The 10 Best And Worst Leaders Of 2015

This year, we witnessed trailblazing CEOs push gender and diversity boundaries, while other leaders struggled and fell amid controversy.

It doesn’t take more than a quick scan of past headlines to see that 2015 was filled with object lessons in leadership.


We witnessed trailblazing CEOs push gender and diversity boundaries and saw the rise of leaders committed to creating more opportunity for entrepreneurs, while other leaders struggled and fell amid controversy.

Here is our list of the best and worst leaders of 2015.

As always, a few leaders broke free from the pack on the merits of their accomplishments this year. Among them:


The Best Leaders Of 2015

Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel

Krzanich made headlines several times this year for his move to diversify the company staff of over 100,000 worldwide employees.

At CES in January, Krzanich announced a $300 million, five-year plan to bring the company’s workforce to “full representation” by 2020. “It’s time to step up and do more,” Krzanich said. “It’s not just good enough to say we value diversity, and then have our workplaces and our industry not reflect the full availability and talent pool of women and underrepresented minorities.”


From there, Krzanich put a multipronged effort to increase diverse hires into place, including a $4,000 employee referral bonus and a $5 million partnership to develop a high school computer science curriculum for the Oakland Unified School District.

In June, the company published a 15-page statistical report on whether or not these investments were working. The result: The actual number of diverse hires by June was up to 1,275 employees in the U.S. With the original goal set at 40% for the year, Intel surpassed that in six months, with 43.3% diverse new hires.

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany


Recently named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year (the first woman to get the designation in 29 years), Merkel has also been called the most powerful woman in the world in her 10-year tenure as German chancellor and de facto leader of the European Union.

Merkel earned the latter role by helping to keep the crisis of the euro–a currency shared by 19 countries–in check, even as Greece threatened to default.

But another, more startling move on Merkel’s part in 2015 was to allow refugees and migrants to seek asylum in Germany, when many other countries were closing their borders. Estimates put the number of people entering the country at 1 million by the end of this year. It was a natural decision for Merkel, who grew up in East Germany when the country was sharply divided and citizens were not allowed to travel to the West until they reached age 60. At a security conference in Munich this year, she reiterated her stance on patience and principles.


“We’ve always had this experience that things take long, but I’m 100% convinced that our principles will in the end prevail. No one knew how the Cold War would end at the time, but it did end. This is within our living experience . . . I’m surprised at how faint-hearted we sometimes are, and how quickly we lose courage.”

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks

By now, most people know that Schultz is the epitome of a rags-to-riches success story, rising from the Brooklyn projects to become the billionaire CEO of Starbucks. But Schultz has proven to be preoccupied with more than just profits.


As Fast Company’s Austin Carr reported in June, Schultz was pondering the social responsibility of a company with 22,000 stores that serve some 75 million customers per week.

Taking part in a panel discussion at Spelman College not long after his controversial “Race Together” initiative, Schultz said: “Over the last two to three years, we’ve taken on a number of issues that, for the most part, were absolutely untouchable for a company, let alone for a company as ubiquitous as Starbucks.”

One of the initiatives Schultz announced this year was that Starbucks would cover college tuition for its U.S. employees working more than 20 hours per week who enroll in an online college degree program from Arizona State University.


The move follows others such as offering comprehensive health care and stock options that Schultz has made to create a more committed workforce, something that is tough to do when most are low-wage, hourly workers. “This is not altruistic; this is business. Values are a big part of both the balance sheet and the income statements of Starbucks—it’s behind the performance,” he said.

Jennifer Lopez, founding member of NASA’s Datanaut Corps

NASA is no stranger to sharing. Its scientific data has been open to everyone since 1958, which is why there’s been numerous external applications developed to tackle the world’s toughest challenges, from climate change to airline safety to space missions, naturally.


Now NASA is targeting data sharing to create opportunities for female entrepreneurs in a new user community called Datanaut Corps.

Jennifer Lopez is working to shape the direction of the Datanauts with NASA’s Open Innovation team. As Lopez explained to Fast Company, Datanauts knows no boundaries. “You don’t have to be a developer or a coder or a scientist to participate. The more diverse the participants, the more opportunities we will have to find newer, more innovative solutions and approaches to using the data.” Taking this stance, Lopez is singlehandedly encouraging all aspiring engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and young people, regardless of gender, to collaborate with NASA and reach for the stars.

