “get big fast” mentality, but it’s worth asking, is growth always the ultimate goal? David Packard, the cofounder of Hewlett-Packard (HP), wrote in his memoirs that over the years he and Bill Hewlett had “speculated many times about the optimum size of a company.” They “did not believe that growth was important for its own sake” but eventually concluded that “continuous growth was essential” for the company to remain competitive. One reason growth was a matter of survival was because HP “depended on attracting high-caliber people” who wanted to “align their careers only with a company that offered ample opportunity for personal growth and progress.” Growth for the sake of attracting and keeping great people would become a factor for virtually all firms in technology-driven fields. When the firm introduced “the HP way” in 1957—essentially a manifesto for its future—it emphasized growth “as a measure of strength and a requirement for survival.” While Carly Fiorina trash-talked the original culture and called it an adorable artifact of an older time, she was no paragon of leadership during her tenure there, and the company suffered under her watch.

Most companies understand that growth is essential for survival for the very reasons Packard put so succinctly above. But few know how to reconcile the need for growth with the external and internal pressures to grow very quickly—especially with a group of big-time venture capitalists breathing down one’s neck. Building any large and sustainable corporation requires a considerable organizational transformation rather than a predictable set of linear stages. Building it quickly diminishes the odds that it can weather the growing pains of that transformation, as we can see so clearly in Zenefits’ unraveling. “More businesses die from indigestion than from starvation,” Packard said.

Start-ups are not just large businesses in miniature, and their trajectories do not necessarily point to either size or longevity. Rather than relying on opportunistic adaptation to exploit niche opportunities, their existence depends much more on formulating and implementing ambitious strategies that prepare the firm for the longer term. Put another way, the transition of a fledgling business into a large, well-established corporation requires nothing less than a series of fundamental yet relatively seamless transformations, nearly impossible to pull off in a period of eighteen months or so as Zenefits attempted to do.

Well-articulated visions guide these transformations so they are not experienced as traumatic surprises. Unfortunately, there are relatively few exceptional entrepreneurs with the capacity to conceptualize, articulate, and relentlessly manage with a vision and survive the steep challenges wedded to accelerated growth.

Maybe—just maybe—there’s a degree of maturity, insight, and future focus that’s not just about EBITA growth. Zuckerberg got that in his twenties, and he turned Facebook into a growth machine. The Google guys got it too, in their youth. They were smart enough to turn the reins over to Eric Schmidt, who would successfully guide the firm’s growth.

But perhaps the real lack of maturity rests with shortsighted venture capital firms and boards. They’re the ones who drove the wild growth and then kept Mr. Conrad in place until the shooting star was crashing back to Earth.

What the Seahawks Can Teach Us About Combatting Mean

It’s hard to think of an organization more rooted in the kind of toxic masculine stereotypes that typify the mean man than the NFL. And yet, one of its most successful franchises of the last few years, the Seattle Seahawks, serves as a prime example of authentic leadership at its best. “The hero and the psychopath may be twigs on the same genetic branch,” wrote the late David Lykken, a University of Minnesota professor of psychiatry and psychology. When we look at it this way, it’s unsurprising to see this dichotomy playing out on the football field: the beating heart of American hero worship. It’s true that both the hero and the psychopath possess a fearless temperament. But whereas the successful psychopath is the product of a culture in which meanness has run amok, the hero gives us insight into what it looks like to be successful without resorting to meanness.

We’ve examined on this blog numerous organizations in which mean rules and no one takes action, where the combination of outsize ambition and lack of empathy causes suffering. But what does it look like when ambition is channeled appropriately? When risk is part of the game but it’s not everything? When people are treated as people, not objects?

The Seattle Seahawks have an organizational philosophy that closely mirrors the cultures and practices of the Best Companies on Fortune’s list and gives us a peek into the potential antidote for organizational meanness. And nowhere is meanness more pervasive and tolerated than in professional sports. When considering potential draft picks (job candidates in this context), the Seahawks look at the language used by the players and cut from the pool those who lean on negative language or finger-pointing. They want a culture of accountability and optimism, and they start by getting the right people in the room.

The team’s coach, Pete Carroll, seems the antithesis of what we think of when we picture NFL coaches, screaming on the sideline, veins bulging, faces red. In a style that belies a fervent commitment to winning, Carroll is all about encouragement, not laying blame. He gives the individual men on the team the freedom to be themselves and sees himself as on a constant journey to identify and maximize the uniqueness of every player and coach. He is committed to a nurturing environment that allows people to be themselves while still being accountable to the team. This is a leader who recognizes that the best results will come from having happy, healthy men on his team. Carroll incorporates meditation and yoga into the team’s workouts, and yelling and swearing are strongly discouraged.

