Uber and Out

Uber and Out

Four leadership lessons you can draw from the resignation of Travis Kalanick

In its 8-year existence, Uber has never been too far from the headlines.  What began as a ride-hailing service in 2009 quickly became a global transportation colossus. The very definition of disruption, Uber re-shaped an industry. And it has made plenty of enemies along the way.

CEO Travis Kalanick resigned last month. In the last few months of his leadership, Uber had come under increasing pressure. There were allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination at management level, legal issues with the public sector, a tsunami of lawsuits from disgruntled drivers, and a threat from Apple to disable the Uber app. Uber’s corporate culture had become, according to many of its employees, nothing short of toxic.

It’s common knowledge that new recruits to Uber are asked to subscribe to 14 corporate values, among which have featured “fierceness,” and “toe-stepping.” The culture that Kalanick helped build – or allowed to flourish – became a meritocracy where “principled confrontation” – another core company value – justified bad behaviour.

Kalanick’s fall from grace has given the world’s press and media the latest headline in a corporate saga that has plenty to teach us about culture, values and leadership. And, like most things, it’s not entirely black and white. Uber is still a multi-million dollar business. Kalanick remains on the board. The saga is far from over, and many believe that both he and the company he founded can bounce back.

So what did Kalanick do well?

What could he have done differently?

And what lessons are there for any aspiring business leader to take away?


1. Confidence versus arrogance?

There’s little doubt that Uber’s meteoric success is down to Kalanick’s leadership. Kalanick’s vision to be the dominant force took the company where he wanted it to go in terms of growth and expansion.

But the same relentless pursuit of that vision may have led to Kalanick and his executive team failing to see, and address, their own shortcomings.

With Kalanick at the helm, Uber persistently played hard and fast with law enforcement.

The company leveraged technology to by-pass traffic regulations – its notorious “greyballing” strategy – leading some pundits to accuse them of “intentional obstruction of justice.” This led to Apple’s Tim Cook warning Kalanick to take a different tack or be removed from the App Store.

Undoubtedly Kalanick’s confidence drove growth and expansion. But the same “cocksure” approach has also taken the company to where it is today.

For better, and for worse.


2. Growth, yes, but what about culture?

If the Uber story is anything, it’s a timely reminder of what happens when you take your eye off the ball in your own backyard.

As growth and financial results came fast and quick, the behaviour of employees – particularly within senior management – went unchecked. This failure to prioritize corporate culture, and deal with issues swiftly and seriously, led quickly to public allegations of harassment and discrimination at the heart of Uber’s culture. And a highly visible corporate investigation.

The damage to Uber’s reputation was as deep as it was immediate.

Fixating on the bottom line at the expense of culture is all-too-common in the Silicon Valley startup scene. But Uber had been a major global player for more than eight years when the allegations came to light.

As CEO, Kalanick had failed to see the bigger picture. And a function of that was his failure to…


3. Look in the mirror.

A key capability in leadership is the capacity to stop and reflect on the kind of leader you are, or aspire to be.

And that means holding yourself accountable. Holding yourself to certain standards. And challenging yourself to inspire, as well as to lead.

Following the employee allegations, Kalanick himself came under increasing scrutiny from his own investors as well as the public.

And while it’s clear that he possesses many core strengths – passion, energy, determination, and a tireless commitment to execution – what came to light did not reflect too well on his leadership.

A video of Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver – effectively one of his own employees – quickly went viral.

Clashes with the media and unchecked remarks on social media led to increasing speculation about his ego and his attitude towards women.

As head of one of the world’s most disruptive and notorious organisations, Kalanick did himself few favours in terms of courting public approval – something a little more introspection might have helped rectify.


4. Have Humility.

When Uber’s reputation went into global meltdown, Kalanick did, in fact, do some serious soul-searching.

Realising that he needed to change, he vowed to take indefinite leave and come back as “version 2.0” of himself. When investors failed to back this, Kalanick took the tough decision to resign.

Admitting that you’re part of the problem, and knowing when you’re wrong, is a function of humility. And it’s a core leadership quality.

Kalanick recognized the errors of his leadership, and stepped away from his life’s work in order to ensure the long-term success of the company and its employees – not an easy move, and one that probably deserves recognition.

Uber’s outgoing CEO has another interesting choice to make now.

There’s an opportunity for him to focus on improving his personal leadership, and build a better version of himself – the Kalanick 2.0 he promised to his investors.

Kalanick 2.0 may yet put his unquestionable and considerable skills to work with a comeback even more stunning than Uber.

As well as a few solid lessons learnt along the way.


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