Martin Shkreli, former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, became (in)famous in 2015 when he raised the price of a potentially life-saving drug over 5,000% overnight, from $13.50 to over $750 a pill. Shkreli recently made headlines again as he was found guilty of three counts of securities fraud. (Shkreli maintains his innocence, and was also acquitted of five other charges).
Like many others, I've followed Shkreli's story over the past couple of years. I did so partially because I feel there's much more to this narrative than meets the eye. More than that, though, I believe Shkreli's public image is a fascinating case study in emotional intelligence (which happens to be a chief subject of my research, as well as the topic of my forthcoming book, EQ, Applied).
What's Emotional Intelligence Got to Do With It?
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, emotional intelligence is the ability to identify emotions, to understand their effect, and to use that information to guide thinking and behavior. In short, it's the ability to make emotions work for you, rather than against you.
Contrary to what some believe, though, there is no accurate template for what emotional intelligence (EI) looks like. For example, you may know someone with a direct communication style. Some find it honest and refreshing, but it rubs others the wrong way. Is that communication style a sign of emotional intelligence? Well, it depends. The question is: Does the person understand the impact this communication style has on others? If he does, and can use it to achieve desired results, than it's a sign of emotional intelligence.
Further, just as one's ability to understand and evoke emotions can be used to help, it can also be used to harm. There's plenty of research indicating that narcissists and others are able to use traits associated with EI in the pursuit of their own selfish goals, regardless of the damage they cause to others. In other words, just as a person gifted with a high IQ can choose to become a lifesaving surgeon or master criminal, a person with a high "EQ" may choose to use the ability for the greater good--or, for selfish and nefarious aims.
But what does this have to do with Shkreli?
Playing the Villain?
There's no denying Martin Shkreli's intellect: He became a millionaire in a relatively short time through a series of shrewd investments, before his foray into the pharmaceutical industry. Associates have described him as "brilliant" and "a visionary." (He was even named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list back in 2012.) Watch interviews with him, and you'll see his arguments are informed, well-thought out, and make sense.
Despite his intellectual strength, though, Shkreli initially seemed incapable of understanding the emotional impact his actions had on others.
For example, knowing that others were outraged over the price increases of his company's drugs, he still proceeded to share photos of himself with expensive bottles of wine, and selfies inside a helicopter as he rode over Manhattan. When he was required to sit before a Congressional committee, he repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment, while smirking and laughing through the questions.
And most recently, against his lawyer's advice, Shkreli livestreamed his thoughts on the current trial, going so far as to proclaim the mixed verdict an "astounding victory" on YouTube, mere hours after his conviction--yet before the judge has had a chance to determine how long his sentence will be.
But here's the thing:
I don't think Martin Shkreli is unaware of the emotional impact these actions have on others. In contrast, he seems to revel in his role as the villain.
He is a self-described troll, and he's leveraged both media attention and public hatred to feed his publicity machine. The only reason any of us are still talking about Martin Shkreli is because of his outrageous behavior.
Of course, it could be argued that his signature aloofness and perceived cockiness contributed to his recent conviction. (I can easily imagine the jury looking for excuses to put him away, regardless of the strength of the prosecution's case.) But in the end, this may simply be a calculated risk. Any jail time Shkreli sees will likely be minimal, after which it will likely be business as usual.
The truth is, I don't know Martin Shkreli, and any theories as to his motives and intentions are simply that--theories. (In fact, I'd love to meet him, to hear his thoughts behind closed doors.) Further, my goal is neither to praise Shkreli, nor to vilify him. While I personally wouldn't use (or endorse) Shkreli's style of communication, at the end of the day, I think he's far more complex than the media has painted him out to be.
But I do believe that the Martin Shkreli story will one day make an excellent case study in the complexity of emotional intelligence--and help us understand that this ability doesn't always look the way we want it to.