The top-down civility of Pete Carroll has a tremendous effect on all of his staff as well as his players. Tom Cable, the former coach of the Oakland Raiders with a colorful mean-man past, changed his coaching style after working with Pete Carroll as the assistant head coach and offensive line coach. “If I go ballistic on a guy because he dropped his outside hand or missed an underneath stunt, who is wrong? I am,” Cable says now. “I’m attacking his self-confidence and he’s learning that if he screws up, he is going to get yelled at. If you make a mistake here, it’s going to get fixed.”

Compare this with a speech given during the 2013 Rookie Symposium by Chris Ballard, former director of player personnel for the Kansas City Chiefs, who told the newly minted young players, “Nobody cares about your problems. The fans don’t care. The media doesn’t care. And ownership doesn’t care. They care about results.” This speech is hardly surprising in the no-whining-be-a-man culture of the NFL, but it’s still shockingly callous considering that it was delivered a scant seven months after a member of that same NFL team, Jovan Belcher, shot his girlfriend nine times before driving to the team’s facility and killing himself in the parking lot.

So what are the implications of the Seahawks’ unique culture of getting results while making the players’ health and well-being a top priority? Namely that being civil is not only better, but more effective. This idea, encouragingly, is starting to catch on. As many mean men as I’ve encountered in my work, I’ve been pleasantly surprised over the past few years by certain clients’ sensitivities to rooting out abusive management. Many civil entrepreneurs running firms in aggressive industries—such as hedge funds and tech companies—were shocked to discover the abuse that some of their senior managers heaped on employees. It doesn’t take a mean CEO to create a toxic climate given the proclivity of certain industries to attract mean men like jackals to fresh meat. But if the situation is flipped in these aggressive fields and the leader is civil, then the abuser is often rooted out and crushed.

In professional worlds where meanness is more than tolerated, leaders like Pete Carroll give us hope for change. If a pro football team can make it to the Super Bowl on the tailwind of civility, imagine what other organizations might accomplish.

Lessons from the Indefensible Dov Charney

Dov Charney, the enfant terrible of the apparel industry, has been (dis)gracing headlines again lately as the company he created, American Apparel, files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Though he was fired well over a year ago, Charney remains a threat to the company as they attempt to restructure. Charney’s outrageous behavior has been well known for years, so one might ask why he still thinks he has a leg to stand on. But seeing how long his “misconduct”—a rather light word for what the mother lode of horrifying text messages, e-mails, photos, and videos Charney saved to the company servers revealed—went on unchecked, it’s little wonder Charney considers himself above reproach. How did it get this far? On June 18, 2014, a sweltering summer day in New York City,  the board of American Apparel gathered in a small conference room at the Times Square offices of the company’s legal counsel. Ten hours later, theyemerged with a firm decision to remove Dov Charney as chairman and fire him as president and CEO of American Apparel.

Those ten taxing hours in the conference room were spent hashing out their reasons while Charney relentlessly and unsuccessfully defended his case. But the board stood behind its decision.

The board’s coup left American Apparel facing an uncertain future. “The company has grown a lot bigger than just one person and the liabilities Dov brought to the situation began to far outweigh his strengths,” said Allan Mayer, the board’s new co-chairman.

What prompted the urgentmove was news that Charney continued to psychologically harass a former employee who’d charged him with sexual abuse. An internal investigation unearthed new details about his salacious behavior—only this time, the board of American Apparel could no longer afford the potential cost. For years creditors had been growing anxious about the company. The board believed even the suggestion of new controversy might spook stockholders, who had watched the value of their investment crater. In the spring of 2014, the stock price had plummeted to a low of $0.47  a share, down from $15.00 in 2007.

When the markets opened the next day and news of Charney’s firing swept the media, the stock prices jumped 7 percent. By the ninth day after his firing, the stock had risen nearly 30 percent, a reflection of how the market felt about the aggressive action the board took against him.

It’s not surprising that Charney hasn’t gone quietly into that good night. Boards firing founders is messy stuff. In the case of Charney, press reports from Mayer and others framed the decision as the ethically and morally sound one, a message that they would no longer look the other way. But if that was the case, what took so long? Investigations and legal charges of Charney’s abusive, racist, sexist, and all-around disgusting behavior had been public for more than a decade. The consensus among many observers is that Charney was fired for driving the company into the ground, not for behaving badly.

