What Uber’s CEO Can Teach Us About Leadership
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s recent spate of trouble offers a nuanced view of how leaders need to balance aggressiveness with humility.
Uber Technologies Inc. has had a rough ride these last few months.
First, a customer backlash exploded in January when the popular ride-sharing service appeared to undermine a short work stoppage from New York City taxi drivers protesting President Donald Trump’s initial travel ban. Then last month, a former engineer accused the company of permitting sexism and sexual harassment, which Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick quickly condemned before ordering an investigation led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Finally, in late February, Google parent company Alphabet Inc. sued Uber, alleging it conspired to steal design plans for self-driving vehicle technology. Uber says it is investigating the claims.
On their own, these issues would have called into question Kalanick’s leadership ability and the culture he’s created at Uber, which is valued at around $68 billion by investors.
But then a dashboard camera video of Kalanick berating an Uber driver with expletives over fares emerged, and the focus squarely turned to the 40-year-old CEO’s brash and combative leadership style — which can be both credited for part of what’s driven Uber’s success and has emerged as a sticking point in what’s tarnishing the firm’s reputation. Not only has Uber’s culture — described as a toe-stepping, cutthroat meritocracy — forced employees to leave, but it has other companies questioning if they should even consider hiring people who previously succeeded in such an environment.
The series of events led a contrite Kalanick to admit last week his need to seek out leadership help, and the San Francisco-based company appears set to hire a chief operating officer to help smooth out the rough edges. Both of these actions were necessary, in my opinion.
Still, Kalanick’s aggressive style reminds me of some of the complex leadership issues at hand in today’s business environment.
On the one hand, the nature of entrepreneurship requires a sort of strong-headed, passionate leader to bulldoze through whatever barriers stand in his or her company’s way. After all, it’s easy to forget that starting and leading a venture of Uber’s growth and magnitude is extremely difficult; some might say it requires someone with a relentless competitiveness and an aggressive personality to lead the way. Study the behaviors of some of the great leaders of our time, business or otherwise, and you quickly get the sense that this sort of confidence bordering on arrogance is a consistent and necessary quality among them.
On the other hand, in today’s era of business, where traditional command-and-control leadership styles aren’t as accepted, and as more firms opt to create a transparent and inclusive culture, being a direct leader of this ilk can easily trend into the perception of an arrogant asshole. This can hurt not only the leader’s reputation and credibility but the company’s morale and performance.
If you believe what you read about Uber and Kalanick, it’s easy to conclude that the company’s meritocratic culture as embodied by its leader is likely a few steps too far. And I agree with the assertion that the company probably needs to do what it can to soften up a bit.
I’d also argue that Kalanick’s reported rough-and-tumble leadership style, while not entirely admirable, may also be partly necessary for the company to continue to be successful. To be sure, I absolutely don’t condone some of the behaviors Uber is being accused of enabling, and I agree that, after watching the video of Kalanick and the driver, he made a mistake in how he handled that particular situation.
Still, there’s something to be said about a leader who isn’t afraid to be somewhat confident if not a little aggressive in their leadership style. You might say that part of promoting more transparency in the workplace means not being afraid to be more direct and frank, which is the type of culture Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, is known to embrace.
Steve Jobs was no picnic to work for; like Kalanick, he was also known for his aggressive and sometimes abrasive approach to managing others. But today, Jobs is widely celebrated, thanks in part to what Apple was able to accomplish as a result of his leadership.
On a personal level, I can recount many leaders I’ve worked for — whether in a professional capacity, in school, or through sports — where their toughness and aggressiveness often irked me. I didn’t necessarily like those behaviors in the moment, but later on I’d admit that, without that sort of thing, my team or I wouldn’t have been as successful.
This isn’t to say that unchecked assholes should be accepted or admired as visionary leaders. It’s to say that sometimes direct, stern or passionate assertiveness is a legitimate leadership quality — and, within reason, should be respected. Sometimes that behavior trends into asshole territory, and it’s up to the leader and his or her most trusted aides to assist in adding the necessary level of humility and contrition to smooth things out. Or, if you’re a company like Bridgewater, it is entirely acceptable for any employee to step in and voice their displeasure.
Uber’s Kalanick should be at least applauded for recognizing his need to change, whether it was forced on him or not. Hiring a complementary executive will certainty help, as it did when Facebook Inc. hired Sheryl Sandberg to complement and polish the more unrefined style of hoodie-and-jeans wearing visionary Mark Zuckerberg.
But Kalanick also shouldn’t necessarily stop exuding some of the qualities that drove him to build the company and guide its early success in the first place — so long as he learns to know when it’s time to let humility step in and take over.
Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email email@example.com.