Paying Hubris’ Fare at Uber

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This morning brought the news that Travis Kalanick has succumbed to investor pressure and resigned his post as CEO of the company he founded, Uber. According to the New York Times, five investors who control more than 25% of Uber’s stock and hold approximately 40% of its voting power issued the resignation demand to Kalanick by way of letter yesterday. This news is hardly surprising, given the PR nightmare that Uber has been driving around with for the past six months. As detailed by Bloomberg News:

In December, Uber pulled its self-driving cars off the road in San Francisco after the California Department of Motor Vehicles said they were operating illegally without an autonomous vehicle license. In January, more than 200,000 people uninstalled their accounts, and #DeleteUber trended on Twitter, after the company was accused of undermining a New York taxi union strike protesting President Donald Trump’s refugee ban. On Feb. 2, Kalanick reluctantly left his spot on Trump’s business advisory council to appease the company’s liberal-leaning employees and users—not to mention its many immigrant drivers. On Feb. 19, a former software engineer at Uber wrote a blog post alleging that she had been propositioned for sex by her manager and that when she’d taken the issue to human resources, an HR rep had said that he wouldn’t be punished, in part, because he was a “high performer.” On Feb. 23, Alphabet’s autonomous car company Waymo sued Uber and its self-driving car company Otto, accusing an Uber employee of stealing trade secrets by downloading 14,000 files onto an external hard drive. On Monday, Uber’s head of engineering resigned after the company said it learned that he had faced a sexual harassment complaint at Alphabet, his former employer. He denied the allegations.

That recitation of recent history was in an article detailing the public humiliation Kalanick and Uber suffered after video of him arguing with an Uber driver became public.

That incident, and the public fallout from it, led to Uber’s CEO to author what he titled “A Profound Apology”:

By now I’m sure you’ve seen the video where I treated an Uber driver disrespectfully. To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement. My job as your leader is to lead…and that starts with behaving in a way that makes us all proud. That is not what I did, and it cannot be explained away.

It’s clear this video is a reflection of me—and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.

I want to profoundly apologize to Fawzi, as well as the driver and rider community, and to the Uber team.

—Travis

A lot of digital ink is going to be spilled dissecting today’s news, and the present and future implications of it. What does it mean for Uber going forward? What does it say about the Silicon Valley Startup Culture? As one of Uber’s board members put it:

But, as I saw the news this morning when I awoke, my mind went to the past … to a lesson nearly 3,000 years old: Proverbs 16:18 —

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

A little humility within Kalanick as a 30-year-old would have spared him from having to learn these lessons as a 40-year-old via public shaming. Leading others is more than making the important decisions about course and speed from the big chair while enjoying the perks of rank in the organization’s wheel-house. The ship’s captain’s sacred duty is to protect its passengers and crew.

The wealth and power that come with sitting in the Captain’s Chair of a billion-dollar enterprise like Uber creates space and freedom to act like an “asshole” with seeming impunity. As ancient wisdom and today’s news both demonstrate, that space free of consequences is a mirage. Pride is like a computer virus — a line of malicious code that will wreak havoc on the system eventually. The firewalls of wealth and fame will only hold for so long. Ultimately, pride will infect the system in a way that leads the system to act in self-destructing ways. Believe me, I know: I, too, have been fired before as a result of my pride running amok.

Here’s hoping that among the many lessons leaders will look to take from Uber’s fantastic story overall, and this sordid chapter in particular, this moral of the story isn’t ignored: Either through humility “Leaders Eat Last,” or eventually Pride will at last eat the leaders.

Fighting For Balance

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When you hear the term “work-life balance,” what do you think of? When you read that phrase, does the picture it creates in your mind’s eye look something like this?

 

It seems whenever the notion of balance is discussed as a function of a healthy life, it is measured in the metrics of time: the blue drudgery of “Work” on one side of the scale, contrasted with the bright light of “Life” on the other. Work, left to its own devices, will steal all of the time that should belong to Life, and achieving “work-life balance” means taking time back from Work and returning it to Life. While contemporary discussions have moved beyond simple “time off” to more expansive notions of “flexibility,” the object of the discussion is still the same: better apportioning of time between two competing worlds — our Work and our Life.

This way of thinking is well-intentioned and has been beneficial. It is conventional to discuss, easy to understand and simple to remedy via a change in policies.

It is also wrong.

Continue reading at Forbes.com …

 

On Courage

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It’s been a week-ish full of reminders and living examples of what courage looks like. Whether global in impact or local in scope, these last ten days at the start of the month of June have provided a kaleidoscope of images and sounds along the entire scale of courageously facing the human condition.