Founders being fired from their companies is not unheard of—remember, Jobs was fired from Apple—but if we believe they get axed because of their bad behavior, we’ve got it backwards. The misconduct of mean men ultimately makes them ineffective as leaders and takes a toll on the companies they create,  often causing serious, lasting damage. And what helps a founder become so successful in launching a company little to do with the managerial skills it takes to scale the business and keep it healthy in the long term.

So many CEOs are fired from young companies because investors often hold all the cards as major or majority shareholders. And many veteran investors, as savvy students of management, know that companies need emotionally intelligent leaders to reach their potential.

It’s a very different story, though, when founders hold the cards as majority or dominant shareholders. As one study of “high-flying founders” and board composition showed, “Successful founding CEOs . . . show a tendency towards adopting weak boards.”

American Apparel is a prime example of this. Charney was the dominant stakeholder in the company, and he bolstered his control by filling the board with weak directors who followed his lead. What undid him, though, is that he came to own less of the company as it went downhill—and thus had less control over the board.

By the time he was finally fired, the firm was like a strung-out junkie. It was mainlining cash infusions and jonesing for more. As the firm started going into a tailspin, private equity firms were the only ones willing to deal. The greater American Apparel’s addiction to cash infusions grew, the greater the need to find private equity firms willing to take the higher risks. In most cases like this, an additional cost typically extracted for these fixes are demands from lenders to put their own guys on the board. Charney, obsessed with control, maneuvered around this. What he did lose, a result of his scramble to find cash, was ownership; his shares became diluted as lenders demanded some skin in the game. His reputation made lenders skittish about working with his company, and even with some loans costing as much as 20 percent in annualized interest, many lenders outright refused to get involved.

It finally became apparent that the business could not generate enough cash to sustain its high interest payments. With new complaints of Charney’s misbehavior surfacing regularly, the board finally had their epiphany: Charney’s presence had become thoroughly toxic to the business.

In the case of Charney, as leaks to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal would report, the decision to dump him ultimately came down to the horrific publicity (but not necessarily the behavior itself) he was generating. Bad press, in the board’s view, was jeopardizing the firm’s ability to find more sources of funding. The board made a plain and simple business decision to cut the firm’s losses withCharney. In the end, Charney wasn’t fired for being terrible; he was fired for bringing attention to it.

Now it seems American Apparel might never be free of the despicable Charney. But considering how long the board and investors let him get away with murder, perhaps that’s poetic justice.

The Lurid Scandal of DC’s Most Powerful Rabbi

As we discussed last week, mean men at the helm of a company are bad enough but at the head of a spiritual institution can be even more insidious, affecting the personal lives of congregants and doing lasting damage to the communities they’re involved with. Mean men of faith are able to exploit the vulnerabilities of their victims on a deeper level than any bad boss could, as congregants often trust them with their most personal, intimate details and place the utmost faith in them. Barry Freundel joined the big leagues of the Modern Orthodox movement in 1989 when he was hired to lead one of Washington’s most prestigious synagogues Kesher Israel, which has included cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, and innumerable other influential Beltway professionals as members. In addition to his rabbinical work, Freundel held adjunct faculty positions at American University, Georgetown, and the University of Maryland. He was a visiting scholar at Princeton, Yale, and Cornell and guest lectured at Columbia and the University of Chicago, cutting a wide swath of influence in academia as well as in religious life.

It became crystal clear that Freundel wasn’t the paragon of virtue he appeared to be when he copped to a plea deal in February 2015 for a lurid charge of voyeurism, admitting guilt to peeping at fifty-two women while they went to the mikvah, the sacred ritual bath into which converts to Orthodox Judaism must wade. He had watched hundreds of women undress and shower via a small video camera embedded in a clock radio on the shelf. Prosecutors say he spied on one hundred more women, but some incidents fall outside the statute of limitations. As the story unfolded, it revealed a very dark side to Freundel indeed, and his voyeurism was the tip of the iceberg.

“Certainly, it’s hard to anticipate that he was doing this thing specifically,” noted former rabbinic colleague Rabbi Joshua Maroof, “but Rabbi Freundel definitely had a pattern of abusing power.” Conversion candidates had complained to Maroof that they found Freundel “manipulative, intimidating, and threatening.” One former Georgetown congregant was quoted as calling Freundel “brusque and abrasive” and noted that if he disagreed “he would step all over you, make you feel like an ant, try to squash you and shut you out.”

