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What Fyre Festival Teaches Us About Leadership

What Fyre Festival Teaches Us About Leadership

What do Fyre Festival CEO, Billy McFarland and Theranos Founder, Elizabeth Holmes have in common? 

Both are leaders who made (very) big promises but failed to deliver on them. While they had charisma in spades, their skills didn’t match up.

Billy McFarland, the 26-year-old Founder of ill-fated Fyre Festival is a case study in mistaken leadership abilities. He convinced investors that he was a visionary entrepreneur and persuaded talented people to work for him. But he lacked the skills to put his vision into practice. 

Festival guests arrived to find their luxury villas were in fact tents from a hurricane-relief program. Champagne was promised, but sad cheese sandwiches were served.

Founder of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes, also stands out for her hubris. Holmes’ health tech company raised more than $700 million from private investors. But when the truth came out, her company was liquidated and Holmes was charged with fraud.

So this begs the question: how did these leaders get to where they are without the skills? Overconfidence. 

The biggest mistake that many make is to equate leadership entirely with charisma. And overconfidence is one of the biggest reasons incompetent people get promoted.

According to our research, trustworthy management is one of the strongest drivers of employee satisfaction. When employees say leaders are honest and ethical, they’re 5x more likely to want to work there for a long time, and 11x more likely to think the workplace is great. So it’s important to find the right leaders.

Organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic looks at leadership issues in his new book. In “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It)”, he points out that people tend to assume that confident people are competent. But there is no actual relationship between the two qualities. 

“Competence is an ability; confidence is the belief in that ability,” says Tomas.

Interestingly, overconfidence affects men more often than with women. One study found that men overestimated their abilities by 30% and women by 15% on average.

“When men are considered for leadership positions, the same traits that predict their downfall are commonly mistaken - even celebrated - as a sign of leadership or talent.”  

Few things are more important to an organization’s success than having the right people in charge. But how can you avoid making hiring mistakes and self-destructive leadership choices? What qualities should you evaluate good leadership on?

Our research shows us that great leadership is not built on confidence but on trust. Great workplaces depend on leaders and employees developing trusting relationships.

A great leader is someone who:

  • looks to employees across the company for the next great idea
  • leads with values first, especially in the face of adversity
  • builds connectivity within and across teams
  • can help inspire a sense of purpose and pride in employees
  • elevates employees to achieve all they ever thought they were capable of, and then some
  • delivers on promises of champagne over sad cheese sandwiches

If you want to learn the leadership behaviors for building a great place to work, we’re here for you. We help companies build winning workplace cultures. Contact us today. 


Claire Hastwell