June 2: Professor Bret Weinstein

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the name, you’re probably familiar with the story coming out of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. At the center of this Animal Farm meets Lord of the Flies spectacle come to life is Bret Weinstein. He is the evolutionary biology professor who sent an email voicing disagreement with the university’s restructuring of its “Day of Absence” practice. For decades, students and faculty of color at TESC have observed the “Day of Absence” by voluntarily abstaining from entering campus and participating in classes in order to highlight their importance in the university community. This year’s dynamic was much different. Instead of using their own absence to make the point, organizers this year instructed white students and faculty that in order to participate in this event, they had to vacate campus for a day, thereby using directed racial segregation as a tool for enlightenment about the principles of racial justice.

To this, Professor Weinstein objected. In the words of his email that he sent to a university administrator (the “Director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services”):

There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles (the theme of the Douglas Turner Ward play Day of Absence, as well as the recent Women’s Day walkout), and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.

Weinstein’s email objection took place in mid-March. The event’s activities occurred as planned and without incident in mid-April. It wasn’t until late May, when Weinstein’s email was obtained by a student and circulated, that all Orwell broke loose: campus protests, loud and profanity-laced angry confrontations of Weinstein and other faculty/administrators by large groups of students, threats to Weinstein and his family (his wife is also a biology professor at TESC), roving bands of students armed with baseball bats (yes, really), vandalism, terrorizing other students, administrators essentially imprisoned by protesters, and the now obligatory phoned-in threats to come onto campus and murder a bunch of people with a gun.

In his June 2nd appearance on Joe Rogan’s YouTube show/podcast, Weinstein calmly discussed all of this for the better part of 150 minutes. I don’t normally listen to 2.5 hour long podcasts, but the grace and dignity with which Weinstein carried himself through this discussion were as captivating as the facts he described were unsettling.

Standing as one against the many is a courageous act, in matters of principle no less than matters of physical threat. What I found especially interesting about Weinstein’s situation, however, was that it wasn’t an example of a singular individual standing against his ideological adversaries. In situations like that, hard as it is to be outnumbered and alone, the natural juices of “Us vs Them” kick in to help the individual stand tough.

But, when standing up for what you believe in means standing against your own team/tribe? That’s a tall psychological order, indeed, and it produces feelings of betrayal and bewilderment to go along with the standard fears about sticking out from the herd. You can hear these themes throughout his interview with Rogan. Weinstein describes himself in the terms and by the beliefs that made him a perfectly safe member of the Left. He was a Progressive member in good standing with all the appropriate ideological bona fides … until the moment he saw his own ideological tribe take a terrible turn. His courage in calling his own team’s foul and risking the shaming consequences (and worse) as a result is nothing short of noble. Our country would be so much better off with more courage like this across the entire political spectrum.

 

June 5: Tankman Anniversary

28 years ago, the world watched in horror on June 4, 1989, as Chinese soldiers cracked down on the students who had been protesting for three weeks in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. During the government’s show of force, hundreds were killed and thousands arrested.

Then came the next day, and with it, a remarkable moment of courage.

On June 5th, as Chinese government tanks began rumbling out of the Square, a single man walked into the street and stared down the tanks until they stopped right in front of him. Here was this lone man standing against the military armor of the repressive communist regime that had slain so many just the day before. An image of the moment taken by Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener and sent out over the AP wire quickly became a global icon. While other media entities captured the moment, included the below video footage from CNN, Widener’s photo of the still unknown man became one of the most recognizable and impactful images ever taken.

 

June 6: D-Day +73 Years

Words simply aren’t up to the task of capturing the horror of what the men of D-Day would end up facing on the sands of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944. Of the more than 4,000 Allied troops who were killed during the landing invasion, roughly half were Americans cut down under the withering fire of the German defenses on Omaha Beach alone.

Where words fail, art remains to communicate the things we must never forget. In this case, the cinematic art of the opening scene of 1998’s Saving Private Ryan comes as close to perfection as there is in its depiction of the assault on Omaha Beach.

 

June 6: Mandy Harvey’s Got Talent

This past New Year’s Eve, Mariah Carey showed an audience of millions what happens when a singer (or lip synch-er) doing a live public performance is not able to hear the music. It was painful.

This past week, an audience of millions saw another singer who couldn’t hear the music, and it was an unforgettable moment:

 

When a performance like that occurs on such a public stage, it’s easy to recognize the courage of that moment: the bright lights and big stage, an auditorium full of people, the celebrity judges and television audience. But what Mandy Harvey’s story makes me think of is the courage needed to start her journey — the very first steps Mandy had to take towards no longer accepting a fate without her music.

Having been singing since she was four years old, Harvey was studying to be a vocal music teacher in college when an illness took her ability to hear. Think about the psychological hills one would have to climb in that situation to find your way back to being a musician. Of course, there’s the physical and mental challenges of relearning how to create sound correctly without being able to hear it. Beyond that, though, there would be the additional emotional challenge: what if she could learn to sing again, but the result was a thin shadow of what she used to be able to do? The prospect of not being able to measure up to one’s own expectations has caused many journeys and endeavors to be aborted before they even begin. It takes no small amount of courage to face that prospect and to press forward anyway, running the risk that those fears will be proven true.