His abuses of power went far beyond the sexual allegations. One of Freundel’s victims, Bethany Mandel, told the Daily Beast that the public didn’t know the half of it. “People keep calling him a pervert and yes, he’s a pervert, but he’s also a power hungry sociopath,” Mandel said. “It wasn’t about porn. It was about power, and this was additional power no one knew he had.”

At the time, Freundel not only was vice president of the Washington region’s body of Orthodox rabbis, but was ascending within the world’s largest body of Modern Orthodox rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). By the mid-2000s, he was chairman of a key committee charged with standardizing the systems for conversion. Debates within Orthodoxy over who gets to decide someone’s

“Jewishness” had become very heated, both in the United States and in Israel, and Freundel was a major influencer.

Given his status as one of the country’s experts on conversion, congregants didn’t question him when he created a new concept at Kesher Israel: “practice dunks,” which he required of his young female conversion students, despite there being no such mandate in Judaism. He also allegedly urged college students he taught—including non-Jews and single women, not normally allowed at an Orthodox mikvah—to come try out the mikvah, flouting basic Orthodox norms around the ritual bath.

Two new lawsuits in mid-2015 were filed to hold Modern Orthodoxy’s largest rabbinic organization—the RCA—responsible in the scandal. They both alleged that the Rabbinical Council of America and Freundel’s own synagogue were aware of inappropriate conduct by Freundel long before the discovery of the hidden camera. The class action lawsuits charged that the RCA and Congregation Kesher Israel should have taken measures to remove him from his positions of responsibility based on his earlier behavior. This is the pivot point where the influence and power accumulated by men like Freundel really run amok. The higher these men rise, the fewer checks and balances seem to be in place for potential abuse.

“The real issue with [Freundel] is, he was just bragging about the amount of power he had,” said Steven J. Kelly, an attorney with the law firm Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin & White, who is representing the plaintiffs in the earlier of the two suits. “These women needed [his] stamp to get married in some cases . . . to do all sorts of things.”

Both suits claim that the total number of Freundel victims is far larger than the number of accusers who came forward.

An RCA conversion committee that Freundel headed, known as the Geirus Policy and Standards Committee (GPS), was responsible for implementing a new and controversial conversion process that centralized all conversion authority with a few selected rabbinical courts. Prior to 2006, individual rabbis within the RCA were permitted to convert on their own authority.

Here’s the rub: Freundel was not only the head of the RCA’s conversion committee, but also the head of a regional rabbinical court tasked by that committee with approving conversions in the Washington area. The lawsuit filed by attorney Kelly’s plaintiffs alleges that Freundel used that combination to put himself in a unique position “to sexually and otherwise exploit converts, over whom he exercised great power and control.”

One of the plaintiffs in the suit, Emma Shulevitz, claims that while she met with Freundel about her desire to convert to Judaism, the rabbi “made repeated references to [her] ‘looks’ and did not seem interested in discussing her spiritual development.” The suit also alleges that Freundel “bragged about his prominence within the RCA and touted his relationship with the Chief Rabbi in Israel.”

When Shulevitz later said she planned to find a new rabbi to convert her, Freundel allegedly responded, “Fine, but it won’t be accepted in Israel.” Rabbi Marc Angel, a longtime critic of the RCA’s new conversion system, told the Forward—a prominent publication with an American Jewish audience—that the allegations, if true, reaffirm concerns about the centralization of conversion powers. “This is a bad example of the fears we have had all along,” Angel said. “If you concentrate too much power in few hands, then there is bound to be abuse, and this just confirms our deepest fears.”

Working under a mean boss like Peter Arnell or Dov Charney can certainly have lasting impacts, but there is almost nothing that can cut quite so deep as abuse within a religious community. From Mark Driscoll to the abuses within the Catholic church to the sordid downfall of Freundel, these often secretive communities rely on the vigilance of their members and those victims brave enough to risk it all by coming forward.

Strength in Numbers: Lessons from the Downfall of Mark Driscoll

First, I have a confession to make. I know I promised you a full-on mean woman this week, but when I reexamined my top candidate, she simply didn’t fit the bill. The woman in question has done some reprehensible things, to be certain, but held up next to men like Charney, Arnell, and Jobs? She’s a pussycat. The challenge to find a major league mean woman is telling, but I vow to keep working on it. For now, I want to return my focus to combatting mean. The strategies I’ve shared so far have been geared toward employees of mean men who find they’re unable to leave their situation as immediately as they’d like and need some coping skills. But what happens when it’s not just your financial and career well-being that’s threatened by the mean man but your entire community, and your friends, family, and faith are on the line?