Janet Mock, author and television host


The host of MSNBC’s So Popular! and author of the best-selling memoir Redefining Realness is a truth seeker. One of Fast Company’s Most Creative People for 2015 says “driving the deep, nuanced, complicated truth” is the motivation for the work she does. On the show, Mock says pop culture is the tool that allows us collectively to have more difficult conversations about race, gender, and identity dynamics.

But Mock has extended her platform to be a voice for the transgender community beyond her show, to include the creation of a hashtag #girlslikeus, an annual book drive for incarcerated trans people, as a correspondent for Entertainment Tonight, and most recently to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul Sessions.

During a year when more transgender people have been killed and brutalized than ever before, the Human Rights Campaign highlights the danger of discrimination, violence, and harassment for gender-nonconforming people.


To raise awareness, Mock gave viewers a front-row seat of her journey toward transition as she became one of the LGBT community’s most outspoken advocates, saying, “I am proud of what I have been able to accomplish, but most importantly, I am proud that I can be a mirror for young girls. A mirror that I didn’t have growing up.”

Honorable Mentions

There were plenty of other bright spots in leadership this year, namely Netflix CEO Reid Hastings, for pushing the boundaries of paid parental leave into unlimited territory, and then extending paid leave to hourly workers. This prompted a cascade of other companies to extend benefits from Amazon to Spotify. Mark Zuckerberg deserves props for not only leading a philanthropic charge, but for also being a role model for other men on his staff by taking significant time off after the birth of his child. Check out more leaders and companies who did admirable things this year on The 2015 Silicon Valley Nice List


The Worst Leaders Of 2015

Bad behavior was in good supply in 2015. Here is a shortlist of leaders who shirked responsibility, or simply showcased a stunning lack of ethics, empathy, and integrity.

Donald Trump, GOP presidential candidate

Since the billionaire businessman and reality-TV host hit the presidential campaign trail, he’s left scorched earth in his wake. Among the more inflammatory moments: misogynistic comments toward Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly, calling Mexican immigrants rapists, claiming that if elected he would shut down the Internet to thwart the efforts of ISIS to radicalize individuals and ban Muslims from coming to the U.S. (and hunt down their families).


A New York Times analysis of every public speech Trump made in one week revealed a “constant repetition of divisive phrases, harsh words, and violent imagery that American presidents rarely use.” His pattern of fear mongering echoes some of the country’s worst demagogues, according to historians, psychologists, and political scientists, who have said Trump’s rhetoric is “in the tradition of political figures like Goldwater, George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy, Huey Long, and Pat Buchanan, who used fiery language to try to win favor with struggling or scared Americans.”

Martin Winterkorn, former CEO of Volkswagen

Although the German automaker has had a history of fostering a corporate culture that is “cutthroat and insular,” Martin Winterkorn, who had been at the helm since 2007, may have contributed to the company’s unethical and illegal installation of software that failed to accurately report emissions on its vehicles.

Though he claimed not to be aware of the wrongdoing, Winterkorn is known as being a hard-driving perfectionist who would carry a gauge while he walked around to measure gaps between car doors in relentless pursuit of securing the top spot among global car manufacturers.

His exacting standards, as well as his proclivity for calling employees out publicly to criticize them, may have very well motivated them to hide information in order to keep their jobs–or allowed them to believe it was okay to cheat, as long as it helped the company meet its lofty goals. More than a dozen studies found that just thinking about money can lead to dishonest behavior, and the term “moral muteness” has been coined to define the way managers will make an economic case to justify a certain decision they made based on ethics.

Martin Shkreli, founder and former chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals

In one night, the cost of a drug that had been on the market for 62 years shot up from $13.50 per tablet to $750 per tablet. Daraprim is used to treat the life-threatening parasitic infection toxoplasmosis in pregnant women and their unborn babies, and people with compromised immune systems as a result of illnesses like cancer and AIDS. It’s also used to treat malaria.

Shkreli, the 32-year-old founder of startup Turing Pharmaceuticals, had just acquired the drug and immediately hiked the price, making the cost to patients exceed hundreds of thousands of dollars. Arguing that it wasn’t a greedy move because most patients would use the medicine for less than a year, Shkreli argued that this would make way for better drugs with fewer side effects.

And if that sounds pretty bad, there are elements that make it worse. A New York Times report found that doctors weren’t convinced a new drug needed to be developed. Shkreli has been embroiled in controversy before. As the Times report says:

He started MSMB Capital, a hedge fund company, in his 20s and drew attention for urging the Food and Drug Administration not to approve certain drugs made by companies whose stock he was shorting.