June 6-7, 9: TEDxDayton Auditions

A year ago at this time, I wrote about the anxiety I experienced leading up to my audition to be a speaker at last year’s TEDxDayton conference. This year, I got to sit on the other side and judge the applications and auditions as one of the members of the Speaker’s Committee.

After sifting through over 130 applications, we invited about 1/3 of the applicants to audition: 3 minutes on the stage at the local improv comedy theater and fielding the committee’s questions afterward with one goal — make us on the committee want to hear more about their “idea worth spreading.” This year’s group didn’t disappoint, as they brought deep study, deep experiences, and deep emotions to the audition stage.

Putting oneself “out there” takes something we too often don’t recognize for what it is: courage. Public speaking is among the things most people fear the most that doesn’t involve mortal danger. As Jerry Seinfeld hilariously put it:

 

But, of course, there’s more to the fears of a TEDx audition than simply public speaking. It’s the bringing of an idea that one finds important enough to find ways to tell others about. Often, these insights are born out of tragedy, pain or failure. To be willing to stand in front of a group of strangers and serve up one’s stuff like that with the expressed purpose of having it be judged good enough (or not) to become a TEDx talk is … brave. Brene Brown’s “Manifesto of the Brave and Brokenhearted” captures the spirit of many who bravely shared themselves with us in the audition process:

There is no greater threat to the critics
and cynics and fearmongers
Than those of us who are willing to fall
Because we have learned how to rise.

With skinned knees and bruised hearts;
We choose owning our stories of struggle,
Over hiding, over hustling, over pretending.

When we deny our stories, they define us.
When we run from struggle, we are never free.
So we turn toward truth and look it in the eye.

We will not be characters in our stories.
Not villians, not victims, not even heroes.

We are the authors of our lives.
We write our own daring endings.

We craft love from heartbreak,
Compassion from shame,
Grace from disappointment,
Courage from failure.

Showing up is our power.
Story is our way home. Truth is our song.
We are the brave and brokenhearted.
We are rising strong.

June 8: Comey Day

James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday was billed as the “Super Bowl” of Washington D.C. intrigue. Regardless of your politics, the pressure of sitting in that witness seat can’t be denied. First, Comey’s efforts as Director of the FBI had made him both a hero and a villain to both political party’s faithful at different times, depending on whose ox was being gored. Second, although Comey had been at the center of multiple such newsworthy events within the crucible of last year’s presidential election, the intense glare of those moments paled in comparison to the attention focused on Comey’s name this time around.

Here’s the thing: knowing all of this, Comey volunteered to sit as a witness, under oath, and face the questions, the likely political grandstanding, and the endless media opinionating thereafter. That’s not a decision any lawyer anywhere would relish making under normal circumstances, let alone when the testimony’s focus will be the words and actions of the President of the United States.

June 10: 22-Years

Yesterday, my Wife and I celebrated our 22nd year of marriage. There are lots of things that go into a successful marriage over a long period of time, but courage?

Absolutely.

It takes courage to commit. It takes courage to sign up for life without any out clauses. It takes courage to trust when you’re hurting. It takes courage to put another’s feelings ahead of your own. It takes courage to forgive. It takes courage to apologize. It takes courage to stay.

Why courage?

  • Because you might end up being the only one who commits and takes it seriously.
  • Because there are out-clauses aplenty that offer off-ramps away from the hard work that lay ahead, if you want to take them.
  • Because there’s no guarantee you won’t be hurt again. If there’s any guarantee to be had at all, it’s that you will.
  • Because your sacrifice may not be reciprocated in the future.
  • Because your spouse may not be as sorry as you believe they should, and that means it might just happen again.
  • Because sometimes admitting the other person was right is even harder than admitting you were wrong.
  • Because staying means the pain will not go away until you fix the problem.

Here’s to the courage to stay for 8,036 days and counting…

 

The Anchor of Expertise

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As I am (slowly) making my way through Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, I find myself continually fascinated by the insights it contains into how the machines of our minds process information. Last night I was captured by the concept of the anchoring effect. Here’s how Kahneman explains it succinctly:

when people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity before estimating that quantity. What happens is one of the most reliable and robust results of experimental psychology: the estimates stay close to the number that people considered.