Mark Driscoll started a Bible study class in his home in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle in 1996. By August of 2014, he’d grown his operation, Mars Hill, into a megachurch, at its height counting thirteen thousand attendees across five states. He preached to a packed crowd at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field (home of the Seahawks), guested on prime-time national television, threw out the first pitch at Mariners’ baseball games, and turned his brand into a franchise. Brand is Driscoll’s word, by the way, not mine. Among the other Mars Hill pastors, he would often refer to himself as “The Brand,” making it crystal clear that Mars Hill would always be about “me in the pulpit holding the Bible.”

His precision branding, matched with his ability to scale his enterprise, would make any business entrepreneur blush with envy.

Driscoll appealed to the young families who showed up to worship with him in jeans and flip-flops, those disenchanted with more established versions of organized Christian movements. Known as the “hipster pastor” with his charismatic, edgy rhetoric, dressed-down blue jeans style, and family of seven, Driscoll knew and embodied his market. He had a reverence for Jesus and a seeming irreverence for everything (and everyone) else. He enjoyed being outrageous, and it worked for him. Yoga, for example, was “demonic.” Increasingly, his writing and sermons took on strong misogynistic overtones: he famously called America a “pussified nation” and claimed that mainstream Christianity characterized Jesus as “an effeminate-looking dude,” and a “neutered and limp-wristed Sky Fairy of pop culture.”

Driscoll declared that anointing a woman as an Episcopal bishop was akin to choosing “a fluffy baby bunny rabbit as their next bishop to lead God’s men.” He joked onstage that wives who denied their husbands oral sex whenever it would please them were sinful, his unique interpretation of a verse from the Song of Solomon.

His outward style charmed many, but behind the scenes, he was often vicious, abusive, and controlling. Those who disagreed with him were shunned by the church, ensuring that other members would know what was in store if they came forward.

Fearful of his influence, many church members felt forced to complain indirectly or through third parties. But Driscoll’s strategy for defusing the discontent was to claim that he wasn’t sure how to respond since his dissenters remained anonymous.

Singularly, disaffected congregants felt powerless against the megachurch, a dynamic Driscoll was counting on. What he underestimated, however, was what would happen when they banded together.

As complaints about Driscoll reached a fever pitch, a large crowd started protesting during Sunday services, holding signs reading “We Are Not Anonymous.” Others started to directly and openly call for Driscoll’s resignation.

After eighteen years of stunning growth at Mars Hill, the groundswell of disgruntled congregants began to drive other churchgoers away. Within months, attendance and giving had plummeted so fast that church elders announced it would have to close several Seattle branches and cut its staff thirty to forty percent.

Driscoll had a knack, like many mean men, for deflecting blame. In 2013, Christian radio host Janet Mefferd accused him of plagiarizing fourteen pages of his book A Call to Resurgence from another preacher. She pushed Driscoll during an interview to be contrite. He apologized but peppered his concession with indignation.

He got in yet more book-related trouble in 2014 when he was accused of misappropriating $200,000 in church funds to get his book Real Marriage on the New York Times bestseller list via shady marketing tactics.

Each new accusation emboldened more critics, and by August 2014, Driscoll was hounded by the new accounts that emerged almost daily of his bullying, abuse, and outrageous behavior with congregants.

Driscoll resigned in October 2014 amid allegations of emotional abusiveness, plagiarism, and misogyny—with congregants fleeing to other houses of worship or losing faith altogether.

Driscoll ultimately wasn’t taken down by the church’s governing body but by those who—in small groups or individually—found their power in numbers and through their collective voice of public dissent. Driscoll’s charisma and normally effective ability to flip he blame to deflect culpability was drowned out beneath the indignation of those he’d harmed.

Sure, there were Christian media heavyweights calling him out for plagiarizing others’ work and his smarmy misogyny. But what brought him down was his arrogance and abusiveness, as well as those current and former followers who shouldered the risk of condemnation from others and stood together and exercised their power.

The pattern of abusive behavior employed by mean men to get and retain power means that there will inevitably be a long line of victims in their wake. Alone, each victim may feel powerless, but together—as we saw with Driscoll and with the recent Bill Cosby imbroglio—they can be a powerful force.