Why Defending Uber’s Travis Kalanick Is Lame

In the wake of Uber’s slow-motion implosion and Travis Kalanick’s forced resignation as CEO, some supporters have set out to defend one of Silicon Valley’s more beleaguered “bad boys.” Current and former Uber employees showed an outpouring of love and devotion across blogs and social media; company managers urged their underlings to sign a petition for the board to reinstate him; former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayor spoke up for him at an event in Palo Alto; and reporter Alison Griswold praised Kalanick’s behavior, calling it necessary to creating a multibillion-dollar ride-hailing empire in such a short timeframe and revolutionizing the way people get around.

Digesting these arguments made me realize how far we still have to go in terms of holding men in positions of power responsible for their meanness. So often we focus on their miraculous achievements—whether it’s a profoundly disruptive innovation or a moment of singular leadership through crisis. And shouldn’t we? Men of great power have pushed society forward and led us in new directions. (Women have done the same; they just rarely get the pass for irresponsible or destructive behavior.) We venerate powerful men for their vision and feel dependent on them to initiate progress.

Far too often, however, we willingly look past glaring pitfalls for the sake of keeping the vision alive. The reaction to Kalanick’s ouster demonstrates perfectly this phenomenon. Here is my rebuttal to a few members of the TK Fan Club and their justifications for his brand of mean:

Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo

Justification: Kalanick was ignorant of sexist and toxic company culture due to Uber’s explosive expansion.
Quote: “I think he’s a phenomenal leader… I just don’t think he knew. When your company scales that quickly, it’s hard.”
Analysis: There are a couple of major flaws to the ignorance defense. Firstly, there is near unanimous consent that Kalanick “built the company in his own image.” His own personal philosophy about always winning, codified in Uber’s 14 Values, was a founding principle that shaped the company culture. While Uber’s extralegal tactics shot the hail-riding service into the Silicon Stratosphere, they also trickled down as an ends-justify-the-means ethos. The way that HR ignored Susan Fowler’s sexual harassment complaint in favor of keeping a “high performer” is merely an extension of this single-minded pursuit of the Uber vision.

Secondly, how can a CEO claim ignorance of company culture when aligning culture to values that support sustainable growth is an essential element of the job? In calling TK a “phenomenal leader,” Mayer sweeps much under the rug. Flouting local laws to get cars on the road faster across cities in the US and elsewhere would—in other situations—be called “law breaking.” What about the inappropriate emails sent to employees about drinking and having sex while at company parties? What about violating the right to privacy of a victim of sexual assault? What about the damning blog post by Susan Fowler calling out HR’s incompetence at handling sexual harassment cases, a sentiment seconded by other female ex-employees? You “don’t think he knew,” Ms. Mayer? While Kalanick clearly has significant strengths—and he may not have gotten the company off the ground without them—his weaknesses are just as tangible.

Alison Griswold, Quartz Journalist

Justification: Uber is great precisely due to Kalanick’s brash, authority- defying personality and leadership style.
Quote: “Kalanick’s role in getting Uber into those cities and onto those phones first cannot be understated. Regardless of whether Uber, still a private company, was ever truly worth the $68 billion investors said it was, the company could not have attained that valuation without him.”
AnalysisIn her June 22, 2017, article for Quartz, “There Would Be No Uber without Travis Kalanick,” Griswold argues that TK is responsible for Uber’s incredible business success. But she also admits that the very brashness that has given Uber such monumental stature in the ride-hailing revolution is the reason for its mounting troubles. Her argument then rests on a short-sighted definition of success. As I discuss in Mean Men, this short-sighted view is the norm rather than the exception. So willing are the many investors, board members, executives, and the media to see start-ups get big fast, that ignoring predictable, and often dire, consequences of unethical and toxic leadership practices comes at a significant cost to sustainable growth. Since it is just as true to say that TK is responsible for the current state of affairs at Uber, which includes major controversy and law suits, puts the company’s greatness is in serious question, and that too is a reflection on Kalanick’s leadership.

Some Uber Employees

Justification: Kalanick was an inspirational figure who embraced employee ideas and uncompromisingly pursued a brave vision of the future.
Quote: “Uber is fundamentally reshaping people’s transportation habits and how they interact with their cities. This kind of impact would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, but we’ve made it a reality—thanks to your vision. So, thank you. We’ve mis-stepped at times—I’ll be the first to admit that Uber is not perfect. But the positive impact you’ve had on this company, and the world, is truly inspirational.”—Margaret Anne Seger, junior project manager
Analysis: Many employees were incredibly inspired and personally touched by Kalanick’s leadership, as the outpouring on social media after the ousting demonstrates. Clearly, TK had a way of connecting with people that made them want to follow him and invest in him. The employee testimonials almost universally praise this quality, speaking of the former CEO in glowing terms. In fact, a look at the word choice across posts offers some deeper insight. One employee uses the word “disciples” to describe TK’s supporters within Uber; another thanks him for his “guiding light”; several write in a chanting rhythm, beginning every sentence with a thank you; most are “heartbroken” by his departure. Notice the religious tone? Getting a little bit creeped out? It is not uncommon for a leader with mean-man characteristics to also be highly charismatic. Examples abound— from maverick Steve Jobs with his unpredictable temper to instigator Trump and his Make-America-Great-Again rhetoric which captured the hearts of the disenfranchised. Intense charisma—especially that which inspires an unwavering following in a select group of individuals—is a warning sign that we may be in the company of a Mean Man.

Some Uber Managers

Justification: Kalanick’s ousting is the result of the board bowing to an unfairly critical press; it does not represent the wishes of the employees, and should therefore be reversed.
Quote: “Uber is TK and TK is Uber. Without him I don’t see any other leader doing a job as good as him, external or internal.”—Uber manager (quoted in Buzzfeed article)
Analysis: Shortly following Kalanick’s forced resignation a number of Uber managers urged underlings to take action in defense of TK with the aim of pressuring the Board to reinstate the ousted CEO. They encouraged employees to email Board members Arianna Huffington, Garrett Camp and Bill Gurley and register discontent in an anonymous petition. Similar to social media posts of employee support, emails sent by managers to employees have a reverential tone toward TK with an additional desperate edge because they are also a call to action. What’s more problematic is the dynamic of people in a position of power arguing for a mini-rebellion from those in their employ against those who employ them (the Board). This act echoes the accusations of a bullying culture leveled against Uber by former employees, including Susan Fowler, wherein a dysfunctional HR department repeatedly fails to provide checks and balances to unduly exercised authority.

Chew on one BuzzFeed reader’s incisive comment about the managerial emails sent to staff members: “Managers are sending petitions to employees. Doesn’t that tell you enough about the culture to run away as fast as you can? ‘Oh no pressure, and no worries that this will affect your next performance review, but would you mind signing this petition?’”

We cannot continue to praise the good without recognizing the ineffective, bad, or worse. Continuing to deify the Kalanick’s of the start-up world will not bring us better leaders; it just perpetuates the status quo. I have no problem with power, and the amount of it many CEOs hold. But we have a responsibility to hold powerful men fully accountable for its misuse if we hope to see better leadership in the future.

Written By : Mark Liptongraduate professor of management at The New School in New York City. 

Image credit: INC Magazine – Inc.com

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