For example, consider the following pair of questions, asked in order — the first providing an anchoring value; the second asking for an estimated value — to two different groups of people:

anchoring effect graph.png

As Kahneman recounts the nearly limitless variety of ways this occurs, borne out time and time again in study after study, the simple truth is this: encountering a numerical value prior to being asked to give a numerical estimate will have a powerful effect on shaping that estimate, regardless of whether the anchoring value is believed, or even if it was presented as reliable. Think of it as handing someone a telescope to look through and asking them to describe what they see. The effect of a high-value anchor is like handing the person the proper end of the telescope: everything looks bigger. The low-value anchor does the opposite, effectively spinning the telescope around and forcing the person to look through the wrong end: everything looks smaller.

What I found most interesting, though, was the effect of expertise in altering the equation. In one experiment, two groups of people — professional realtors and business school students — were shown a compilation of the relevant data of a house currently on the market and asked to estimate the value of the house. Included within this packet of data was the listed asking price for the house (the anchor), with half of the realtors and b-school students seeing a higher asking price, while the others saw a lower asking price. By comparing the estimated values all four groups assigned to the house, one intriguing lesson emerged:

the professionals were almost as susceptible to anchoring effects as business school students with no real-estate experience … The only difference between the two groups was that the students conceded that they were influenced by the anchor, while the professionals denied that influence.

Surprisingly, the ability of expertise to mute the anchoring effect was minimal. Not surprisingly, the experts were largely blind to the fact that they were as susceptible to the effects of psychological biases when dealing with uncertainty as were the inexperienced amateurs … and it is that hubris that intrigues me the most.

Whether it is at the level of quantum mechanics or in measuring the impact of high-velocity technological changes are having on us as a species, uncertainty is now the name of the game everywhere. In this rapidly-changing informational environment, what you already know is increasingly becoming a less valuable asset with each passing day; knowing what you need to learn next is now the key to unlocking the next great accomplishment. Of course, in order to make use of this shifting knowledge current, one must have the humility to recognize that it’s change in direction will leave even *your* special brand of expertise and brilliance behind. To not do so is to lose. As Liz Wiseman explained in her book Rookie Smarts:

Today we work in an environment where information is vast, fast, and fleeting. … Those trying to cling to the mastery model in today’s world will surely struggle … [as they] cling to their amassed body of knowledge and expertise, trying to hold their own in a culture that no longer values their brilliance. When their ephemeral knowledge becomes obsolete, they will be left faking a mastery they no longer possess. As the great physicist Stephen Hawking said, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”

The pride of prior experience is no longer just an insufferable personality trait; it can quickly become a set of intellectual blinders, hiding the possibility of error to only the person suffering from it. Trust me when I say: just as the folks conducting the behavioral psychology experiment could see the professional realtor’s errors even though they could not, so too everyone else around you can see your error in clutching to the certainty of yesterday’s orthodoxy, even if you cannot.

In a world in which knowledge is becoming obsolete faster than it can be remembered, what is needed isn’t more knowledge or information — it is more humility.

Leading the Dubs’ Steps

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Confession: I’m not really a fan of basketball, and even less so a fan of the NBA. I am, however, a fan of Leaders in any arena, and this week’s issue of Sports Illustrated had an NBA story that managed to grab my attention because of the powerful message about leadership it carried.

As the NBA season concludes with a Finals matchup of the Cleveland Cavaliers facing the Golden State Warriors for the third year in a row, a crucial member of the Warriors (aka “The Dubs”) will be missing: their head coach, Steve Kerr, who has been out indefinitely since very early in the playoffs due to health issues. That the Warriors haven’t lost a single game in the playoffs despite Kerr’s absense is even more amazing than the three-year run of dominance Kerr has guided the Warriors to since taking over as coach three years ago (his first professional coaching gig, BTW…).

This juxtaposition of a flawless playoff run with a team suffering the absence of its incredibly successful head coach is at the heart of the question that frames the entire SI article:

How can a coach be both essential and unnecessary?

There’s no online version to link to, unfortunately. To read the article, you’ll have to spring for the magazine like in the old days. But, here are a couple of the choice leadership nuggets that jumped off the page at me.

From Kerr’s own words:

Some people are just so tunnel vision all the time and “I’m going to succeed and kick ass in life,” and they just trample over everyone. The people to me who are the most powerful leaders are the ones who have great talent in whatever their field is, great conviction in their ability to teach it and act it, but an awareness and a humility and compassion for others.

And from the words of Chris Ballard, the article’s author:

You know the references to leadership rules and secrets mentioned earlier? Kerr would find them hilarious, invoking one of his favorite words: bull—-. The message is only good if you believe the messenger, right? And Kerr believes humans are adept at sniffing out bull—. So, no, he has no leadership secrets.

You want to lead like Kerr? Just be humble and grateful, curious and self-aware. Communicate, value family and empower others. When bad things happen, keep a broader perspective. Most of all, create something bigger than yourself, for as Keltner points out, the real test of a leader is what happens once they leave.

Which is to say that the reasons Kerr is so important to the Warriors are not all that complicated. They are the same reasons the team is doing fine without him.