In 2011, Mr. Shkreli started Retrophin, which also acquired old neglected drugs and sharply raised their prices. Retrophin’s board fired Mr. Shkreli a year ago. Last month, it filed a complaint in Federal District Court in Manhattan, accusing him of using Retrophin as a personal piggy bank to pay back angry investors in his hedge fund.

Shkreli was arrested on December 16 for securities fraud and subsequently stepped down from his post.

Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos

A Silicon Valley wunderkind, Holmes dropped out of Stanford to start Theranos. The company aimed to disrupt the way health care providers test for disease through less invasive and less costly blood tests that could be taken at pharmacies. Over the past 10 years, Theranos was operating largely in stealth mode but still managed to skyrocket into unicorn status with a valuation of $9 billion.

But an investigative report by the Wall Street Journal refuted some of the company’s claims, suggesting that Holmes misled both the government and the public about the capabilities and effectiveness of the product.

Instead of backing down, Holmes hit back, defending Theranos’s testing, and accusing the paper of shoddy reporting while she was on stage at the Journal‘s conference, shortly after the publication of the accusatory articles.

In a statement after the conference, the Journal responded: “Nothing said at the conference by Ms. Holmes refutes the accuracy of the reporting done by John Carreyrou or of the articles, which were subject to the Journal’s rigorous and careful editing process. Contrary to Ms. Holmes’s claims, the Journal shared all facts and anecdotes published in the articles with Theranos before publication.”

Further interviews depict a leader who is hedgy, at best. In a lengthy Bloomberg report, Holmes continues to refuse to answer whether Theranos is using its own machines to test samples–a key part of gaining FDA approval, citing the fact that other companies don’t report this either, even while claiming that she’s more than willing to be transparent by opening Theranos’s lab to a group of independent medical experts and inviting reporters to try the test themselves.

To be fair, Fortune senior editor Robert Parloff, who reported on Theranos for a cover story in the magazine in 2014, has come forward to say that while he believes the company misled him, he wasn’t ready to place blame squarely on Holmes. “As much as I’d like to say that Holmes lied to me, I don’t think she did. I do believe I was misled—intentionally—but I was also culpable, in that I failed to probe certain exasperatingly opaque answers that I repeatedly received.”

Dan Price, cofounder of Gravity Payments

When we heard about what was happening at this Seattle-based company, we jumped to report the news that its founder raised his staff’s minimum wage to $70,000 across the board. That Price took a paycut from $1 million to $70K to remove the shocking disparity between CEO and staff pay made the move appear like something straight out of Hollywood.

We did hear from skeptics at that time, and would later report that happiness wasn’t a guarantee in the land of Gravity Payments. More trouble was brewing for Price. For all the talk about the pay raise and its basis in a moral imperative Price says he learned at home, his brother and business partner Lucas decided to sue him.

Here’s where the story of Price’s heroic leadership gets more complicated. Although Inc. reported that the suit was filed 11 days after the announcement of the new minimum wage, an investigative piece published in Bloomberg earlier this month not only said that the lawsuit predated the raise, but also alleges that “Daniel’s actions have been burdensome, harsh, and wrongful, and have shown a lack of fair dealing toward Lucas.”

To make matters worse, Price’s ex-wife did a TEDx talk on the power of writing to heal trauma at the University of Kentucky in which she read from journal entries that accused Price (without naming him) of domestic abuse. The video won’t be released, and Price has since denied the allegations.

For now, Gravity’s staff of about 140 still make a minimum of $70K, and one former Yahoo! tech executive took a pay cut to join the team. Price isn’t a total villain, and it’s with mixed feelings that we place him on this part of the list. What remains to be seen is whether a bold money move can indeed buy loyalty as Gravity’s leader stands on uncertain ground.

Dishonorable Mentions

Travis Kalanick took plenty of heat at the helm of Uber for price gouging, failing to treat workers fairly, privacy concerns, and more. WeWork’s Adam Neumann stepped into a labor dispute, while Jessica Alba proved to be as slippery as Honest Co.’s sunscreen by sidestepping controversy altogether. See the rest of the bad behavior that made The 2015 Unicorn Naughty List.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Tell us in the comments what you thought were the best and worst moments in leadership this year.


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a staff editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.